Without Clara Rockmore, electronic music might not have been the same. A pioneer in her genre, Rockmore helped popularize the theremin—one of the very first electronic instruments and a predecessor to the modern synthesizer. Today, Google is commemorating what would have been her 105th birthday with a new Google Doodle.
Rockmore was born in 1911 in Russia and her musical talent was apparent at a very young age. When she was just a toddler, her parents realized that she had perfect pitch, and by the age of two, she was able to identify piano tunes by ear. When she turned four, Rockmore became the youngest violinist accepted to the prestigious St. Petersburg Imperial Conservatory. But then, after her family fled to the United States to escape the turmoil of Russia in 1921, Rockmore developed arthritis in her bow arm, preventing her from becoming a violin virtuoso, Cara McGoogan writes for the Telegraph. With violin no longer an option, she discovered the theremin.
"I was fascinated by the aesthetic part of it, the visual beauty, the idea of playing in the air and I loved the sound," Rockmore once said, according to her biography on her foundation’s website. "I tried it, and apparently showed some kind of immediate ability to manipulate it."
For decades, the instrument's distinctive eerie, swooping tones has made it a common find in science fiction movie scores, but the theremin has also appeared in songs like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” “Please Go Home” by the Rolling Stones, and the Pixies’ “Velouria.” The theremin is made up of two antennas and an amplifier. When a musician positions their hands by the antennae, they disrupt a magnetic field the instrument produces. One hand controls the pitch, and the other controls the volume. Invented in 1928 by Leon Theremin, the instrument was one of the first electronic instruments ever created, as well as one of the first that didn’t require the player physically touching any part of it, Emma Henderson writes for the Independent.
While the theremin isn’t nearly as versatile as modern synthesizers, Rockmore’s work helped set the stage for later musicians. After mastering the early theremin, Rockmore later worked with its inventor to expand the instrument’s register from three octaves to five, and develop a set of hand positions to play certain notes, Tara Golshan writes for Vox.
Today's pop music is dominated by electronic instruments, but at the time, Rockmore's sound stood out from the crowd. She performed the theremin as a soloist with groups like the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony, Golshan writes. She often performed alongside her sister, Nadia Reisenberg, who was an accomplished pianist in her own right.
Rockmore only released a single album during her lifetime, but several others have been published since her death in 1998.
Her fingerprints can be seen all over modern electronic music. Thanks to her contributions to the theremin’s development, modern musicians can create sounds that Rockmore could only dream of.