Celebrating Clara: Theremin Virtuoso Rob Schwimmer

Happy 100th Birthday, Clara!

By Rob Schwimmer

Theremin and piano virtuoso, touring keyboardist with Simon and Garfunkel and member of Polygraph Lounge

People like her show us that the apparently impossible may be possible after all…


Rob Schwimmer with his Moog Melodia Theremin; photo by Michael Weintrob

My first encounter with seeing and hearing Clara Rockmore was a brief movie before breaking to a commercial on the 1990 TV show Night Music. I was stunned and thrilled! I’d heard theremins before but never knew what was involved with playing them. It looked crazy. I couldn’t understand the hand correlation to what I was hearing… But never mind that: The heavenly music was the thing! What had been a novelty sound (in my mind) suddenly was revealed to have such unimaginable musical/emotional possibilities…

Seeing her in “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” which came out in early ’94 was another inspiration to get involved with the theremin. I’ll never forget that mind blowing C major descending run she does at the end of the Fuleihan Concerto! I immediately went out to buy Clara’s CD “The Art of the Theremin“… Once again I was just knocked out by the beauty and sensitivity of her theremin playing, a feeling that remains until this very day every time I hear her…

Also as a piano player I have to mention Clara’s sister, the great Nadia Reisenberg. The performances are so communicative between the two of them… Sisters who have played together their whole lives! What a rare thrill!
A little further along in my Clarafication a VHS was released by Big Briar (at least I think it was still Big Briar) called “Clara Rockmore: The World’s Greatest Theremin Virtuosa”… A truly staggering monument to the art of theremin playing. If you haven’t seen this, it is an absolute must! The sisters playing together and visiting with Bob Moog, Tom Rhea and Nadia’s son the radio host Robert (Bob) Sherman. Anywhat, I’ve watched this over and over and it never fails to amaze and inspire…

Note: Many people play the theremin in many different ways. Clara invented her own incomparable technique which is often referred to as “aerial fingering”… Imagine trying to figure out a way to play the first violin invented!

I spoke to Clara Rockmore briefly on the phone (she was listed in the Manhattan telephone book) on May 15, 1996. I was hoping to meet her but she was already laid low by multiple health issues. Nevertheless, we had a lively and fascinating chat…

She felt the instrument was invented way before its time so she was very happy about the movie since now it brought the theremin to a new generation that grew up with and understood electronics. She also told me about playing Bloch’s Schelomo with the Philadelphia Orchestra way back when on a standard RCA model, not the custom one that Theremin built for her. She was adament that it was the player, not the instrument that made the difference–She said people would play her special theremin and think maybe they’d sound like her only to discover the (probably harsh) reality of the situation…
When I heard that Clara had passed away I wanted to honor her for all she had given me in years of rapt listening and inspiration, as well as the sadness I felt. I wrote a piece  called Waltz for Clara (appropriately enough) for theremin and piano (as well as a solo piano version…). [Editor’s note: Both versions of Waltz for Clara are available on Rob’s CD, Beyond the Sky. You can order the CD here.]

If Clara had not lived the theremin would probably still be regarded as a mere novelty if it would have survived at all… I’m so happy to have been alive and on the planet at the same time she was. People like her show us that the apparently impossible may be possible after all…
Rob Schwimmer

http://www.robschwimmer.com/

 

March 2011

 

Rob Schwimmer’s Melodia Theremin

PS–Facts: I bought my first theremin (a Moog Melodia in a state of disrepair circa ’59-’61) from Walter Sear on August 24th, 1994. It was repaired by Bob Moog on May 25th 1995.

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