Celebrating Clara: Dalit Warshaw — Star Pupil, Friend and Composer

A Tribute to Clara

Dalit Warshaw

“To be privileged to perform on both of these instruments within the same piece, creating a duet between the older and the younger, was nothing short of exalting.”


I am so pleased to have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and memories of Clara Rockmore in this tribute. The paragraphs below refer to and expand upon an article of mine, “Clara Rockmore: A Legendary Performer of an Enigmatic Instrument,” recently published in the March 2011 edition of the Juilliard Journal.

I first met Clara Rockmore when I was a very young girl, during one of my frequent visits to her sister, the brilliant pianist and former Juilliard faculty member Nadia Reisenberg. Nadia was a significant mentor during my early musical development as a pianist and composer until her passing in 1983. From my very first afternoon visit to Clara’s 57th St. apartment for tea when I was nine years old, I was intensely drawn to the curious black box standing elegantly in her living room, resembling a quaintly designed lectern (if one were to ignore the two antennae) or an antique radio.

When I first heard Clara play her theremin, her incomparable tone suggested a sonic mélange of violin and voice merged with the otherworldly, and spoke to my intensely romantic pre-adolescent soul, awakening within me a pensive nostalgia and deep yearning. My affinity for the instrument and my absolute pitch (a desirable ability when dealing with a fluctuating fingerboard, although not a necessary one) led Clara to have high hopes for me as a thereminist.

Dalit Warshaw Plays Clara Rockmore’s Theremin In Recording Setting — Courtesy Dalit Warshaw

In 1991, when I was 16 years old, Clara began teaching me in earnest, creating a book of technical studies (initially typed from her handwriting by my mother, a close friend), and assigning me Romantic solo string works such as Dvorak’s “Humoresque,” Bach’s “Air on G” and Saint Saens’s “The Swan.” Also a serious pianist at the time, I was advancing on the theremin until tendinitis (and some “theremin elbow”) prevented me from continuing my studies, either on theremin or on piano.

Even so, Clara continued to be an extremely vivid presence in my life, inspiring me as a musician, serving as the ultimate example of what a woman artist can be (especially important as I was a young female composer in an intensely male-dominated profession), and remaining one of my dearest friends. I have often noted that, despite the great generational disparity between us, I always stop short of saying that Clara was like a grandmother to me, as she was too ageless for me to ever conceive of her as such. She would often maintain that our souls met on equal footing, despite our vast difference in years.

Upon her death in 1998, I resolved to realize her vision of the theremin’s admittance onto the roster of serious classical instruments, by creating for it a repertoire that would reveal its hidden expressive potential, aside from more obvious novelty effects such as large multiple-octave glissandi, heavy vibrato and capacity for dynamic extremes. It was also extremely important for me to enable her one-of-a-kind instrument to live on, by creating a new repertoire for her theremin, aside from older works written exclusively for her instrument such as Anais Fuleihan’s Theremin Concerto, performed by Clara with the Philhadelphia Orchestra and conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

Dalit’s Moog 91W in the recording studio for “Invocations” — Courtesy Dalit Warshaw

Within the last ten years I have increasingly included theremin within my chamber music, with pieces such as Nizk’orah(2001) for theremin, cello and piano, Al ha- Shminit: Interludes on a Bygone Mode (2003) for 18 instruments, and The Departure­ (2007) for theremin and string orchestra. As I continue to discover and hone alternate ways of achieving pitch control, expression and vibrato as a performer, the theremin has been featured in my work ever more prevalently.

In my new CD, “Invocations” (Albany Records, TROY 1238), I reconcile three different aspects of my musical identity, as composer, pianist and thereminist. Aside from featuring a broad spectrum of my recent works for solo cello, piano, string quartet, voice, and theremin, the recording is a tribute to Clara in honor of her centennial birthday. The theremin appears in two works: Transformation (2007) for theremin and string quartet, and a new arrangement of Nizk’orah (written for Clara in memoriam, which includes reference to “The Swan” and the “Vocalise”) for two theremins and piano. [Editor’s Note: You can see Dalit performing part of “Vocalise” here]

Front panel of Dalit’s Moog 91W Theremin — Courtesy Dalit Warshaw

In this last work, I performed and then overdubbed all of the parts, playing on two distinctive theremins: Clara Rockmore’s instrument can be heard as Theremin I, and Theremin II is played on Bob Moog’s 91W, his replica of Clara’s theremin that he built for me in 1991. In doing so, a rare dialogue was enabled between these two one-of-a-kind theremin “siblings.” By playing the piano in addition to both theremin parts, I sought to pay homage not only to Clara but also to her sister Nadia Reisenberg, who was her main accompanist during performances and recordings.

While the 91W is a replica of Clara’s theremin, based on the schematics of the older instrument, their timbres are noticeably different, as are certain aspects of their makeup. One has a single external amplifier and a 15-inch overhead speaker, while the other has two internal 6-inch speakers, each with its own amplifier. Although there are two speakers, one on each side of the instrument, the signal of the 91W is monophonic. Because of this, the sound is projected differently than from a single overhead speaker. In addition, because the speakers are housed in the theremin cabinet itself, the resulting sound has a warmer and more fluid quality. As one can tell from listening to Nizk’orah, both theremins have distinctive personalities: while Bob Moog’s newer model is not necessarily an exact sonic replica, he did create an entirely unique – and equally expressive – instrument that sounds like no other. To be privileged to perform on both of these instruments within the same piece, creating a duet between the older and the younger, was nothing short of exalting.

The most challenging pieces to record, of course, were those involving theremin, specifically Nizk’orah, as to overdub these two unique theremins took us into uncharted territory. The strategy was to record from bottom instrument up, beginning with the piano part (the most straightforward step), graduating to the 91W, then finally superimposing Clara’s instrument. My priority was to allow the sound of Clara’s instrument to remain  un-tampered with in any way through editing. Because of this, the other tracks had to be in as complete a state of editing as possible. This method wasn’t always as straightforward as it initially seemed, when allowing for the inevitable tempo liberties at times taken, unavoidable for the emotionally intense nature of the piece. Still, while we might have occasionally cut a note value short, nothing timbral was altered in the recording of Clara’s instrument.

I have sometimes likened my connection with the orchestra to Clara’s relationship with her theremin. Having as a pianist often been chagrined by the ephemeral and imperfect nature of live performance, I regard composition as my chance to capture perfection, codifying my musical intentions by chiseling all interpretative intent into the score. For me, the most exciting scenario is to enable an ensemble of 100-some musicians to sound intimate and organic, to create a personal voice out of something fundamentally impersonal. Clara, similarly, aimed to bestow upon the non-human a soul, employing an electronic apparatus to achieve an intensely human voice. This paradox lends an enigmatic layer of tension to the captivating, vital and haunting intensity of her playing.

The world is a sadder place for the absence of Clara’s timeless beauty and vibrancy, her wisdom, her warmth, her passion, her artistry, her ability to achieve and portray the balance of emotional intensity and grace, both in life and in her art.

~ Dalit Warshaw, March 2011


An internationally acclaimed composer, performer and educator, Dalit Hadass Warshaw’s works have been performed by numerous orchestral ensembles, including the New York and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras (Zubin Mehta conducting), the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, the Y Chamber Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, the Albany Symphony and the Grand Rapids Symphony.

A full-time faculty member of the composition/theory department at the Boston Conservatory since September 2004, Ms. Warshaw obtained her doctorate in music composition from the Juilliard School in May 2003. She taught orchestration in the Juilliard Evening Division from 2000 to 2005.

Awards and grants include five ASCAP Foundation Grants to Young Composers, a Fulbright Scholarship to Israel (2001-2002), a Fromm Music Foundation Grant from Harvard University, and a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1984, she became the youngest ever to win the BMI Award for Student Composers, with her orchestral piece Fun Suite, written at the age of eight.

As a pianist, Ms. Warshaw has performed widely as soloist, chamber player and improviser, in such diverse concert spaces as Avery Fisher Hall, Miller Theater, the Juilliard Theater, Merkin Hall, Steinway Hall, Tonic, and the Stone.

Having studied theremin with the renowned Clara Rockmore from an early age, she has appeared as thereminist with such ensembles as the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the American Composers Orchestra and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and has also performed in spaces such as Carnegie Hall, Disney Hall, and Alice Tully Hall.

Ms. Warshaw has held residencies at the Yaddo and MacDowell Artist Colonies, as well as at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the Juilliard School.

Her debut CD, Dalit Warshaw:\ Invocations, a diverse selection of her solo and chamber works composed within the past decade, was just released on Albany Records.