Why the Theremin Fell By the Wayside

Posted: 4/29/2012 12:07:08 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

Sounds like a chicken / road joke, but it's actually a paper I stumbled across today:


He goes on a bit about memes, but there's some interesting history and several good observations in there.  I share his opinions regarding the playability and ergonomics of the Theremin - and I'm wondering what others think?

Posted: 4/29/2012 4:04:59 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

From the paper:

- Clara Rockmore evidently had to give up violin for medical reasons. 

- And she never took on any Theremin students ever. 

This was news to me, but I'm rather late in the game to a lot of this.


[EDIT] I must have been skimming the paper too quickly concerning the second point, the passage reads as follows:

"Despite Termen’s authorization, she repeatedly turned away prospective students because they did not have instruments that would function well enough to allow the precise control she felt was required to play the theremin well."

Posted: 4/29/2012 11:17:08 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Clara Rockmore injured her bowing arm (her right arm) by pushing herself too hard. The whole thing came to a head on the eve of a performance of the Beethoven violin concerto in New York City. The damage was too severe, the problem was chronic, and she was forced to give up playing the violin altogether. She credits Leon Theremin with saving her artistic life.

Clara did give theremin lessons, although she never had any serious long term students capable of succeeding her as genuinely accomplished theremin virtuosos. One of the problems was that RCA stopped manufacturing theremins in 1931 so no new instruments were available for students in the early days. A few decades later, when theremins began to be manufactured again, Clara felt the available instruments were "toys" when compared to the theremins made by Lev Termen and RCA in the 1930's.

Why did the theremin fall by the wayside? Dawkins' theories of memetics aside, it is too hard to play and too limited. It is a "one trick pony". But as I have said before, that trick when it is done well, has a uniquely magical quality that is both astounding and moving. 

Posted: 4/29/2012 12:44:53 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

Very interesting coalport - where do you find such detailed history of these things?

I agree entirely with your assessment of the playability.  It was a fairly discouraging moment once I got my EWS kit together, plugged in, and tuned up - waaaay harder than I though it would be to make music on the thing.  The good players make it look so easy (as they do on any instrument I suppose).  I'm a long-time amateur guitarist and fancy myself something of a singer, so my sense of pitch is pretty good, but the lack of tactile feedback was totally alien to me.


[EDIT] Wow Peter, you're a reference in the paper:

[8] Peter Pringle, The Julius Goldberg RCA Theremin, 2004.

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