The Bizarre, Beautiful Story of Clara Rockmore, Pioneering Electronic Artist and Google Doodle Subject

Clara Rockmore

Clara Rockmore photographed in the 1920s.

The story of the theremin is one of heartbreak, love and... international espionage?

Clara Reisenberg, the subject of today's (Mar. 9) Google Doodle on what would have been her 105th birthday, was born in Vilnius, Lithuania while that country was still a part of Russia. At age five Rockmore was, and remains, the youngest person admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where the prodigy studied violin.

Before moving forward, let's make a detour to the office of Joseph Stalin, where another young prodigy of a different sort named Lev Termen was showing the dictator his most prized invention, a device which created sound without touch by manipulating magnetic fields, using the human body as a conductor. Stalin liked the instrument, and the young inventor's mind even more.

By the '20s Stalin had sent the young Termen to New York City to found a research lab and ostensibly conduct surveillance on the Americans, hiding in plain sight and demonstrating his "ether-wave" instrument to crowds at Carnegie Hall. Reisenberg was in the city as well, but the diminutive genius had been forced to abandon her instrument due to weakness in her arm thought to have been caused by childhood malnutrition.

Termen had invented a way for Reisenberg to regain the music she had lost, a loss that had broken her heart. The theremin gave players precise melodic control, so much so that to play it correctly required perfect pitch -- the ability to recognize a note without context.

Termen and Reisenberg seemed, and were, destined for one another. Reisenberg became Termen's ether-wave muse, customizing the instrument to her specifications. Reports say Reisenberg began to weep the first time she tested Termen's invention. Reisenberg, taken with the instrument, developed a system for finger movements that allowed for more precise performance. The pair made headlines across the country, selling out Carnegie Hall on multiple occasions. 

Termen fell in love -- in one of his many shows of affection he created a birthday cake that spun and alit as Clara approached it. The inventor proposed to his young ether-wave muse several times -- Reisenberg ended up marrying a lawyer and taking his name, becoming Clara Rockmore. (Termen would go on to marry the principal ballerina for America's first all-black ballet company, going on to design a stage that would generate music according to the ballerinas' movements.)

The pair's journey ended suddenly -- Termen was abducted by his home country and taken back to Moscow in 1938, being conscripted into the service of the NKVD, a proto-KGB. Famed political theorist and American ambassador to Russia George Kennan was on the receiving end of Termen's genius in 1945; schoolchildren presented him with a gift that was implanted with a listening device called The Thing that Termen had designed and which eavesdropped on the envoy for several years.

Clara would go on to work with synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog on her first record, which wasn't released until 1977, when Rockmore was around 56. The impressive and practical genius wrote the book for modern thereminists like Armen Ra and Pamelia Kurstin.

Rockmore and Termen were reunited just before the latter's death, a scene shown in the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.

Today's Doodle was created by artist Robinson Wood, interaction designer Kevin Burke, and engineers Will Knowles and Kris Hom.