Digital Optical Theremin; How Clara Rockmore’s Silent Legacy was Tied with the Theremin’s

Kim, Alexander, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia

The theremin, first shown to the world in 1929, was the first ever electric instrument. Controlled by means of moving one’s hands near antennae without touching the device, the theremin produced a sound meant to mimic a violin’s timbre, but ended up sounding distinct. All of these traits served to make the theremin a wholly unique instrument – and my technical project looked to change it further. My team and I produced a theremin that used a microprocessor and infrared sensors to mimic the unique style of play while also adding further variety to the instrument’s sounds. My STS research focused on how the theremin’s legacy seemed to disappear almost entirely after its invention, in spite of one player’s dream to see it widely recognized in the musical world.
The technical portion of my thesis concerned a “Digital Optical Theremin”; it used optical sensors in lieu of antenna to mimic the theremin’s method of operation. In addition, it used a microcontroller to perform digital signal processing on the sensor’s outputs, allowing it to modify the output sound (similar to how an electric keyboard can modify the output sound while maintaining the piano-like controls). Only one such modifier was implemented – a setting which made the output pitches take on discrete intervals, rather than changing continuously – but it served as a reasonable proof of concept.
My STS research was focused on Clara Rockmore, a woman hailed as the “First Theremin Virtuoso”, who attempted to bring the theremin into public consciousness. Sadly, the theremin is very much an esoteric instrument today, and my research was an attempt to figure out why. Using text analysis, I found that Rockmore’s appearance in news articles, publications, and other media was nearly non existent until decades after she had retired, and concluded that it was because she was an outstanding prodigy – few would or could follow her on her path.
In designing and producing the digital optical theremin, I gained an appreciation for how unconventional and difficult-to-play the theremin was. That, in turn, helped me see how difficult it was for someone to keep up with Clara Rockmore – how many people could have played and understood the instrument the way she did, even if they devoted their lives to it as she had? On the other hand, my research into the history of the instrument showed me how much of its identity was tied to each of its unique traits – some traits which I deliberately tossed aside in the design for my technical project. This, perhaps, highlights the need for engineers to communicate with and consider the opinions of all relevant stakeholders, lest they lose interest or create a flawed product.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Theremin, Clara Rockmore, Multi-Level Perspectives, Automated Text Analysis

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering
Technical Advisor: Harry Powell
STS Advisor: Kathryn Neeley
Technical Members: Woohyeong Cho, Joseph Chen

Issued Date: