The Theremin’s Voice: Amplifying the Inaudibility of Whiteness through an Early Interracial Electronic Music Collaboration
On an October evening in 1934, Clara Rockmore made her debut performance with the theremin, a then-new electronic instrument played without touch, in New York City’s historic Town Hall. Attended by critics from every major newspaper in the city, the performance not only marked the beginning of Rockmore’s illustrious career as a thereminist, it also featured the first known interracial collaboration in electronic music history. A sextet of Black male vocalists from the famous Hall Johnson choir performed a group of spirituals arranged by Johnson with Rockmore, whom the press—apparently unaware of her Jewish heritage—considered white. The collaboration was an anomaly: no other record exists of Black musicians performing with Rockmore (she toured with Paul Robeson in the 1940s, but no evidence has surfaced showing the two ever on stage together).
Though the Johnson Sextet’s performance with Rockmore is of intense interest to me as a historian, at the time the white press mostly ignored the collaboration. This is surprising given Johnson’s fame: his choir and work were critically acclaimed in productions including the 1930 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play The Green Pastures and the 1933 musical Run Little Chillun’. The Sextet’s spirituals were prominently featured in Rockmore’s debut, with four songs closing the program (“Stan’ Still Jordan,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Water Boy,” and “O Lord Have Mercy On Me”) and “Old Man River” likely serving as an encore. Yet only two writers—one Black, one white—discussed the spirituals in any detail. Though brief, these two reviews can help us understand why most critics ignored the spirituals at Rockmore’s debut, and illuminate the role that race played in the reception of Rockmore’s career, the theremin, and electronic musical sound.
One of these reviews was by an anonymous critic writing for the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s highly influential weekly African-American newspaper. Though unidentified, the author was likely Black, given the source. The critic described Rockmore and the Sextet’s rendition of the song “Water Boy” as “particularly effective,” ascribing the theremin’s expressive power to its sonority: “the deep ’cello tone of the instrument was more than faintly reminiscent of the throaty humming of a Negro singer.” The white critic who wrote about the collaboration—Paul Harrison, in his syndicated column, “In New York,” that ran in several newspapers across New York State—seemed to corroborate the Amsterdam reviewer’s hearing, writing that the theremin had been “improved so that it now can be made to sound like the choral humming of a hundred Negro voices.” Remarkably, Harrison made the comparison without so much as mentioning the presence of the Johnson Sextet or the spirituals, erasing the very real presence of Black musicians in the performance.
These reviewers agreed that the theremin sounded like a Black voice during the spirituals. Yet Harrison used the comparison to disparage. His use of the word “improved” was clearly ironic, and the overall tone of his review was mocking (he described twenty-three-year-old Rockmore as “a lovely and graceful girl, but too serious about her new art”). The Amsterdam critic, meanwhile, compared the theremin’s tone to that of a Black voice to communicate the instrument’s expressivity—its beauty, emotion, and humanity. They validated their own hearing of the powerful performance by noting that the capacity crowd “hailed Miss Rockmore’s mastery of the theremin and demanded several encores.” Despite the contrasts, these pieces share something absent from nearly every contemporary theremin review: an explicit discussion of race and the theremin’s timbre. These seemingly anomalous takes, when understood in the context of the theremin’s broader contemporary reception history among (mostly white, mostly male) critics, can amplify what Jennifer Stoever identified in The Sonic Color Line as the “inaudibility of whiteness” in the history of the theremin and electronic musical sound (12).
When Rockmore performed as a soloist, critics tended to describe the theremin’s timbre in the context of western art music sonorities, making comparisons to the cello, violin, and classical voices. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers, describing its tone as warm and rich, and writing of its “vivid expressiveness” and “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone. Many attributed the instrument’s expressivity to Rockmore’s skill as a trained classical performer, praising her repertory choices, musicianship, and technique.
Alongside celebrations of the theremin’s emotionally charged sonority was an opposing rhetoric of noisiness, one that critics employed to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. Early critics often complained about the “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento employed by thereminists, most of whom, like Rockmore, were (at least perceived as) white women. There is a practical explanation for this: if you’ve ever played a theremin, you know that without the use of these techniques, it is nearly impossible to locate pitches, or create even the impression of accurate intonation. Critics turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking copious chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. They compared the theremin’s timbre variously to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano one critic dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such reviews used bodies and instruments assumed to be white and female as points of comparison: sopranos, violins, mothers (who were racially unmarked and thus by default white). To critics, the theremin was objectionable, was “other,” in a specifically white, specifically feminine way.
Critics were especially concerned with the theremin’s timbre, projecting onto it their hopes and anxieties about the potential impact of technology on their musical world. Since the theremin’s 1929 arrival in New York, critics had been assessing the instrument’s potential, treating it as a bellwether for technology’s impact on the future of music. Rockmore stoked this interest by claiming that her debut would “prove that the [theremin] may be a medium for musical expression.” Critics centered their hopes and anxieties about the promise and threat of electronic music in analyses of the theremin’s timbre, where the instrument could either be exposed as a fraud—a poor substitute for “authentic” “living” music—or celebrated as a breakthrough.
Discussions among New York’s white critics about the theremin’s musical promise unfolded specifically and exclusively with regard to the white western classical tradition. Just as Toni Morrison noted in her book Playing in the Dark that “the readers of virtually all American fiction have been positioned as white,” whiteness was the default for writers and readers of music criticism on the theremin (xii). Though most white critics at Rockmore’s debut never mentioned race, their tacit dismissal of the spirituals she performed with the Johnson Sextet reveals that race was a central organizing force in their assessments of the instrument. The brief reception history of the spirituals Johnson arranged for voice and theremin, wherein writers—listening to the instrument perform with Black voices—clearly heard the theremin’s tone as Black, is the exception that proves the rule: white critics, by and large, heard the instrument as sounding white.
Just as Morrison asked: “how is ‘literary whiteness’ and ‘literary blackness’ made, and what is the consequence of that construction,” we must explore the ramifications of the assumptions we’ve made about whiteness and electronic musical sound (xii). For it is not only critics of the 1930s who heard the theremin’s sound as white: most current histories continue to focus on and reify a predominantly white academic and avant-garde electronic music history canon. The Amsterdam critic’s hearing opens new possibilities for understanding the history of electronic musical sound. While popular perceptions often frame electronic musical sound as “lifeless” or emotionally “flat,” the Amsterdam critic’s comparison of the theremin to the voice opens our ears to alternative hearings of electronic musical sound as expressive, affective, even human. When we hear this aspect of electronic music’s sound, we can begin to account for histories that go beyond the white western cannon that dominates our understanding of electronic music history. We can populate such accountings with performers like Rockmore and composers like Johnson who worked and lived outside the boundaries we have traditionally drawn around electronic music history.
Dr. Madd Vibe (aka Angelo Moore) plays theremin in his band The Brand New Step, covering “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” Angelo Moore been playing theremin for over 20 years.
Featured Image: “Theremins are Dreamy” by Flickr User Gina Pina, (CC BY 2.0)
Kelly Hiser is co-founder and CEO of Rabble, a startup dedicated to empowering libraries to support and sustain their local creative communities. Kelly holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and embraces work at the intersections of arts, humanities, and the public good. She talks and writes regularly about music, technology, identity, and power.
The pop juggernaut Beyoncé recently made headlines when she confessed her plans for world pop domination to an AP reporter. She said:
“I am starting my company, my label. I want to create a boy band. I want to continue to produce and do documentaries and music videos. I eventually want to start directing for other artists.”
While Beyoncé’s business ambitions are hardly newsworthy—like many a multitasking pop idol, she helms several successful ventures, including a line of perfumes and a ready-to-wear fashion line—the announcement that she wants to be a musical impresario puts Beyoncé in more relatively selective company, especially as a woman. “Beyoncé as music industry boy band Svengali?” asked Amy Sciaretto, a tad incredulously, on PopCrush, “Yes, it’s true.”
In pop music writing, the idea of the Svengali pops up with regularity, usually to describe a man obsessively managing the careers of his younger, often vulnerable, charges. Classic examples include Phil Spector and the Ronettes. Berry Gordy and Diana Ross. Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols. Lou Pearlman and the Backstreet Boys. To call Beyoncé a Svengali is both to insert her into this overwhelmingly male trajectory and to associate her, rather unflatteringly, with a long tradition of the producer-control freak, officiously meddling while passing himself off as his protégé’s protective sponsor.
Both associations, in fact, take us back to the origin of the term Svengali, from Trilby, an 1894 bestseller by the English writer and illustrator George Du Maurier. In that work, Trilby, a young Englishwoman of great likability but dubious honor (she is the daughter of a barmaid, and occasionally works as an artist’s model), is living la vie bohème in Paris, where she encounters Svengali, a sinister but charismatic musical genius who uses his mesmeric powers to turn her into the singing sensation of the European concert stage. Trilby can only sing, however, under Svengali’s spell—she must literally look at him while she performs—and so when one day he expires, mid-performance, of a weak heart, she loses her own vocal powers and later dies. The cause of her death is partly shock, but partly unrequited love. For although Svengali, a rather hideous Jew, had vainly sought Trilby’s affections, which she could only return when in hypnotic thrall to him, Trilby has long been in love with Little Billie, the handsome scion of a wealthy English family, who cannot marry her because she is tragically beneath him in rank.
First serialized in Harper’s, Trilby was a transatlantic sensation, igniting what the press at the time, neatly anticipating Beatlemania, dubbed “Trilbymania.” Trilby’s success—and Svengali’s emergence into our cultural lingua franca—is attributable to its canny marriage of late 19th-century sentimentalism (the plot of a heroine who desires the unattainable good man but succumbs to the ogling bad man) with contemporary anti-Semitism, particularly the Wagnerian stereotype of the cultured Jew as musical parasite. In Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), an 1850 pamphlet, Wagner infamously excoriated Jewish musicians, claiming their inherent artistic inferiority relative to Gentiles.
It is important here that although Wagner was partly responding to the influx of Polish and other Eastern European Jewish peasants in 19th-century Germany, his attack was primarily aimed at the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeoisie. It was those Jews, as Wagner’s contemporary, the German music critic and journalist Franz Brendel put it, who “have fallen into a hopeless contradiction, i.e., of possessing our culture and yet remaining Jews, of wishing to be Jewish and Christian in one person.” Wagner’s Jew makes music in a tainted vernacular. Jews “can only imitate the speech of any European nation,” he wrote, “and because song is an extension of speech, … can never be great singers.”
Du Maurier’s Svengali, Polish-born but culturally German, enters late 19th-century Anglophone culture bearing the marks of the Wagnerian stereotype. In the novel he is introduced as a tall bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well-featured but sinister.
“He was very shabby and dirty… His thick, heavy, languid, lusterless black hair fell down behind his ears on to his shoulders, in that musician-like way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman. He had bold, brilliant black eyes, with long heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black, which grew almost from under his eyelids; and over it his moustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists. He went by the name of Svengali, and spoke fluent French with a German accent and humorous German twists and idiom, and his voice was very thin and mean and harsh, and often broke into a disagreeable falsetto.”
In short, Svengali is a prototypical Jew of late 19th-century anti-Semitic fantasy: Jewish in “aspect” and Jewish in nature: Jewish in his effeminacy and his indeterminate age and nationality; Jewish despite his ennobling Germanness and cultural accomplishment; Jewish even in his mysterious one-word appellation, Svengali, a name that renders his character both cosmopolitan and menacingly foreign, like the villain of a Donizetti opera. Like all embodiments of stereotype, Svengali exudes an embarrassing surfeit of Jewishness; at one point, Du Maurier’s narrator refers to him as “a dark black Hebrew sweep”; at another, as “an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew.” He is a bottom-feeder even in the 19th-century hierarchy of European and English Jews: dark, accented, coarse in his mannerisms and customs, a repellent mixture of East and West.
Although it was not the case in the late 19th century, when parents took to naming their daughters Trilby, ultimately Svengali would prove more culturally durable than Du Maurier’s heroine. Today, the term, if not the memory of its origins in a forgettable 19th-century fiction, persists as a prototype of the charismatic, driven, and authoritative male starmaker. Like Du Maurier’s Svengali, the Svengali of contemporary usage craves money, but is driven by something greater than wealth. Like the fictional character, he is often himself a gifted artist, and yet he can never be the frontman, only the guy behind the scenes. Above all, he excels at playing other performers, especially feminized ones, as his “instruments.” Like the Svengali who mesmerizes Trilby with his eyes, he is creepily alluring, exerting a mysterious power over his musical charges—at least until the spell wears off (which it inevitably does).
Svengali is one of three Jewish characters—the others are Shylock and Fagin—whose names have become archetypes in English. Yet whereas Shakespeare’s and Dickens’s characters name Jewish stereotypes—and one would think before calling, say, Lou Pearlman, impresario of the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync, now serving a jail sentence at a federal penitentiary in Texarkana for his involvement in a Ponzi scheme, a “Shylock”—Svengali carries little trace of its specifically anti-Semitic provenance.
This isn’t a post-Holocaust occurrence. In the course of a few decades after the serialization of Trilby the figure of Svengali had been almost entirely stripped of his ethnic accent. Whereas an 1897 Viennese stage production of Trilby provoked anti-Semitic agitation—forebodingly, given what was to come, forcing the producers to recode Svengali as a Hungarian Gypsy—by 1902, the Kansas City, Kansas American Citizen records the usage of “Svengali” to name a man who mesmerizes respectable women. Caught up in the late Victorian vogue for hypnosis, early 20th-century Americans attributed to “real-life” Svengalis a range of moral infractions that could not be credited to the women who committed them. No reason save hypnotic enticement could be found to explain the 1905 case of a Michigan woman, the wife of a veterinarian, who ran away with a balding, middle-aged white man, before returning to him when the “hypnotic effect began to wear off.”
In the 1931 film Svengali, starring John Barrymore, which follows the novel very closely, Svengali is Semiticized (the actor speaks with an accent and wears a nose prosthesis) and yet, quite assiduously, not named as a Jew, although he is associated with the Orient. By the time of the 1983 made-for-TV movie Svengali, starring Jodi Foster as the pop star Zoe Alexander, not only is the anti-Semitism excised, but also the character Svengali is missing. In this post-Helen Reddy world, moreover, Foster’s character eventually outgrows the need for her old teacher-manager (Peter O’Toole), who in the film’s end must go hunting for new students.
It’s not particularly remarkable that we still use the term Svengali despite its reprehensible heritage. We still recite the schoolyard rhyme “eenie meenie miney moe,” with its roots in antebellum racial stereotype, and know well the minstrel stage song repertoire.
On the other hand, the fact that “svengali” has shed its associations with Jewish masculinity, all the while retaining something of the ambivalence of anti-Semitic stereotype, is noteworthy. Svengalis are useful in crafting modern pop mythologies. Where money is concerned, they deflect agency away from pop stars—who, notwithstanding the degree of commercialism of their music or the loudness of their boasts, are still not supposed to want wealth more than making art or pleasing their fans. More generally, the Svengali figure intercedes to “manage” the excess of their desire, otherwise so often unbound in their musical performances and their excessive real-life behavior. In his delightful romp of a book Starmakers and Svengalis, the British music journalist Johnny Rogan recounts how Tam Paton, the manager of the Bay City Rollers, was ultimately unable to contend with the bad-boy shenanigans of the “tartan teen sensations” whose squeaky clean image he had carefully cultivated. It’s perhaps not incidental here that Paton was gay, inhabiting a public sexual identity associated with otherness and indeterminacy, and thus hearkening back to the archetype’s Jewish origins.
Du Maurier’s character drew from the notion of Jewish men as perversely sexually powerful, combining attractiveness and repulsiveness in one body. Sexual titillation in Trilbyis never far from the surface. Ultimately, the figure of the Svengali is a means of containing and deflecting expressions of desire in pop music. Through him, we can personify the larger predations of the music industry, its constant hunger for product and profit. By vilifying the powerful headmaster of the Motown “charm school” or the evil father figure behind the Jackson 5, for example, we can turn our attention away from our own complicity in the objectifying dynamic.
Here Svengali’s power of hypnosis—the quality that attached itself to the Svengali-figure in the early 20th century—is a potent metaphor for what pop music does to us, in making us listen despite (sometimes) our intellectual rejection of it. In Du Maurier’s original illustration for his novel, Svengali is a spider who entraps Trilby in his web. Pop music is often like that spider and that web: supremely sticky and, once we are hooked, indifferent to our resistance.
Gayle Wald is Professor of English at George Washington University. She is author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Beacon, 2007) and working on a book about the TV show Soul!, which brought a black power sensibility to PBS circa 1968-73. Wald’s post is adapted from a “Keyword” talk she gave at the Experience Music Project POP Music Conference in Los Angeles in March 2011, where it caused quite a stir. Peep these links to read some initial responses from music critic Bob Cristgau and Flavorwire.