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.
*a companion piece of this research, on electronic sounds as lively individuals, is forthcoming in the American Quarterly special issue on sound, September 2011.
Not long ago, while researching the history of synthesized sound—or taking a break to troll for interesting synthesizers for sale online (activities that, for me, inevitably blend together)—I came across a thriving industry of small companies that offer custom-made wood panels to adorn the sides of old and new synths, like Synthwood, Custom Synths, Analogics, and MPCStuff.
As Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco note in Analog Days, their history of Moog synthesizers, an “analog revival” is underway: “Today in the digital world, there is a longing to get back to what was lost” (9). The music technology magazine Sound on Sound concurs, documenting a renewed interest among electronic music-makers in modular synthesizers like those popularized by Moog and others in the late-1960s. Yet there seems to be more at play with this proliferation of wood customizations than merely nostalgia for analog synths, Hammond organs, and hi-fi cabinetry. How might we interpret this desire to adorn—lovingly, even obsessively—steel-encased machines that produce sound by electronic means, with various species of wood? What does this realm of audio esoterica reveal about material and social aspects of musical instruments, and the workings of contemporary media cultures more broadly?
On Contingency and Faith: Walnut, Purple Felt, and the True Cross
Pinch and Trocco describe the Minimoog as the first synthesizer to become a “classic,” due to its relative ease of use, widespread availability, portability and compact design (214). In the retrospective imaginations of historians and musicians, a significant feature that established its classic design was the walnut wood case on an early generation of Minimoog models.
However, Bill Hemsath, an engineer who assembled the first Minimoog prototypes in 1969-70, told Pinch and Trocco that these instruments were assembled from “junk I found in the attic” and an assortment of affordable materials cobbled together in the moment (214). Jim Scott, another engineer who worked on developing the Minimoogs, explained in a 1997 interview: “the reason we made it walnut [was] because Moog had gotten a deal someplace and had a whole barnful.” He noted that “the musicians certainly appreciated the fact that it was made out of walnut,” but eventually the designers “ran out of walnut and started buying something else and slapping paint on it to make it look like walnut.” The various kinds of wood used on models from different years, and the exact start and end dates of the coveted walnut models, remain contested matters among Moog enthusiasts.
Hemsath elaborated on this history in a 1998 interview by making an analogy to “classic” piano design: “There’s a similar story from Steinway. Back when they first got started in the U.S. they used to buy their felts from a feltmaker in Paris… And they got a lot of purple felt because [the supplier] used to be the felt maker for Napoleon’s army, and had a lot left over. So the colored cores in the hammers of those old Steinways were purple because of Napoleon’s army. Well, [the supplier] ran out, and [Steinway] said, red’s fine. They started making pianos with red felt, which is what they have today, and people started complaining, saying, it’s not a real Steinway, it’s not purple.” Like the proverbial purple felt on original Steinway pianos, walnut panels on synthesizers became “classic” because of their association with an originary moment, however happenstance, in the history of a particular instrument, and a limited supply and production run that rendered the material in question relatively rare.
So, a contemporary synthesizer enthusiast’s desire to acquire a “classic” walnut Minimoog, or to commemorate its aesthetic with customized wood panels, is in part an effort to establish a material connection to history. Synthesizer history unfolds in the deep time of technoscience which, as Donna Haraway has argued, often “barely secularize[s]” Judeo-Christian narratives of first and last things, of figural anticipation and fulfillment (9-10). The concern among some synthesizer enthusiasts to possess either the actual wood of an early-model Minimoog, or a faithful substitute for it, indeed resonates with Christian material cultures around relics of the True Cross and next-best artifacts with suitable provenance. A historical conjuncture that is contingent on otherwise unremarkable circumstances (e.g., Bob Moog’s good deal on a barnful of walnut in upstate New York) is marked as an originary or otherwise defining moment (the “invention” of a “classic” synthesizer) for a culture that defines itself as proceeding from it; the former is made to anticipate the latter, and the latter comes to fulfill the former.
Taking Stock: Materialities of Instruments, Sounds, Ecosystems
What kind of wood panels live in my studio? The manual to my Jomox XBase 09 drum machine, from 1999, details that its “steel sheet body” is bookended by “varnished side panels made of alder wood.” Wikipedia‘s pop-anthropological roundup of alder’s “use by humans” includes smoking various foods, treating skin inflammations and tumors, and building electric guitars. Fender Stratocasters have been built with alder since the 1950s. Guitar enthusiasts are notoriously fussy about which type of wood comprises the instrument’s body because of its effect on tone. Scientists, meanwhile, have taken to applying medical imaging techniques to Stradivarius violins, trying to “crack the mystery” of its prized tone. (Some say it’s due to the particular density of slow-growing trees in the Little Ice Age; others conclude it must be the varnish.)
Given these interconnected concerns with instrument materials and the composition of tone, one might venture an etymological connection between timbre—which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as the character or quality of a musical sound depending upon the instrument producing it—and timber, which references “the matter or substance of which anything is built up or composed.” Music scholars often characterize timbre as the materiality of sound. Despite longstanding knowledge of the relationships of timber and timbre among instrument builders and musicians, and possible overlaps in historical applications of these words, placing wood panels on the sides of synthesizers surely has no effect on the resulting tone. Or does it? Audiophiles are prone toward occult-like habits, such as placing a single coin on top of a speaker to absorb vibration; and wood panels may well have subtle effects on the overall stability of an electronic instrument, resulting in barely perceptible sonic artifacts.
My Virus B synthesizer from the late-1990s has darker wood side panels than the Jomox, sort of a faux mahogany. Recently I wrote to Access Music, explaining my research on synthesizer history and inquiring what kind of wood they used. They replied that the B series featured stained beech wood (also commonly used and appreciated for producing smoked German beers and cheeses). Virus volunteered that they “in general do not use any kind of tropical wood for our devices.” Using sustainable wood has become a mandate and marketing concern at the Moog company as well; Moog’s wood “comes primarily from Tennessee. Hardwoods in Tennessee are growing faster than they are being harvested… US hardwoods are a world-wide model of sustained forest management.” Among contemporary synthesizer companies, there is often a selective eco-consciousness; as synthesizer designer Jessica Rylan suggested in our interview for Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (Duke: 2010), it is arguably impossible to build a synthesizer that does not incorporate at least some materials that are toxic in stages of manufacturing and/or disposal.
The paradox of dressing up an electronic machine made partly of toxic materials and processes with a sustainable-wood exterior is a fitting metaphor—like a contemporary fig leaf—for how we outwardly express environmentalist concern, despite plenty of contradictions in practice. Wood-adorned electronic devices, in all their glorious contradictions, are especially resonant in this cultural moment; see Asus’s EcoBook, Karvt’s lineup of custom wood skins for MacBooks, and, my favorite, Flashsticks: handmade wood USB “sticks” that combine “the high tech world of computing with the simplicity of the world of nature.” The story of Flashsticks’ handmade creation is a case study in eco-contradiction: the website implies that no trees were harmed in the making of their USB sticks—the company uses locally-sourced, “fallen wood from the previous winter’s storms”—yet we do not hear of the toxic materials that may comprise the drive itself.
Wood panels indeed work to conceal inconvenient truths. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan pointed out, the midcentury aesthetic of hiding household appliances behind wood paneling typified a culture that concealed gendered divisions of domestic labor (205). Lisa Parks has documented the similar recent phenomenon of dressing up cell towers as trees, which obscures the politics of media infrastructure behind a cloak of “nature.”
This is also a story about the mirage of a space between nature and artifice. Retro-culture enthusiasts celebrate that “real cars have fake wood paneling.” Meanwhile, a company called iBackwoods has engineered a “real wood” iPhone case that pays tribute to “timeless style of a wood panel station wagon.” Moog’s new Filtatron application for iPad, a software emulation of the company’s Moogerfooger filter pedal, is rendered authentic by its virtual wood panels. All of these examples reveal the “nature” of wood paneling to be cultural all the way down.
Ultimately, wood paneling might prompt us to recognize the interconnectedness among seemingly divergent materials, environments, and social practices. Consider, as a useful comparison to the climate-forged Stradivarius, the ash baseball bat: cherished by players for its “magical” effects on hitting, and now threatened by a warming climate and killer beetle in its source forests in Pennsylvania. Every synthesizer likewise holds and explodes into an ecosystem, and sometimes sounds like one too. The composer Mira Calix has suggested that analog synthesizers, with their individual quirks that increase with age, are much like wooden instruments; both seem to breathe like “little creatures” and take on a unique character, like a human voice. Our synthesizers, our kin.