Ronald Cook


Wee have also Sound-Houses, where we practise and demonstrate all Sounds and their Generation. Wee have Harmonics which you have not, of Quarter-Sounds, and lesser Slides of Sounds. Diverse Instruments of Musick have; together with Bells and Rings that are dainty and sweet. Wee represent small sounds as Great and Deepe; likewise Great Sounds, Extenuate and sharp; Wee make diverse tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their Originall are Entire. Wee represent and imitate all Articulate Sounds and Letters, and the Voices and Notes of Beasts and Birds. Wee have certaine Helps, which sett to the Eare doe further the Hearing greatly. Wee have also diverse Strange and Artificial Eccho's, Reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it; And some that give back the voice Louder then it came, some Shriller, and some Deeper; Yea some rendering the Voice, Differing in the Letters or Articulate Sound, from that they receyve. Wee have also meanes to convey sounds in Trunks and Pipes, in strange Lines, and Distances.


- Sir Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis, 1624


Diane Keaton mentioned to Woody Allen in "Play It Again, Sam," that the greatest achievements of each age are reflected in its arts. Yet, throughout the ages, the arts have been constantly attacked by churches, political leaders, and an unenlightened public. New developments in music and the arts were not always immediately accepted. In fact, skepticism and distrust were often the first reactions. Music, because of its rapid development during and since the middle ages, has always been in the forefront of controversy. How many people in 1624 could understand any of what Sir Francis Bacon described in his work, "The New Atlantis." His description of music and musical instruments may be more analogous to a music studio of today then of a school of music then.


Down through the ages, rules were constantly being placed on artists and musicians as to how they would play, what they would play, and what they would play it on. New developments in musical instruments, the tones they produced, and the style of the new music very often met with negative reactions and sometimes with hostility.


"Experimental" music is not a product of the Twentieth Century. Every new development in music, whether a composition or a new instrument, breaks ground in one generation so as to be acceptable in the next. Each beginning was an experiment, and still is.


One generation after another has its own forms of rebellion to the teachings and laws of their fathers. Every society has a frustrated and/or angry young person in it who has an idea in his head to change or alter that which he is uncomfortable with. Usually this frustration or anger is the result of restrictions established by the political and religious leaders as well as fellow artists who have made their marks in an acceptable form of expression and are comfortable in their security.


During the Middle Ages the church ruled the arts. A style of music called plainsong served the main role in church music and was generally sung unaccompanied. During this period, musical instruments were considered the work of the devil and forbidden in the church, even though rhythm and percussion instruments had been popular a short time before.


Being forced out of the church and into the streets freed the musicians and instrument builders of the churches' restrictions. Development was now able to proceed rapidly. While the church performed chants in modal scales (Ionian, Aeolian, Mixolydian, et al.), secular music made great strides in polyphony.


Throughout history France has always been slightly ahead in musical development, and in the 13th Century became the center of successful experimentation directed fully toward exploring rhythmic possibilities. Partly due to the interest this generated, the instruments of music slowly worked their way back into the church and popular acceptability. Convents began to echo with the haunting sounds of the Trombe Marina (trumpet marine), sometimes called the nun's fiddle. It was a large one stringed, bowed instrument with a vibrating bridge set in motion by the string's vibrations; only the harmonics were sounded. Because of religious references to the trumpet, the churches followed the convents by substituting the soft trumpet-like sound of the trombe marina with the loud calls of brass horns, later to be replaced by the aural spectacle of the great organs.


Once again music was accepted for the lives of the common man. Once again artists and musicians felt repressed by the limitations set upon them.


The "Age of Reason," the 18th Century, was perhaps the most productive and most innovative artistic era in our history. For once, advancement in the arts and sciences was not frowned upon and many great thinkers became popular before their deaths instead of after, as is so often the case. Voltaire, Franklin, Blake, Rousseau, all obtained success in their own time. Bach and Vivaldi created pieces of such emotion as to skirt the edge of acceptability and yet were praised for their contributions, even though a few years before many of the "notes" they used were forbidden. The church once called certain notes the "devil's scale." Now the force and nature of the new music was believed to be the force of God himself.

The violin makers of Cremona became sponsored by many of Italy's rulers and their craft flourished. Only a few years before, the violin was unacceptable and was first described as having a sound similar to animals in pain and would never replace the viola d'gamba, which during its development a hundred years earlier was described in nearly the same terms.


The ending of the "Age of Reason" seemed to end reason itself. Condemnation of the new musics was once again taught by the church and politicians, and the suppression begun then is still being felt today.


With the coming of electricity came the chance to explore new avenues of expression. As technological minds created new media, so did the musical minds put them to use.


Professor Thaddeus Cahill of New York developed the Telharmonium in 1906. Based on his rotating electromagnetic generator of 1897, he intended the tones to be transmitted over telephone wires, but this did not prove feasible. It also did not prove to be very portable since its weight was several tons.


A more portable electronic instrument came about in 1928 in France when Maurice Martenot invented the Ondes musicales, or the Ondes Martenot as it is known in this country. Maurice Martenot was born in Paris on October 14, 1898. He studied piano, cello, and composition at the Paris Conservatory. He first presented his Ondes Musicales on April 20, 1928, when he soloed in Levidis's Poeme Symphonique conducted by Rhene-Baton. Martenot's sister, Ginette, became the leading performer on the instrument in the 1930's.


In the 1940's, Boulez also became known as a performer on the Ondes Martenot and later wrote a quartet for the instrument in 1945.

The definition of the Ondes Martenot from Sibyl Marcuse's Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary states that it is a monophonic, nonimitative electrophonic instrument of the electronic type. The tone is generated by the heterodyne action between a fixed and a variable radio-frequency oscillator, the latter being controlled by: 1) a seven-octave keyboard, and 2) relative proximity of the player's hand to a horizontally stretched cord.


The Ondes Martenot is still in use around the world today. Calvin Hampton wrote a piece, "Triple Play," for the Ondes Martenot and two pianos in the late 1960's, and the sound has inspired the setting of the moods of countless science-fiction films over the years.

Popularity of electronic instruments in the past has always been elusive, but a few times the electronic media was represented by a name artist playing known music--usually classical.


Clara Rockmore became the premiere artiste of the electronic music medium by mastering the Theremin, an instrument standing about three and a half feet high, eighteen inches wide, and a foot deep. A vertical pitch antennae rod is located in the upper right hand corner of the cabinet, and a tubular loop for controlling volume emerges from the cabinet's side. To determine the pitch of the instrument's tone, the player varies the distance between his right hand and the pitch antennae. When the instrument is properly tuned, the pitch goes from lower than two octaves below middle C when the player's right hand is back at his shoulder, to approximately 2 1/2 octaves above middle C when the player's hand barely touches the pitch antennae. To determine the loudness of the instrument's tone, the play varies the distance between his left hand and the middle of the volume antennae. Maximum loudness occurs when the had is removed from the antennae; complete silence occurs when the hand is an inch or so from the loop.


Leon Theremin and Clara Rockmore, native of Russia, arrived in the United States in 1927 after lengthy and successful tours of Europe--Theremin with his new invention, and Clara Rockmore with her violin.


Clara Rockmore was a true child prodigy, with absolute pitch and an uncanny sense of music. Her career as a violinist began when her uncle gave her a quarter-size violin for her fourth birthday. At the age of five she was admitted as an exceptional student to the Imperial Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg. She was the youngest musician ever to have received this honor. At the age of nine she received permission from the Russian government to leave her native land in order to concertize. Clara and her sister, Nadia, embarked on an extensive tour of Europe.


Ms. Rockmore gave her first solo Theremin concert at New York's Town Hall on October 30, 1934. Again accompanied by her sister, Nadia, Clara played on the instrument that had been made to her specifications by Professor Theremin himself. Her technique coordinated precise arm and finger movements. She played trills and pitch leaps with unprecedented accuracy. Her articulation took flowing phrases and rapid staccato passages in equal stride. And her solid, natural musicianship held the audience spellbound, transcending the novelty aspects of the medium.

During the twenty years or so following her Theremin debut, Clara Rockmore toured widely, performing as guest soloist with major symphony orchestras, and made three coast-to-coast tours, sharing the program with the famous singer Paul Robeson. On several occasions she performed under the baton of Leopold Stokowski, one of her most enthusiastic supporters.


In the late 1970's, Ms. Rockmore retired from active concertizing and with her went the most active playing of the Theremin. However, she still maintains much enthusiasm for the Theremin and frequently points out that today's "space-conscious" listeners are interested in electronic music, and as she says, "what is more natural to electronic music than a space-controlled instrument."


Another generation or two has gone by and all those strange sounds have become familiar through the use of analog and digital music synthesizers. Through the works of people like Clara Rockmore, acceptance of new art forms is possible. Now, the current musical trend is comfortable with the electronic medium and the nearly infinite number of sounds we are capable of producing.


But what is next? What new musical development will come about that we dislike and the next generation will adore? Undoubtedly, human taste will keep stair-stepping upward with periods of non-acceptance, periods of adjustment, and periods of acceptance. It has always happened in the past, it will always continue to happen.


As Carlos Chavez said in 1936, "the electronic apparatus of sound production will facilitate the constant and inevitable development of music in its own unique expression...and will provide the medium through which music will find new forms of circulation."


Fifty years later, we see this coming true.


What is the next step? Who knows what we will be playing and listening to fifty years from now.


The story continues, perhaps acoustically, perhaps electronically, or perhaps in some way as yet undeveloped.



Austin, William. Music in the 20th Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966.

Chavez, Carlos. Toward a New Music: Music and Electricity. New York: De Capo Press, 1975 (Reprint of 1937 ed.).

Larousse Encyclopedia of Music. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1975.

Marcuse, Sibyl. Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.

Moog, Robert. Record Jacket Notes. "Clara Rockmore, Virtuoso, Theremin." New York: Delos Records, 1975.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: MacMillan Publishing Limited, 1980.

Rhea, Thomas L. PhD Thesis, "The Evolution of Electronic Musical Instruments in the United States." Nashville: George Peabody College, 1972.

Salzman, Eric. Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1967.