Published September 6, 2017
With her theremin, Hekla pulls haunting electronic music out of thin air. Named after its Russian inventor, Léon Theremin, this futuristic looking apparatus conveys a certain eerie timbre, often associated with sci-fi or spooky goings-on. Frequently used in movie scores—and, famously, in Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’—it has recently featured increasingly in avant garde and contemporary electronic music.
Hekla Magnúsdóttir seems to feel more at ease discussing her instrument and the music she creates with it than she does talking about herself. As she shows me the various gadgets in her Berlin home studio—including three Moogs and a custom-built theremin—she switches one on and plays the lovely hook from Ellý Vilhjálmsdóttir’s ‘Sveitin milli sanda’ to check if everything is working as it should, then lets me have a try.
“The right antenna is the pitch,” she explains. “The closer you are to the antenna, the higher the note is, and the deepest note is by your body. You tune it to your torso every time you play. The left antenna is the volume. If you put your hand down there’s silence, so you can separate the notes, but usually you’ll slide between them.” I make an honest attempt to play, but it sounds like feral cats in different stages of dying. I quickly give up.
Rowdy and vulnerable
“Training the ears is the most important thing, because there’s nothing physical to touch,” Hekla explains, reassuringly. On stage, performing songs from her forthcoming solo album, she can look like a sorceress, conjuring music from this mysterious box. “If you’re playing with a band, you can technically wear headphones and preview the pitch so you hear the note ahead of everyone else,” she says. ”If you’re coming in after a long silence, you’ll know what note to hit. It’s just not as cool!”
She recently had one of her theremins overhauled, as years of red wine stains, pizza grease and chewing gum had ravaged its outer casing. After all, she’s also a member of Bárujárn—a surf rock outfit known for their rowdy gigs in sweaty bars. The group has a new album on the way, to which Hekla is contributing from across the North Sea. “We’re making a conceptual surf symphony, consisting of allegro, adagio, minuet and rondo sections,” she says. “It’s gonna be epic. Being in a band is such a good time—the company, the partying and the support. There’s less pressure; you’re not on stage by yourself, vulnerable.”
As a kid, Hekla started out learning the cello. When introduced to the theremin by an artist friend Darr Tah Lei, she was intrigued. “A few years later I saw one in a shop and bought it on the spot,” she says. “I quit music school, joined Bárujárn, and partied. I didn’t take it very seriously. But after I started studying musical composition at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, I got the courage to do more stuff by myself, and leave the safety of a band. I put the effort in, finding my own soundscape. I didn’t play for anyone else, just myself.”
A stew of noise
During her studies, she gradually made the instrument the focus of her compositions, sometimes playing dueling theremins with her teacher, Jesper Pedersen. “I think there’s rising interest in the instrument, and a lot going on in the world of theremin,” Hekla jokes. “Maybe it’s because the instrument has so much left unexplored. And playing it, playing the air—the concentration involved. Each and every hair on the body has to remain still. You need to watch your breathing and be self-aware, almost in stasis.”
This goes for live performances as well, especially with a band like Bárujárn. “The people around you have to be still as well,” she adds. “If you’re playing a concert and somebody swings a guitar past you, it can mess things up. It was hard at the old Bar 11, playing surf rock with a mosh pit around me, but I just had to run with it. If you’re nervous and start shaking, it doesn’t make for nice vibrato.”
As a solo artist, Hekla has released two “mini-albums,” both available on her Bandcamp. Her upcoming album has been a long time in the works. She promises a couple of singles this autumn, with the album to follow, in what she says will be an exploration of what the theremin can offer—everything from classical to abstract noise. “I wanted to keep it separate, have one noise project, and another one with vocals,” she explains. “But it all came together in a big stew and I think it has a good flow to it. My last album was more abstract than the first one, which had more identifiable melodies. On the new one, I’ll include more vocals and mix my own voice with theremin choirs, boiling it together.”
She tends to test her new music live, including a looped version of the classic hymn ‘Heyr himna smiður,’ which has a tricky four-part harmony. “It was my impossible project, getting all the voices to sync,” Hekla admits. “It came together at my last concert. I’ve been moving away from having pre-recorded stuff; I try to create everything in front of the audience. It’s fun to get rid of the computer, but also a little shaky, like if I’m trying to loop a theremin part and make a little mistake, I can mess up the harmony and then I slowly die inside.”
Sound, then vision
On Hekla’s website there’s set of cryptic drawings that almost resembles some ancient calligraphy. These graphic notations are Hekla’s visualisation of her art, as it looks when she’s playing. “I sometimes doodle like this when I’m improvising,” she explains. “I decided to make a little book which fits on top of the theremin.” You can download it and try yourself—the doodles are open to interpretation. “I’d love to do more versions of ambiguous theremin sheet music,” she continues. “It’s perfect for the theremin to have graphic notation, because it’s like you’re drawing on air.”
Hekla’s music will soon be given further visual expression in the soundtrack of a new French film, directed by Bertrand Mandico. ‘Les Garçons Sauvages’ (‘The Wild Boys’), premieres at the Venice International Film Critics Week. It’s the story of five adolescents on the island of La Réunion who commit a vicious crime. Hekla was asked to create the score, along with Pierre Desprats, after meeting the director in Iceland, where he was filming material for one of his short films.
“The members of Bárujárn were supposed to be extras in the short film,” she says. “We drove out to the countryside and he took one glance at us and said no. He didn’t like the look of us at all! I guess we looked shady. Later, after he checked out music I had sent him, he asked me to do this. I’ve been sending him a crazy amount of music to work with and the film has been a long time coming. I’m very excited.”
Since moving to Berlin last November with her husband and their newborn son, Hekla has worked as a session musician and theremin teacher, in addition to performing live with compatriot Indriði, and recording for her own and Bárujárn’s albums. “We wanted to be somewhere that’s like, a hundred thousand times cheaper than Iceland,” she jokes. “We can make ends meet, the weather’s nice, the beer is cheap. You can do things without all your money going towards rent.”
That’s about as personal as our chat gets, as she mainly prefers to touch on the subject of her music, which ironically is created without touch. She describes how she can spend hours improvising and recording. “After that, I sit by the computer long into the night, finding the details, modulating the sound,” Hekla concludes. “People know the classical and sci-fi type sounds of the theremin, how it’s used as a gimmick. But there are so many possibilities. It offers things that people have yet to discover.”