Earlier in 2015, at the Sónar Reykjavík festival, a solo musician known simply as Hekla walked out into the dimly lit crucible of Harpa’s Kaldalón theatre. Beginning to play wordlessly in near-darkness, and using just her voice, a couple of effects pedals and a theremin, she proceeded to enchant the rapt crowd with a series of eerie, textural compositions.
Hekla created an evocative, otherworldly atmosphere that seemed to creep between the audience members like curious tendrils, wrapping the listeners in sound. After half an hour that seemed to pass in an instant, she was gone as suddenly as she arrived. But the feeling of her music seemed to linger on in the mind, like a memory of being “somewhere else,” far from the familiarity of everyday life.
Several months later, I sit down for coffee with the mild-mannered Hekla, and wonder why I haven’t seen any shows advertised since. “I just don’t play much!” she smiles. “I’ve never gone out looking for gigs, but I made a resolution that when people ask me to play, I will say yes. It’s an important part of doing music, I think.”
Hekla first started experimenting with sound eight years ago, culminating in a six-track EP that was self-released last summer. “I put some songs up on Bandcamp,” she explains, “without really telling anyone about it. But people found out about it anyway, and it encouraged me to make more music. It was all an accident, really.”
Hekla’s main inspiration comes from playing the theremin, an antique oddity of an instrument invented by Russian innovator Léon Theremin in 1920. Nine years later, the theremin became the first electronic instrument ever to be mass-produced. It was seen as a futuristic marvel at the time, due to an unorthodox playing technique that involves the musician generating sound by moving their hands in the air around two antennae. This magical-seeming process, combined with its intriguing sound, still fascinates composers and avant-garde musicians in the present day.
“I’m self-taught basically,” says Hekla. “I would just practice by myself. You play the theremin without touching it, using one hand to control the volume and the other to control the pitch. You have to learn to balance the two. My writing process is really about discovery and improvisation—I play and play for a long time and record it, and patch the sounds together. It’s more about sound than composition, maybe.”
Hekla adapts and expands on the sound of the theremin, putting it through effects and bending it into different shapes. At times, her theremin playing can sound like an operatic voice, a deep, bassy thrum, or an atonal violin, echoing from far away.
“I like my music to be repetitive and minimal, not really with a fixed beat or anything,” she explains. “Finding new sounds and working with them, seeing where the sounds takes you, without ever really having a plan, and discovering things accidentally… something that you weren’t expecting can happen, and it can make the whole thing.”
This enjoyment of experimentation has taken Hekla’s music in different directions. She’s currently working on three distinct projects inside the whole. “Firstly, I’m working a solo album of my new songs,” she says. “Then there’s an album of traditional folk songs from Catalonia. Then there’s another album on the way, made of more noisy and experimental stuff. I don’t want to mix it all together, but I still want to do all of these different things.”
The new material will be much appreciated by Hekla’s fans, who include a growing number of Iceland’s alternative music cognoscenti. “The solo album will be called ‘Trasto’,” she says, “which is Spanish for ‘junk.’ But it also has a bit of a double meaning. Like, a person can also be a trasto. I grew up in Spain, and I’m not that confident in my Icelandic—that’s why my lyrics are either in Spanish or English.”
The sound will build on the haunting noise of her first EP. “I still mostly use theremin, and theramini,” she says, “which is a new type of theremin with a more synthy sound. Then this time I use some synths, my voice, and some beats from a drum machine. I used to make rhythms from the theremin’s microsounds, but it took a very long time, so now I’m using the drum machine. But it’s still very minimalistic—very slow and atmospheric. It’s nice to layer and layer the music, pitch it up or down, or adjust the speed, and transform the sound into something else.”
Surf-punk and vulnerability
For all of Hekla’s shyness, there’s a bravery in what she does, both creatively and on a personal level. “The new album is me stepping out of my comfort zone,” she says. “On the EP, there was only one song with lyrics. The new album has only one instrumental. But it’s more just about blending vocals in—I like foggy, atmospheric sounds.”
I wonder where Hekla sees herself— whether she feels connected to a wider scene of avant-garde, drone or experimental music. “Actually I don’t listen to much of that,” she smiles. “I just listen to pop and Linkin Park, like when I was thirteen! I don’t know where my music fits into all that. Maybe I should open for the Backstreet Boys or something.”
When it comes to the harrowing process of stepping onto the stage, Hekla learned a lot as a member of the surf-punk band Bárujárn, including how to maintain her personal (and theremin) space during a stage invasion. “I used to get really drunk before Bárujárn concerts,” she laughs. “But I don’t get so nervous now. Playing alone can make you feel more vulnerable, but then, there’s no frontman in this kind of music. I don’t have to say: ‘Hey, how are y’all doing?’ Instead, there’s some lights, and a lot of fog, and I’m just back there, like a shadow in the dark.”