From Iceland — Drawing Voices In The Air: Hekla Magnúsdóttir On Her New Album, The Theremin, And The Future

Drawing Voices In The Air: Hekla Magnúsdóttir On Her New Album, The Theremin, And The Future

Drawing Voices In The Air: Hekla Magnúsdóttir On Her New Album, The Theremin, And The Future

Published November 4, 2022

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson & Andie Sophia Fontaine

Hekla Magnúsdóttir welcomes us into her charming home in Reykjavík, where we are immediately greeted by an adorable (albeit bitey) kitten named Vindur. She apologises for the kitten’s impropriety, but we hardly notice the dashing and lunging of the little beast, as it’s clear from the first few seconds of being in her home: an artist lives here.

For all her unique talent, it is difficult to find much coverage of her in the Icelandic press, but that may soon change with the advent of her new album Xiuxiuejar (Catalan for “whisper”) which is already making waves in the press overseas.

How was this musician drawn to the theremin? What can it do that no other instrument can? And what magic will she have in store for us in the months to come?

Breaking the waves

The inspiration to even begin playing theremin came from her hearing the works of Clara Rockmore, a Lithuanian violinist and one of the first performers of the instrument.

“The sounds are just so unique,” Hekla says. “It sounds both ancient and futuristic at the same time. It’s like such a magical voice, and I was just very drawn to this sound.”

When most folks hear theremin, it is usually within the context of B-movie sci fi or horror. Hekla recognises this, but saw the instrument’s potential almost immediately.

“I feel like for being such an exciting instrument, it has been boxed in a lot into kind of gimmicky sounds,” she says. “A lot of playing spooky, jokeystuff. But there’s just so many more sounds to it than that, especially with plugins and pedals and changing the sounds in other ways. There are just endless possibilities. It’s so exciting to hear something that you haven’t heard before.”

The collection

We are invited upstairs to see this instrument in action and count four different versions of the theremin in the cozy loft-like space: one of rich varnished wood with brass rods, another of white plastic in the shape of a UFO, and another very simple black box, but the one Hekla demonstrates for us with is a sleek, modern theremin with a much larger body than the others. It also has more knobs. That’s about all the difference I can discern as an uninitiated person.

On the floor are numerous effects pedals, which help create some of the otherworldly sounds one can hear on Xiuxiuejar—Vindur is especially fascinated with these.

There is a visual aspect to just watching a theremin performance that is undeniable. As one hand controls pitch and the other volume, the player almost seems to be drawing the music in the air, or performing a dance from an ancient, long forgotten and possibly extraterrestrial culture.

Hekla got her musical start with cello, so I asked if she found these instruments comparable in the sense that neither of them show the musician “press here for major C”.

“The muscle memory of it is similar,” she says. “It definitely helps to know how to play an instrument like that before. It’s also just built so much on hearing because you’re not touching anything. So it’s just about listening very carefully.”

Nothing compares to Moog

Hekla also points out that both cello and theremin are two instruments often compared to the human voice, but she isn’t content to accept the waveforms that come out of the instrument alone—not all of the time, anyway.

“I’m really just attempting new things and trying out lots of different sounds of what I can do with the theremin.”

In addition to the pedals—the bass distortion pedal, which “makes your stomach rumble”, is one of the clear favourites—Hekla will also manipulate the sound at the source.

“You can connect it to an iPad and create your own sounds,” she says. “You can also change the filters and the signal, the waveform, so it sounds more soft or less soft.”

This brings to mind the early days of synthesizers, when pioneers such as Wendy Carlos were creating entire symphony orchestras out of manipulating sound waves with machines the size of Dodge Caravans. Yet here, Hekla is capable of doing the same with a few more reasonably sized devices in a West Reykjavík home. That these theremins are made by synth pioneer company Moog only underscores this comparison.

Surf’s up

Like a lot of trained musicians, for Hekla too there was a moment when music went from something she was studying to something that became purely fun, and for her that was her time in the psychedelic surf-rock band Bárujárn (the Icelandic word for corrugated iron, a common material for older Icelandic homes, and literally means “wave iron”).

“That was the first time I really felt like this could be fun,” she says. “It’s not like practising alone at home or something. But I don’t recall a moment thinking ‘I want to make music.’ I just never thought of not doing it.”

While Bárujárn is no more (or on hiatus, depending on who you ask), Hekla’s experience with the band would prove to be the impetus for striking out on her own.

How do you write sound?

She dove further into the theremin at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, where she also studied contemporary music composition. On that note, I cannot help but ask: how does one write compositions for the theremin? Is there even sheet music for it? What does it look like?

Hekla is very pleased to show what these compositions look like and honestly, I don’t know what else I expected. They look more like abstract expressionist works in themselves than musical notation. Swirls, stacks of horizontal lines, overlapping peaks and valleys, all of which undoubtedly make perfect sense of the performer.

Strangely, the longer you look at them, the more sense they make. Without even knowing how these drawings translate into hand positions for the theremin player, you can at least feel the mood of the composition they are meant to represent. It brings to mind the anecdote that Paul McCartney cannot read or write music, but does draw compositions. For all intents and purposes, musical notation is effectively “drawing music” anyway, so Hekla employing her own dots, lines, swirls and squiggles is not as unorthodox as one might at first think.

Evolution

Hekla released her self-titled debut in 2014, which was shortlisted by the Kraumur Music Awards as one of the best albums of that year. It’s the album where Hekla first made her mark as a solo artist promising bigger and better things to offer the Icelandic music scene. Even so, it’s an album she has difficulty listening to now.

“I listened to it today, and I have a hard time because it’s so different,” Hekla says. “ I’m really just attempting new things and trying out lots of different sounds of what I can do with the theremin. So it was more of an exploration.”

This exploration was not an easy time for Hekla, but in the end, it led to more satisfying results.

“I was so stressed out trying all these different things, just trying to find my voice,” she says. “And then I finally found it. I was so relieved. And now I can use my voice.”

“[The new album is] really, really dark and cold and windy. But there’s still some warmth in the sounds, enveloping you in a good way because the sunlight is increasing. It’s just still very dark.”

This brings to mind a conflict I have often noticed between experimental musicians and their fans: the fans enjoy the earlier, more free-wheeling works more, while the musicians are just happy to have finally found their sound. Has Hekla encountered this as well?

“I’ve gotten lots of good feedback from the new stuff,” she says, after a moment’s consideration. “I’m just also my own worst critic. I have a hard time listening to my stuff.”

The horror

Hekla continued working in her own understated fashion, releasing her second album, Á, in 2018. It’s on this album where one can truly hear Hekla beginning to expand the limits of what the theremin is capable of, but it was 2020 EP Sprungur that really caught our attention.

“I was thinking more of entering some kind of alternate horror dimension or something,” she told the Grapevine at the time about this EP. “I wanted it to be…like an imaginary horror movie soundtrack.”

Xiuxiuejar, by contrast, she characterises as having “a January sound. Really, really dark and cold and windy. But there’s still some warmth in the sounds, enveloping you in a good way because the sunlight is increasing. It’s just still very dark.”

Musicians can sometimes describe their music in obscure ways but trust us, this is actually a perfect description of the album. It is not just an album you listen to; you feel it, in your gut and in your bones, much like a dark, blisteringly cold winter day when all you want to do is curl up in a thick blanket and drift off to the sound of the howling wind outside.

How does one noodle on theremin?

Few musicians sit down with a stack of sheet paper and just write a new song; most new compositions come from playing around with random notes on an instrument until something sounds good. Amongst guitar players, this is often referred to as “noodling”. I admit it’s hard for me to imagine “noodling” on a theremin so I have to ask how her compositions come about. The answer: loops.

“I like to improvise some loop for a long time,” Hekla says. “And then you just add layers of notes. You can then make chords if you’re looping like that. And if you use more than one looper, you can also change it into a different loop. It’s really clever. So you end up like playing whole chords. It’s a lot of fun to just turn on the theremin and the loopers and just start like noodling around in the air. I usually start just playing really long notes, looping them on top of each other until there’s the base layer, and then I just progress on top of that. Sometimes, I really get lost in the sounds.”

Way down in a hole

Returning to her new album, Hekla elaborates on it being a January album by going a little more into the concept within.

“The first song is called ‘The Whole,’” she says. “Like, feeling whole. And the last song is ‘The Hole,’ like, deep into the hole. So it’s kind of like a journey.”

This definitely tracks with the experience of listening to Xiuxiuejar, which lures you in and leaves its mark on you, lasting long after the album has ended.

“The first song is kind of like a siren song inviting you to come into this cozy hole,” Hekla continues. “At first it seems like it’s gonna be nice down there. And then throughout the album, it’s kind of like this journey as you dig deeper and deeper into the hole. You start realising that maybe it’s not so nice down there after all. You begin to realise that the hole was just a terrible place in the end.”

She says this last part smiling, so I feel the need to ask what inspired this concept.

“It’s kind of like a mental hole. I don’t know how to say this properly,” she pauses to consider her words. “It’s kind of like you start to isolate yourself, and you’re digging into those little holes. And time passes and you’re stuck inside this hole that you create.”

We don’t need perfection

Some musicians will agonise over a single track for months or years trying to get the sound just right, to have it match exactly what they hear in their heads. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run,” for example, took eight months to complete, in large part because of his own exacting standards. This is not Hekla’s approach, because she believes the “imperfections” are part and parcel of making a song or an album great.

“I don’t want it to sound perfect,” she says. “There’s lots of noise in the background and clicks and weird sounds that I felt were fine. It doesn’t need to sound super polished and produced. I think that would just kind of kill the atmosphere of it.”

In terms of the future of theremin, Hekla now teaches the instrument to children (she is doing her masters in music teaching), and has found many kids are eager to learn this fascinating instrument. So perhaps Iceland can expect a new generation of theremin virtuosi coming up.

“It doesn’t need to sound super polished and produced. I think that would just kind of kill the atmosphere of it.”

For her own part, Hekla says she’d like to incorporate flutes into more of her works, saying that their sounds compliment the theremin well, but also: “More doom,” again with a wicked smile. “Make the sound heavier. It’s just so much fun to play concerts like that.”

And what makes them fun?

“When you have those distortion pedals, the sound is shifted and pitched down,” she says, her tone almost enraptured. “It’s even more bass and you can just feel the floor and your stomach shaking. I really like that.”

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