The Sunday Fringe: WORD Christchurch was a brilliant new aspect of the festival, in partnership with radio station RDU98.5 and art space The Physics Room. The Novel and the Theremin was an intriguing and seductive kick 0ff. Tracy Farr’s book The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt tells the story of fictional theremin star Lena. We were lucky not only to have Tracy, but also John Chrisstoffels – who can play that most intriguing of instruments. Lynn Freeman of Standing Room Only on Radio New Zealand was the chair.
The theremin favours those who like to solder and tinker, as you can build your own (apparently Jaycar have a kitset you can make!) Theremins can also use transistors or valves. Apparently valves are coming back into fashion for the warmth and livingness of their sound. Robert Moog came to invent the synthesiser through building theremins (and it was a Moog that John was playing for us).
The two talked about their various introductions to the theremin via B Grade movies, tv, and seeing Pere Ubu in concert. Apparently Hitchcock movies Spellbound, and Lost Weekend both have a bit of theremin action too. At its most classical, the theremin can sound like a violin or a female voice. This is what makes it uncanny.
Tracy read a piece from the book, where an elderly Lena goes swimming and does a theremin concert. While Lena is a fictional character, there was a real life virtuoso who played with Leon Theremin himself – her name was Clara Rockmore.
Tracy imagines Lena more Tilda Swinton-like then the lady on the front cover. In her mind, the older Lena looked like Barbara Brinsley of Dunedin (you can see her in this Ageing with attitude article).
John explained the technicalities of playing the theremin – glissando, using sightlines in relations to your fingers in the air, as well as pointing out some well-known tracks. Good vibrations was a bit of a cheat because it used a theremin with a keyboard. John thinks the theremin is a wonderful accompaniment instrument, as it’s “really expressive to play with someone else, and for playing along with records”.
Tracy noted Jon Spencer’s theremin humping antics:
This was one of my favourite sessions at WORD – two engaging speakers, a keen crowd, a dollop of fantastic music – and we all got to have a play on the theremin at the end. Bravo!