On their latest album, The Night Terrors return to electronic music with a focus on the beguiling possibilities of the theremin. By Fiona Murphy.

The Night Terrors’ Hypnotica

Sarah Lim and Miles Brown of The Night Terrors.
Sarah Lim and Miles Brown of The Night Terrors.
Credit: Nicole Reed

Johann Sebastian Bach is often quoted as saying: “It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” But what if you have a musical instrument that has no keys to strike, buttons to push, strings to strum or skin to beat? An instrument that doesn’t ask to be carried or cradled, whose mechanisms are almost entirely invisible?

The theremin is such an instrument – an electronic device that doesn’t require any physical contact to be played. Invented in 1919 by Russian physicist Léon Theremin, it’s the precursor to the synthesiser and produces sounds whenever its electromagnetic field is disturbed. The musician moves their body – shifting their weight, reaching and gesturing their arms, flexing and extending their fingers – to create music from air.

“The closest thing that the theremin can be compared to is singing,” says renowned Russian–British theremin player Lydia Kavina. “The theremin is played by intuition; there is no physical or visual reference to find the note – just your musical ear. The feeling is something between balancing on a rope and swimming. It constantly needs your control and coordination, but it is free and meditative at the same time.”

In short, the theremin is noxiously difficult to master. It is often described as the hardest instrument in the world to play.

This beguiling instrument features on Hypnotica – Composition for Theremin and Electronic Music Synthesizer, the fourth album from Australian electro-goth outfit The Night Terrors. It is a return to the band’s electronic focus, following their 2014 pipe organ record, Pavor Nocturnus. The album features band members Miles Brown on the theremin and Sarah Lim on synth.

In Hypnotica, the theremin has been brought to the fore. There are eight tracks, evenly split into Side I – Descent and Side II – Ascent. This framing neatly demarcates the spatial qualities of the album. There is a hypnotic patterning of highs and lows building and fading across the compositions.

The opening track, “The Stonewalkers”, begins with a deep, low-bellied beat setting a reassuringly solid foundation. The song ascends to dizzying, almost operatic highs. Without the strong, anchoring force of Lim’s synth, the theremin might feel too flighty or veer on being saccharine.

Described as a “musical chameleon”, Lim plays in several bands, including Myridian, True Believer and Earth. She has worked across countless genres, including black metal, death metal, glam, hard rock and synthwave. Her approach to the synth feels pragmatic, responsive and collaborative, giving texture, depth and nuance to the soundscape.

“Trance Encounters” has a frenetic, otherworldly feel. The theremin’s glissando effect is used sparingly enough to avoid it drifting into a clichéd sci-fi riff. This effort to expand the expression of the compositions does not go unnoticed. Clichés are hard to avoid, with the theremin perhaps best known for providing a sinister presence on film and television scores that include Spellbound (1945), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Midsomer Murders.

“I’m more interested in taking the theremin to places it hasn’t already been than reasserting its place as a novelty,” said Brown in a recent interview. While the album plainly references the usual associations of the theremin in its song titles and even cover art – namely the surreal, the hypnotic, the cosmic – the resulting work doesn’t feel gimmicky or derivative.

Brown’s ambition to expand the possibilities of the theremin is realised in the tracks “Moonrays”, “Cosmic Crush” and “Dreamboat”. The synth is coolly haunting, but when paired with the theremin the feeling becomes one of yearning and romance. Though the tracks vary in length – ranging from 2.01 minutes to 7.53 minutes – each composition feels expansive and lingering.

The musicality of Brown’s theremin playing is clear, resonant and exacting. Achieving this quality of sound is almost an athletic feat. Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore advised anyone attempting to play theremin to consider their physicality: “In playing, develop the daring of a diver in reaching wide jumps without any sliding – always aiming not only for the desired note, but the very centre of the note.”

The musician must find the centre through a combination of muscle memory and musicality. Typically, a theremin consists of a central box with two metal antennas. It gives the impression of being a strictly scientific device. The vertical antenna juts upwards in a thin, stern line. Sound increases in pitch as the musician’s hand approaches this antenna. The horizontal antenna is a curved loop of metal, which is for adjusting the volume of each sound.

“I started with this homemade theremin made out of cake tins,” says Brown when interviewed by Theremin Today. “This was 1996 in Hobart, Tasmania, the early days of the internet, and there wasn’t much information around.”

Despite starting to play the instrument when he was 17, Brown has said: “I was a total hack thereminist until I was 27. I was still a rather bad player until I was 30.” Eventually he travelled to Britain to study with Kavina. The influence of this mentorship is evident in the emotional heft of Hypnotica. There is an intensely emotive tenor to Brown’s melodies and delicate vibrato. He moves through an enormous range of octaves, layering the pure tone sounds.

Hypnotica signals a new era for The Night Terrors. They have now become one of the few bands globally creating original albums featuring the theremin as a lead instrument. This is a shift from their previous approach to composition, which used other instrumentation as a Trojan Horse to introduce audiences to the theremin.

The album, while unusual, is not a novelty. It is a carefully crafted and considered series of compositions, which leaves the listener feeling that they have taken a worthwhile leap into the mysterious and unknown.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "No strings".

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