The Lives and Loves of Lena Gaunt

Tracy Farr

Published by Aardvaark Bureau, 1 January 2016

312pp, paperback, £8.99

Click here to buy this book

 

Longlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Lena – aka Dame Lena Gaunt, musician, octogenarian and junkie – is Music’s Most Modern Musician; the first theremin player of the twentieth century, and Tracy Farr’s acclaimed debut novel is her fictional memoir.

Documentary filmmaker Mo Patterson approaches veteran musician Lena Gaunt after watching her play at a festival in Perth: her first performance in 20 years. While initially suspicious of Mo’s intentions and reluctant to have her privacy invaded, Lena finds herself sharing stories from her past.

‘Delightful’, ‘fascinating’, ‘exquisite’ – the reviews for this compelling first novel have been outstanding. Now, bookoxygen readers have a unique opportunity to sample the novel for themselves, a book which traces Lena’s life, characterized by the pull of the sea, the ebb and flow of passion and loss, and her enduring relationship with that extraordinary instrument, the theremin.

Now read on...

 

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Theremin

 

All of us are old at this hour, on this beach; the heads in the water are all grey, including mine. Mostly we move gently, we older, early-rising swimmers, the water buoying us in our slow choreography. But if we’re all old and stale, still the water smells fresh – somehow like watermelon, and salt. It’s glorious, the water in the morning, when it’s calm like this, when you can just bob on the surface, like a seal, watching. How well it makes me feel, how calm; how light and how heavy at the same time: like heroin – a little bit like heroin.

The waves this morning are gentle, lacking the roll and boom of the afternoon, when the breeze is up and the swell catches and the great mass of water feels deeply oceanic. Now it’s silky, almost still. A little wave forms and moves towards me. I concentrate on watching its path, its sinusoidal shape. It breaks on me, gently, and I let it push me under the water, then I push back up and my head breaks the surface.

Looking down – through air, through water – I see myself distorted, my black swimsuit the negative of the pale thin legs extending long below it, and I feel disconnected from the body and legs I see under the water. From this perspective, I look the same as I’ve always looked; the water washes the years away, or at least hides them under its surface.

I move my arms in wide arcs in front of me, pushing water out to the sides and back again. I can feel the stretch in my shoulders, the tendons tense and twist. Bubbles form up my arms, trapped in the tiny pale hairs, tickling like the bead in champagne. Moving my fingers in the water effects tiny changes in the waves that effect bigger movements. Action at a distance; just like playing the theremin.

Muscle memory takes over from my conscious brain as my fingers and hands move under the water’s cover. I know the movements, not just practised for tonight’s performance, but from a lifetime of playing. Under the surface of the water my arms have dropped into the position they adopt to play – right hand raised around shoulder height; left hand dropped nearer to my waist. My hands too are in place – the left hand palm-down, flattened, to stroke volume from the theremin’s metal loop; the right with fingers pinching lightly in towards thumb to form an eye, to pluck and twitch in the tiniest precise movements, like pulling the thinnest silk thread, a filament too fine to see.

I let myself sink under the water. Expelling air from my mouth and nose, I hear the wave forms and harmonic intervals of Aetherwave Suite rise to the surface in the bubbles, the sound waves mixing in the air and water, undulating, soothing, readying me for the performance tonight.

Music from a theremin can sound like a human voice, or an electronic scream; like an alien spaceship imagined for a B-movie soundtrack, or like the low thrum and moan of a cello, warm with wood and resin and gut. The best players can tease all of these sounds – more – from the wood and wire and electricity that is a theremin, form a limitless range of notes and sounds. And I am the best player – after all these years, old woman that I am, not bettered. I, Lena Gaunt, am a legend.

 

The inaugural Transformer Festival has been keenly anticipated, written up in The Wire and other music magazines, discussed in earnest tones. A music festival offering the best electronica and eclectica that 1991 can deliver, I’m told. I understand I fall into both categories.

I first heard of Transformer nearly a year ago via an invitation from its organizer, Terence Meelinck, to play at his festival up in the Perth Hills. His pleading, his enthusiasm for the music and the instrument – and, yes, I admit it, his flattery – won me over. And so, here I am, committed – for better or worse – to play tonight at this festival of Terence’s. There is my face staring at me from the programme. I look so old amongst the other faces, so old.

I close the programme and place it on the table in front of me, in the campervan that is my accommodation for the night. The van is tiny, but adequate for one. Thankfully I do not have to share it; fame and age guarantee certain comforts. It is parked in a group of vans, large and small, circled at the edge of the festival’s compound, far enough for the music from the stage to reach only as a slightly dulled thudding, distorted through the evening air.

I have already dressed for the stage: silken grey trousers, voluminous and flowing, each leg so wide it could double as a skirt. A simple black tunic, sleeveless, leaves my arms free; its shape reminds me of a mediaeval knight’s dress, appropriate for battle. I take a mirror and lipstick from the make-up case next to me on the divan, apply dark red to cover my old lips. My hair is short, white-grey, platinum-grey; it catches the overhead light, like velvet. I stare at myself in the mirror: I will do.

I sit on the divan. There is nothing more I can do to prepare for my performance. I place my feet flat on the floor in their rubber soles, rest my hands on my knees, breathe deeply to still my body. I think of the beach this morning, the gentle waves, the watermelon scent, muscle memory; my fingers twitch lightly on my knees.

There is a knock at the door of the van and I open it to see a young man, the minder Terence has assigned to me. I lock the van on the way out and hand him the key as we slide into the car to slowly drive the short distance to the stage.

Steroidalab have finished their set and are backstage when we arrive. They’re in a post-performance huddle, a closed unit as I walk past them at the top of the scaffolding steps that lead up to the stage from ground level. The crew are on stage, busy, packing away synthesizers, computers, microphones, until the stage is almost cleared. I stand where the stage manager tells me to, out of the way, but ready.

I hear Terence on stage. He starts speaking and, even though I am waiting in the wings, even though I know I am about to walk on to the stage and perform, it takes a beat before I realize: he is talking about me.

 

She has been an extraordinary part of the electronic music scene since before most of us were born. She was at the birth of electronic music sixty years ago. She’s travelled the world performing on the instrument that started it all, the theremin. She reminds us that nothing we do is new. She’s playing for us tonight on irreplaceable vintage electronic equipment. We’re truly blessed to have had her back in this country for two decades, and we’re honoured to have her here to play for us. Join with me in welcoming to the stage the remarkable, the beautiful, our very own, Dame (beat) Lena (beat) Gaaaaauuunt.

 

And so I breathe in deeply and step onto the stage to deafening, thunderous applause.

I walk from the wings, legs pushing my trousers to swirl and billow and sweep the floor. When I reach the spotlight, I bow from the waist, my black tunic swaying, the heavy pendant around my neck hanging to almost touch the surface of the stage in front of me. I raise my head, square my shoulders. The audience is invisible behind the bright spot that shines, reaching in behind my eyes, almost blinding, almost hurting. The spotlight widens around me, my cue to raise my arm to gesture, as if to welcome another performer onto the stage. A second spot appears at stage left and, as the light reveals it, I raise my arm towards my theremin as if in a distant embrace. The audience roars; they stamp, they hoot, they call like cats, like cattle, like owls, like mad things. This is what they’ve come to hear, to see: this instrument, this tangle of wire I have played for so long, made for me all those years ago, not a museum piece but a working musical instrument, that has seen more and lived longer than any of them; nearly as old as me, it is my darling, and I play it like a lover I cannot touch.

I raise my hand, palm flat towards the audience, and slowly, reluctantly, they quieten. I start to move across the stage to the theremin, my arm outstretched towards it. A layer of air exists between my skin and its wire, wood and glass. A low hum issues from it, the sum of the capacitance of my body, its effect on the electric currents.

I steady myself behind the theremin, and the spotlight tightens its focus, excludes all else into darkness. I raise my hands again – one to the loop, one to the wire – and hear the deep low that is almost the sound of a cello and yet is its own thing, its own sound; this deep lowing issues from the theremin, is amplified and channelled to the speakers behind me, swells to fill the night air and I once again wring magic from the wires by simply plucking and stroking my fingers in the aether.

 

The echoes of the last notes of the final movement of Aetherwave Suite hang above the crowd for only a moment; that quiet, magic moment when the sound is ringing in their ears and they are stretching to hear the low notes rise and fall in the still, dark air. Then the applause, jolting and unmusical, starts and builds in wave upon wave of sound, directed back towards the stage, to me.

I bow low, my arms hanging loose, my hands almost touching the floor, then I rise, straighten. I lift my arms to the side, to the front, as if to acknowledge the audience, but really I want to acknowledge it all – the night, the audience, the music, the air that carries the sound and hums it back in endless loops of wave upon wave of glorious, vibrating music. The audience’s applause and shouting form a thunder that hurts my ears. I raise my arms, my hands drawing through the night air, raise my hands up and bring my palms together, draw them to my face so that the fingertips touch at my lips. I hold the pose – namaste – for a beat, two, three, four, nod my head, drop my hands to my sides, and walk from the stage.

 

Satisfied after hearing the much awaited Aetherwave Suite, the audience lets me retire – without an encore – with grace, with dignity, from the night’s performance; how could they in good conscience call an eighty-year-old woman back onto the stage at this hour of the night? They’ve watched me standing, arms raised, engineered, my whole body channelling the music. They know not to expect me back on stage; I know they know. I can hear the crowd, can imagine them start to turn away from the stage, to fragment into smaller groups, to turn from being a mob, a hive, to individuals humming with the energy of what they’ve just heard and seen, ready to reform into a single mass of audience as soon as the Gristmonger boys step onto the stage.

Backstage my minder meets me, ushers me past the members of Gristmonger bouncing in the wings, leads me away through snaking leads and amps, down the scaffolding steps. People mill, congratulate me; I beg off, so very tired, please forgive me. Of course, of course; goodnight. Thank you, Dame Lena! Thank you so much! I am led to a car, handed into the rear seat. The minder drives me back; it is not far, maybe half a mile, but he drives at no more than a brisk walking speed to pass slowly through the crowds, between the tents and vehicles, back to my campervan for the night. I step up to the door and unlock it with the key the minder hands me.

From the top of the step, framed in the doorway, I thank him, remembering that his name is a pretty name, Jasper. Yes, I am fine. No, I don’t need food – it is late, I have tea, I will sleep; thank you, Jasper, thank you. Goodnight. We nod at each other, smiling, backgrounded by the sound of the audience roaring, music swelling in the distance. As Jasper turns to leave, I close the door, lock it, and the noise of the crowd, of Gristmonger’s music, fades to a hum.

At the tiny bench that passes for a kitchen I fill an electric jug with water from a plastic bottle, flick the switch on the jug and, as it clicks and mutters, I take a teabag – Russian Caravan, appropriately – from the box on the bench and drop it into a mug. The jug boils within a minute; I pour water over the teabag, and the smoky steam rises, whetting my appetite. I transfer the mug of tea to the table, then settle myself, move a cushion behind my back for comfort, for support, for balance. I breathe in then out with a heavy expiration of breath, my palms resting on my knees, feet flat on the floor, back straight against the cushions on the divan.

From the hard-shelled make-up case next to me I take a small metal vessel shaped like a squat teapot, and place it on the low table in front of me. I take a silver tin, prise the lid off, and place lid and tin next to the pot. There are a dozen capsules in the tin, arrayed as if in some form of code, or like a photograph I recall seeing in an encyclopaedia, of bacteria under a microscope. I withdraw one capsule, twist it in a quick, familiar movement and pour the pale powder into the pot, place the lid back on the tin, the lid on the pot. There: ready.

I have only to turn slightly to my left to light the small gas burner on the kitchen bench; I can reach it without moving from my seat on the divan. I place the pot on the burner, over the hissing blue flame, and wait, not long, anticipating. I know just how long it will take to heat; can hear, almost feel, the changes occur within the vessel. And when the heat is at that point, just at that particular point, I flick off the gas, lift the pot down to rest on the trivet in front of me and, blocking my left nostril with my fingers, I inhale with my right nostril over the spout – close to the spout, but not touching it – with the smoke from the heroin spiralling up, filling the gap between my nose and the vessel. I inhale lightly at first, then deep, deep, filling myself.

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