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Photo courtesy of Music & Beyond.

With Thorwald Jørgensen, a sci-fi instrument shows its soulful side

By Chrissy Steinbock on July 13, 2016





I had to tell someone about this new theremin piece I’d heard. There was the theremin, of course, with effects pedals and a gorgeously spooky melody and there was a harp too. Together they told a story of evil mermaids luring sailors to their doom. But before I could go on my friend stopped me cold and asked, but do you like the sound that it makes? He’d heard the instrument used as a punch line on the Big Bang Theory and wasn’t impressed. So I sent him a video of Thorwald Jørgensen and it made him a believer. Jørgensen’s theremin has that effect on listeners. He takes this instrument known for sounding creepy in sci-fi soundtracks and shares its great potential for beauty.

I fell in love. It’s just a love thing. It’s like when you fall in love with a person and they can’t do anything wrong and they are the most beautiful and the most handsome and they are the strongest and the cutest. I have this with the theremin.

Music and Beyond invited him back this year for a full two weeks of performances from a solo recital to a children’s music expo and from dinosaurs at the Nature museum to the Diefenbunker. There’s still a chance to hear Thorwald Jørgensen at his final Music and Beyond concert, Music, Myths and Sagas on Friday July 15 at 2pm. The concert will also feature harpist Renske de Leuw and a string quartet performing a mix of forward-looking new compositions for theremin (including the mermaid one I mentioned) and more lyrical, classical pieces by Ravel and Saint-Saens.

I first met Jørgensen for an interview two years ago. The theremin was lesser known then (this was before Sean Michael’s Giller prize winning Us Conductors, a fictionalized biography of the instrument’s inventor) and with his passion and talent, Jørgensen was an ideal ambassador out to introduce the world to the real theremin. In the two short years since he’s logged many miles performing everywhere from Cyprus to Brazil, released his first album Voices with harpist Renske de Leuw, and took up running 5 km a day. I caught up with him to learn more about new ways of performing, exciting new works and what lies ahead.

For the last five years Jørgensen has made the journey to Ottawa to perform at Music and Beyond. Coming to the festival to hear Thorwald and his theremin is a summer tradition for some fans. He jokes that Ottawa is his summer home and he has no problem giving directions to tourists. The festival is also his sandbox in a way, a place where he can try new things. For instance, last Tuesday was the first time he performed his very own composition for theremin, a haunting piece called “Distant Shores” which combines theremin, voice and loop pedal. “What I do now and I can’t take the credit for it – I have this loop device and I have pedals with effects,” he explains. With one pedal I can lay a track, lay another track over it and lay another track over that so I can have nine different layers of music at the same time and then over that I can make another line. So I can build my own orchestra. And then, also I combine it with my voice.

Similarly, when he told festival programmers about Fabulosae Creaturae, the new four-movement suite Canadian composer Victor Herbiet had written for theremin, harp and string quartet, they said let’s do it even though it meant hiring a string quartet and flying harpist Renske de Leuw over from the Netherlands. “And that says something about the festival here,” says Jørgensen. “I can’t give them enough credit because when I come I always have complete freedom with concert programs.”

Thorwald came to the theremin from a background in orchestral percussion. As much as he loved the orchestra, there was a keen feeling that something was missing. He dreamed of the spotlight, a role that was simply the opposite of a percussionist’s place in the background. And then, by chance he met the theremin in the recordings of Clara Rockmore. A little while later a theremin arrived on his doorstop and the first thing he played on it was Bach. “It was the most natural thing in the world for me, Jørgensen says. Fast forward six or seven years to the present and Jørgensen is enjoying the career he’s carved out as a thereminist, hitting his stride and boldly looking ahead. When I ask about the theremin’s appeal for him he says, I fell in love. It’s just a love thing. It’s like when you fall in love with a person and they can’t do anything wrong and they are the most beautiful and the most handsome and they are the strongest and the cutest. I have this with the theremin. Also because it gave me everything I always wanted. I wanted to have the spotlight, I wanted to be in front of an orchestra, I wanted to be a soloist on stage, to do recitals and I get to do this. I think it’s only just begun.”

Apt613 spoke with Thorwald Jørgensen. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Apt613: It sounds like an exciting time for you with lots of touring, performing new compositions and recording. I’d like to ask what’s changed in the last few years?

Jørgensen: The last few years, well, I got a career that’s what’s changed. For now I can honestly say that I have a full time career with the theremin. I make my full time money with it and I can afford to live from it which is more than I could have ever dreamed of because how cool is that? I worked very hard for that and I’m very proud.

Has your relationship with the theremin changed as you become a more experienced player?

It’s becoming more and more of a friend because more and more mysteries are being solved. Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of mysteries to be solved, but it’s becoming more and more fun, because I’m getting also on stage more relaxed because I am more experienced and I don’t stress out when something goes wrong. I can fix it on the spot.

Photo courtesy of Music & Beyond.

Photo courtesy of Music & Beyond.

When you sing, is it sounds or words?

First let me tell you how I make this piece, because I also use my mouth for effect. My new piece that I performed which was finished is called “Distant Shores.” In the Hague we lived near the sea and I remember when I was little I was at the sea always because I loved to swim and I loved the beach so I remember very distinctly looking at the ocean when we were on holiday and wondering what’s on the other side.

What I do in this piece is in the microphone I start with (vocalizes whoosh sound) and if you dub that and go up and then overdub it so that it’s doubled, it literally sounds like waves. I really worked on it to get that particular sound. Then with the theremin and this is where most people are like, gasp, this is so cool – If I put it in a low register and then on the sharpest tone and then I go all the way to the top of the antenna and do this (flick wrist), it looks ridiculous, but it sounds like seagulls and then you overdub it and it sounds like a flock of seagulls flying over. Then I start building layers first one bass note and from there comes a melody.

Are the effects pedals something you’re going to pursue?

Yes, especially the loop. The effect pedals are like colour that you can add. For instance, this harmonizer is cool but it harmonizes in parallel triads so you can’t really harmonize in a classical way; it’s always a bit weird which is fine but to make an entire piece out of weird harmonies is not cool. But as an effect sometimes it’s great. Less is more with everything and also with this so the effects pedals I use but not often.

But this loop machine: I’m in love with that thing because there’s so much more I can do with it. I love combining it with my voice because the theremin is very voice-like, and I happen to have a good voice so why not? It’s extra colour and I also have the luck that I have a big range so I can sing very low up to very high and then the theremin can go even lower and even higher so I have this very broad spectrum which I can use.

The cool thing was before I was always bound to a pianist or to a harpist or an orchestra or a string quartet and now I can be all by myself without any people and sit on the stage and do. Of course, now I only have one piece so I need to have more but that will only take time. The start is there and I know I can do it so I couldn’t be happier with that.

May I ask about some of the new pieces composers have written for you?

The best piece is by Canadian composer Victor Herbiet and that piece has been with me all over the world. I’ve played it in Cyprus, I’ve played it in Greece, I’ve played it in Rio de Janeiro, I’ve played it here, I’ve played it in my own country, I’ve played it in Belgium, I’ve played it in a lot of places.

It is about mythological creatures, so the first one is the mermaids and they are not nice: they lure seamen to the rocks and kill them. The second one is Cerberus, the three headed dog with the snake tai,l and that is my favourite movement, because also it is fast and it has a lot of staccato.

It’s really marvelous because my mother who is not into classical music at all, she was there when we premiered the entire strings, harp, everything in the Netherlands and she said ‘really, it’s like watching a movie without pictures, because this music is so colorful that I can see what it’s about’ and it really is true. It’s almost literal, because we explain what happens in the pieces, and if you know that, you can really hear what’s happening and I think that’s so cool that you can listen to this music as a book. And it’s not simple. It’s complicated music because it has a certain quality to it, almost like film music I think. I can’t give enough credit Victor on this piece because it’s amazing.

Jørgensen is already looking forward to working on his next project, a song cycle for theremin, voice and loop station exploring the theme of Space. He shares his early ideas, a song inspired by Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system, another by a lonely comet drifting through the void, and I too am already looking forward to where this takes him.

It comes from a desire to explore what’s possible and see where things can lead me,” he says. “Things have lead me already very far not only technically but literally around the world. Five years ago I would have never dreamed I would go to Chile, let alone perform there for big crowds or that people would recognize me on the street. I’m just plain old Thorwald Jørgensen from the Netherlands.

Thorwald Jørgensen performs with Renske de Leuw and string quartet in Music, Myths and Sagas on Friday July 15th at 2pm at Dominion Chalmers.