The Reading

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

10:45am Wednesday 29 October to Thursday 13 November 2014

Tracy Farr’s debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, invents the life of a woman who wanted to be ‘Music’s Most Modern Musician’, and who became the foremost proponent of the first electrical musical instrument – the theremin, invented by Leon Theremin in the 1920s. Lena Gaunt’s life begins in Singapore at the beginning of the 20th century and ends 80 years later in Western Australia, with time in Sydney, Dunedin, New York, Paris and England in between. After a performance at a Perth music festival, documentary maker Mo Patterson approaches Dame Lena to make a film about her life. With the unfolding of her story comes the slow opening of Lena’s heart, closed for many years against old loves and griefs.

Abridged to 12 parts by Anna Rogers

Told by Lorae Parry

Published by Fremantle Press ISBN: 9781922089465

Produced by Prue Langbein and engineered by Phil Benge

Not all audio is available due to copyright restrictions.

About Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

Tracy Farr credit Liane McGeeA long time before I started writing this novel, I had written notes and ideas circling around a character who I’d named Lena Gaunt. I knew she was born in 1910, and was a musician, but I couldn’t pin down the right instrument for her; so I put her aside, and worked on other projects. It was a couple of years later, when I saw the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, that I knew I’d found it – the theremin, an instrument you play without touching, was perfect for this story all about connecting (or failing to connect). The film is a history of this bizarre musical instrument, its inventor Leon Theremin, and Clara Rockmore, the first virtuoso player of the theremin.

The character of Beatrix Carmichael isn’t based on one particular artist but, as well as Australian artists like Grace Cossington Smith, Margaret Preston and Dorrit Black, whose 1930 painting The Bridge was an important trigger image for me, New Zealand’s Rita Angus was an inspiration. I had works like Self Portrait Smoking, Rutu and A Goddess of Mercy in my head when I envisioned Carmichael’s portraits in the novel. While I was writing the first draft, I saw the exhibition Rita Angus: Life & Vision, and a screening of Gaylene Preston’s film Lovely Rita — A Painter’s Life. That film, and Gaylene’s other films and interviews, had a strong impact on my writing of the filmmaker character, Mo Patterson.

As well as elements from theremin player Clara Rockmore, Lena shares early childhood stories with my paternal grandmother, whose family lived in Singapore and Malacca when she was growing up, and who was sent at age four to boarding school in Perth. Lena’s trip by sea to Singapore with Uncle Valentine draws heavily on a script for a radio broadcast that my great grandfather wrote, based on the family’s experiences. Like Lena, my maternal grandmother lived at the Bathing Pavilion at Cottesloe Beach during the War. Uncle Valentine’s house is, in my mind, in John Street, Cottesloe, where my paternal grandfather lived as a child.

I stitched Lena together from those stories that I’d grown up with, and those that I’d found. Then I had to hide the seams, by fleshing her out, clothing her, teaching her to walk and talk. I love that whole process of constructing characters and worlds and fictions, and I enjoy blurring the lines between reality and fiction, mixing them so you can’t see where one stops and the other starts.

About the music

The music at the start and end of each episode is played by two Wellington musicians, Nell Thomas on theremin and Erika Grant on cello, both instruments that Lena Gaunt dedicated her life to playing.

Erika and Nell are one half of Orchestra of Spheres and have collaborated on a number of other projects – recently, live soundtracks for Wellington Film Society silent film screenings. They are both involved with the Sound Explorers collective and festivals Fredstock, Rising Tides and Pyramid Club Festival.

Nell originally bought her theremin to use with Orchestra of Spheres. “It’s a pretty strange sensation to produce sound without physical contact with your instrument. I don’t really go for perfectly-pitched melodies but prefer trying to find as many different sounds from it as I can by using effects pedals and movements. The physicality of it is cool, sometimes just making weird movements rather than thinking about producing a certain sound. Touching parts of pedals or leads with metal casings with your hands can also affect the sound in some unpredictable ways.

Erika and Nell have each played cello and theremin in various groups but had never played as a duo with these instruments until “Tracy asked us to do something at the launch of her novel Lena Gaunt at the Mighty Mighty last year, so we were grateful for the opportunity to try something out. It’s a nice combination to play around with – the theremin’s swoopy sine tone and cello’s fretless strings.”

The improvisations used for the soundtrack to this reading were originally used for A Sonic Postcard from Haskell Strait, Antarctica, co-ordinated by Craig Stevens, Gabby O’Connor and Katharine Allard.

Nell Thomas and Erika Grant
Nell Thomas and Erika Grant - Photo by Matt Evans