The Narcoleptor is a truly unique combination of post-Celtic lever harp and Moog Etherwave Pro theremin from Melbourne artists Miles Brown (The Night Terrors) and Mary Doumany. Actually that’s probably not accurate. It may feel unique in this day and age, but the combination of strings and theremin does have some historical form – yet not in the way these two combine them. There’s something decidedly bleak and gothic about this music. It’s strange and challenging, dark and unsettling avant garde chamber music, where sinister vocal utterings, plucked strings and sweeping theremin all combine to create a very unpredictable, compelling and sometimes quite beautiful work.
Brown is probably best known as part of The Night Terrors and his solo gothic synth project. You can read a previous Cyclic interview with him in 2015 here and a Cyclic Selects he did for us here. Doumany comes from a very different world, working in jazz, contemporary, folk and experimental realms. She has performed with the likes of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, David Hirschfelder, Philip Brophy, Slava Grigoryan, Joseph Tawadros, David Jones, Paul Grabowsky, Chad Wackerman, Tetsu Saitoh, Cat Hope, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
The duo have just released their debut two track LP Transmogrification, with one piece coming from a performance at Melbourne’s Make It Up Club in February 2019, and the other a live score for the dance art film ‘Volatilis’ directed by Jenna Eriksen. Captivated and slightly terrified we felt like we had to know more so we reached out to Brown and Doumany via email.
Cyclic Defrost: How did The Narcoleptor come together? Had you two known each other for long?
Miles Brown: We actually met by chance. Mary and I both played seperate sets at our mutual friend Lara Travis’ album launch back in 2018. Mary was playing a collab set with Philip Brophy, and I was playing a solo theremin set. We both enjoyed each other‘s music, and I had always wanted to play with a classical harpist – it had been one of my theremin goals for ever! So we sort of said hello, chatted about maybe having a play together one time and swapped details. We hit it off musically straight away and The Narcoleptor sound seemed to leap into existence fully formed from the very start. Is pretty interesting for me as this project is a big leap away from my usual stuff, but it’s a testament to what an fabulous musician Mary is to play with, I am constantly inspired by what she does and we get to head off into wild new musical territory all the time which is awesome fun. A lot of the beauty of this project is just the constant risk, we’re playing out on the edges of what is expected of our instruments and there’s an ever present threat of failure and collapse which I find death-defying and exciting. It’s definitely way more fun than playing Radiohead covers.
Cyclic Defrost: Is there much precedent for strings and Theremin music? I imagine if there is it doesn’t sound like this. What made you want to bring the two instruments together?
Miles: There’s some excellent modern classical music for theremin and strings from the last 100 years, but really there’s not much theremin music overall as it’s such a young instrument – the canon is still very much in the process of being created. With this project we’re exploring capabilities of our instruments that many other players would run a million miles away from. We’ve pushed the boat out pretty far in our own weirdo direction, but that actually happened automatically. We never discussed what the band would be, we just listened to each other and reacted in the moment and it went its own way. I think maybe at the start we thought we might make some pretty angelic stuff, as that’s what the typical material for our instruments sounds like. But it went off into heavy Hallucination Land by itself. That’s why band is called The Narcoleptor – often it feels like we aren’t in control of where it’s going – it’s almost like it’s a seperate entity with a mind of it’s own.
Cyclic Defrost: How did you conceptualise what you were going to do? Or did you?
Mary Doumany: We started playing together as an experiment, an exploration of textures created from two sound sources which could not be further apart. The harp is an ancient and quite primitive instrument, strings pulled across a triangular wooden frame whilst the theremin is an invention of the age of electricity. The “Avant Goth” concept was born at our first Make It Up Club show in 2018. Within the first minute or so, something insinuated itself into the music. It really wasn’t until we listened back to that performance, that we both realised what it was….and I guess you could say, the spirit of The Narcoleptor appeared.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m guessing a performance at the Make It Up Club is a bit of a give away but to what extent is improvisation important to the project and why?
Miles: There’s definitely a huge ‘stream of unconsciousness’ factor in the performance, and part of the concept is that we can be truly microtonal due to the combination of sound sources we are using. The theremin is naturally operating in that realm, and Mary has her harp set up in an extremely nonstandard tuning (which changes between gigs and often during), so we are able to explore really unusual harmonic spaces. Plus we can shoot off into sections with just voice and theremin, where the tonal centre can warp and bend wherever we take it. It’s kind of like dancing in a constantly warping haunted house. I think this is what gives it the dream-like quality, the music evolves and develops and sometimes we find ourselves in a familiar room where we can play something we recognise, sometimes we’re trapped in the walls or diving through a mirror into another dimension.
Cyclic Defrost: It’s very dark and atmospheric, at times even jarring. How important is mood for this music? Do you know what you’re striving for?
Mary: We seek authenticity, intensity and musical cohesion. There is definitely something that happens when we work together, a chemistry which we both trust by now. Dynamic contrast is an important element in our performance, as is silence. But we never know quite where we will go, as we commence our musical journey each time. That’s the thrill of it.
Cyclic Defrost: Is there a certain freedom that you get from a lack of rhythm?
Miles: Definitely. The music becomes way more of a conversation, and we have to listen harder to find any implied structures we can choose to engage with or deliberately move away from. I find writing and playing with this project very cathartic too, there’s a huge element of joy to be gained from diving into a high risk situation and finding beautiful stuff there, as well as lots of rude and hideous feelings we might not usually choose to explore with music. It feels like a very raw compositional space.
Cyclic Defrost: What attracts you to the darker realms?
Mary: The Primal Force is full of vitality and creativity. This is called ‘Darkness’ by some, but what we are talking about, is the power of Nature, as formidable and terrifying as it is tender and delightful, the whole gamut of expression… I refer to our own inner nature as well. Music is the perfect medium to give voice to these more elemental forces within and around us. Delving into this foment is exhilarating and challenging.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m really curious about some of the vocals on both pieces, from cackling to wailing to more melodic stuff, even some peculiar indistinguishable muttering. How do you approach the vocals?
Mary: I allow myself absolute freedom. The best performances are the ones where I go into a sort of trance, free of inhibition or concern about the audience’s reaction. We live in interesting times, difficult times. There’s a lot of tension around. The Narcoleptor makes music for our times. When I scream, I’m screaming for all of us. When I go into glossolalia, it’s because sounds that resemble parts of words, express a greater emotional intensity than distinguishable lyrics and allow listeners to hear whatever they want to hear…
Cyclic Defrost: The music is pretty odd. I think I referred to it as a bleak gothic avant garde chamber music. Have you been surprised by the results?
Miles: Well yes, although it’s also what naturally came out when we first played together, and so far its never failed to emerge when we have since. Maybe that’s because we are fundamentally odd people. We certainly never sat down and planned to make anything like this. Sometimes you’ve got to let it flow and act like a channel with music, resist the urge to censor or edit for taste or expectations. A lot of people have told us it’s deeply unsettling, some people think it’s beautiful, I’m very happy for it to be everything or nothing to everyone or nobody, as long as we are exploring sounds that we haven’t heard before. We’ve definitely already pissed off more than a few instrumental purists (which is brilliant) and we’ve gathered a following of people from a very diverse range of musical persuasions and interest groups, so we are continuing to act as musical mediums and letting the strange mutant beast have a life of its own.
You can find Transmogrification here.