Sinister sounds fill the silence

By William Dart

The Cat and the Canary, 1927 film directed by Paul Leni, with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and theremin player Glyn Evans at Civic Theatre, Sunday 6pm

Talking silent movies, the International Film Festival has given us Buster Keaton classics with piano on the side and spectacles such as Ben-Hur and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse powered by the full Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

This Sunday, The Cat and the Canary may well spook its audience when the unearthly sounds of a theremin waft across the Civic auditorium.

Welshman Glyn Evans plays the theremin in the 12-piece band playing Neil Brand's specially composed music. With both hands waving over what looks like a Sky decoder with two stubby aerials, he lets me hear the theremin's quivering, wavering tones.

Even in broad daylight the skin prickles and you half expect a nasty creature from a 1950s sci-fi film to be lurking beyond the door. But when he plays a few strains from Somewhere over the rainbow, Judy Garland herself could not sing them more sweetly.

It was 1998 when Evans, a guitarist, driving home from a gig one night, caught a BBC documentary on Leon Theremin's musical magic machine.

"It was about three in the morning and I knew I just had to have one of them," he says. "It had a real vocal quality and, as I'm a Welshman who can't sing, that's very appealing."

A theremin was acquired and, within a year, Evans and a pianist friend, trading under the name of The Northern Theremonic, were a cult success in their local Leeds.

"We ended up supporting bands, often punk bands," Evans says. "They didn't want musicians who did what they did but we were bow-tie and tails, very proper even though we were doing something a little silly. Still, we might end up with an audience of 300. People would look in the door, vanish, and then come back with their mates."

The two developed a busking career in Europe, with Evans on musical saw because "the theremin batteries were too much of a hassle", and his partner trading her piano for an accordion.

It was climate that brought about the decision to come to New Zealand. "I was in a campervan on tour," Evans says, "it was going to be winter again and I didn't fancy it."

Moving to Auckland, he set himself up as a repairer of stringed instruments. His special introduction to this land of 45 million sheep was his first repair job.

"The guitar had a hole in the top of it - it had been trodden on by a sheep. No grass, no mud, just a hole. It must have been a house sheep."

Evans' theremin has enlivened some improv evenings at the local Vitamin S collective but The Cat and the Canary is his first formal gig. And it's at the most flashy theatre in town - the Civic. As for the film, Evans has seen it about 50 times and won't give away the ending. "It's a classic comedy horror, and the opening scene is just fantastic. An old guy dies and all these cats are superimposed over his image. It must have been a pretty complicated effect for 1927."

It is his theremin which catches the shadier side. "I do the bad guy and he gets all the interesting spooky music. Every time he's on I am playing."

Evans moves back to his instrument and, waving both hands in theremin semaphore, he makes it squeal and spiral downwards. He startles me with some sinister burps and then the sound shoots upwards into what might well be outer space.

He smiles, and suddenly a tune emerges - a tune which I suspect I'll be hearing when he joins the other musicians for The Cat and the Canary. He smiles and says nothing. I must wait till Sunday.

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