Author, Sean Michaels, Electrifies With Novel “Us Conductors”
Chances are, you may have unwittingly listened to a theremin but never heard of its inventor – the enigmatic Leon (Lev) Sergeyvich Termen: 20th century Russian scientist, hopeless romantic and spy. His life is the fascinating inspiration for the novel, Us Conductors by Sean Michaels. The 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author and critic, kicks-off the Gala opening of the 2015 Vancouver Jewish Book Festival November 21st.
In 1966, “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys dominated the AM radio airwaves and every North American teenager heard that weird high-pitched sci-fi sound riff that helped make it into one of the most recognizable hits in pop music history. Brian Wilson remembers hearing the theremin at friends of his parents when he was 8 years old and feeling scared. And if you’re a fan of such sci-fi cult flicks as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Mars Attacks, you know that eerie sound effect I’m referring to – a cross between a cello and an untuned violin, that means the aliens are coming….RUN!
That music was played (or rather, conducted) using the theremin, an upright box in which the tone is generated by two high-frequency oscillators and the pitch controlled by the movement of the performer’s hand toward and away from an antennae. Because there is actually no physical contact with the instrument, it gives the impression of a magician’s trick.
Invented by Termen in 1928, it was the world’s first electronic instrument; the precursor of the modern day synthesizer and no band or studio producer today works without them.
Born in Stirling Scotland, raised in Ottawa and now making Montreal, Canada his home, Sean Michaels, 33, founded one of the earliest music blogs, Said the Gramophone, a mélange of music, poetry and illustrations. With his eclectic musical background touring with rock bands, writing for The Guardian and Dave Eggers’ San Francisco literary journal, McSweeneys, it’s not surprising that his first novel would involve music.
“The idea for this book came from the most banal place,” admits Michaels, Skyping from Montreal. “While I was actually familiar with the instrument and it’s hilarious, spooky music, I didn’t know about the man who built it until a friend happened to tell me about Leon Termen and that peaked my interest. In 2008, I had originally been planning a book about what is true love and how the lies we tell ourselves can actually save us. But as I researched Termen’s life and his unconsummated true love for theremin-player, Clara Rockmore ( Clara Reisenberg,) I realized how it also intersected with my ideas of destiny, identity, love and beauty. You know, writing is a process of accumulating stuff, all the little treasures you gather and store-up along the way and it wasn’t until a couple of years later that Us Conductors started to emerge.”
Through a series of flashbacks and correspondence, Michaels’ alchemy of prose transports us from Termen’s tumultuous early days as a student scientist in Leningrad, his sale of the theremin to RCA, to living in the Plaza Hotel during the glitz and glamour of Manhattan in the 1930s. His unrequited and obsessive love for his student, violinist, Clara Rockmore who becomes a world-renowned maestro of the theremin performing in concert halls throughout the world, dominates Termen’s life- in fact it saves him! She convinced Termen to build her a far more precise and responsive instrument than the RCA model, one with a five-octave range, instead of three.
With elements of a political thriller, Michaels leads us to the crescendo during an impending Cold War in which Termen is kidnapped and transported back to Russia where he is imprisoned in a Siberian gulag. Later, taken to Moscow, he is forced to eavesdrop on Stalin himself!
Will Sean Michaels be demonstrating his theremin proficiency on stage when he’s interviewed by Hal Wake at the 2015 Vancouver Jewish Book Festival?
“No, I’m no Clara Rockmore,” laughs Michaels. “I don’t play the theremin very well, but I do have a big collection of them at home.”
Us Conductors is now available in paperback published by Random House Canada.