Ghost in the ma­chine

De­but novel ex­plores spies and mu­si­cal his­tory

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - MARK MED­LEY

Sean Michaels was driv­ing through the streets of Ot­tawa late one night, about a decade ago, when a strange voice came on the ra­dio. It might have been a sum­mer’s night, or a win­ter’s af­ter­noon; he’s not cer­tain.

“In a funny way, I’m not sure of the mem­ory, ex­cept the sound.” It sounded, he says, like a woman singing an aria, one that was sad and beau­ti­ful and wist­ful all at the same time. When it ended, the an­nouncer came back on air and told lis­ten­ers it had been Peter Pringle, a mu­si­cian from Ma­gog, Que., and he was play­ing the theremin.

It was one of those mo­ments, Michaels says, “where the world seems a bit changed.”

Al­though you might not rec­og­nize the name of this in­stru­ment, chances are you’re fa­mil­iar with the sound: quiv­er­ing, al­most alien, as if a haunt­ing of ghosts formed a church choir. It was in­vented in the early 1920s by a Rus­sian sci­en­tist named Lev Sergeye­vich Ter­men — known, in the United States, as Leon Theremin — and for a while proved so pop­u­lar that skilled play­ers would sell out Carnegie Hall. At one point, RCA hoped it would re­place the piano — a theremin in ev­ery house­hold! It flopped, of course, com­ing to mar­ket only af­ter the stock mar­ket crash of 1929, and was thus rel­e­gated to a his­tor­i­cal foot­note, an od­dity played by a hand­ful of diehards who en­sure its eerie tim­bre doesn’t die out com­pletely.

In his re­cently pub­lished de­but novel, Us Con­duc­tors, the 32-year-old Michaels has taken Ter­men’s life story and, well, as a warn­ing at the book’s out­set pro­claims: “This book is mostly in­ven­tions.”

Here, Ter­men is no sim­ple sci­en­tist, but a Rus­sian agent who ar­rives in New York at the height of the Roar­ing ’20s and uses his celebrity to in­fil­trate, some­times un­will­ingly, the high­est lev­els of U.S. in­dus­try. Oh, and he knows kung fu.

The real-life Ter­men was just as in­trigu­ing a char­ac­ter — a pro­lific in­ven­tor who “worked on ev­ery­thing from early tele­vi­sion … to wire­less tele­graphs to al­time­ters for mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tions,” Michaels says. “He had ideas about hu­man cryo­gen­ics, talk­ing to aliens, male im­po­tence.”

One could prob­a­bly write a dozen nov­els about his life. This one is a love story, the nar­ra­tive tak­ing the form of two letters, writ­ten by Ter­men at vastly dif­fer­ent points in his life, to Clara Rock­more, his one true love and, per­haps, the great­est theremin player to ever live.

“When you talk to people about the theremin, they have one of two re­sponses,” says Michaels, sit­ting in the lobby of an Ot­tawa ho­tel on a re­cent morn­ing. (Michaels, now based in Mon­treal, was in town for a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val.) “One is, ‘I have no idea what you’re talk­ing about’ — they don’t rec­og­nize it — or there’s this light that goes off in their eyes.

“People who have ex­pe­ri­enced the theremin, there’s a cer­tain won­der,” he says. “And that’s dif­fer­ent than if I said, ‘Oh, I’m writ­ing a book about the slide whis­tle.’”

This is partly to do with how one plays a theremin. A metal an­tenna sticks up ver­ti­cally from the in­stru­ment’s base, con­trol­ling the pitch, while a looped an­tenna juts out hor­i­zon­tally, con­trol­ling vol­ume. It’s played with­out ac­tu­ally touch­ing the in­stru­ment, as if con­duct­ing an in­vis­i­ble sym­phony, and it is as if the sound is be­ing pulled from an­other di­men­sion — or, as Michaels puts it, “some deeper part of the uni­verse.” Call the in­stru­ment “a magic trick” and Michaels dis­agrees: It is not a trick, but ac­tual magic.

“There’s no de­cep­tion there,” he says. “This is the sound of in­vis­i­ble fields in­ter­act­ing with your body’s spirit, in a sense.”

It seems in­evitable that Michaels would write about mu­sic. In 2003 he founded the in­flu­en­tial mu­sic blog Said The Gramo­phone, which doesn’t pub­lish stan­dard “is this good?” mu­sic crit­i­cism but rather short sto­ries, in a sense, about mu­sic.

“Said The Gramo­phone was a place where I was writ­ing fic­tion about mu­sic,” says Michaels, who says he’s un­sure about the fu­ture of the web­site. With Us Con­duc­tors, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion whose only mu­sic is of the clas­si­cal va­ri­ety, “part of the en­ergy that I was try­ing to bring to the book was the kind of en­ergy I was hear­ing on all this mu­sic from the 1980s — so, post-punk and new wave mu­sic from artists like the Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush and Joy Di­vi­sion and stuff like that. I wanted the book to have that kind of fizzing, spec­tral, more mod­ern sound to it, or rhythm to it, de­spite its ear­lier set­ting,” Michaels says. “I was try­ing to make a very mod­ern book, de­spite set­ting it al­most 100 years ago.”

Al­though it’s been al­most 100 years since the in­stru­ment’s hey­day, there re­mains a cir­cle of devo­tees, par­tic­u­larly in Europe. Michaels es­ti­mates that in Canada there might be 20 se­ri­ous theremin play­ers, though he might soon be con­sid­ered num­ber 21.

In Jan­uary, his fa­ther, a sci­en­tist, gave Michaels a theremin he’d built from scratch (“He se­cretly started work­ing on it when he heard about my book, as a gift”) and at the be­gin­ning of his event in Ot­tawa he brought it up on stage, and, be­fore read­ing from the book, per­formed for the au­di­ence. His hands hov­ered above the in­stru­ment, pulling on in­vis­i­ble strings like a pup­peteer, and the theremin’s voice filled the church hall. At least for a few min­utes, Lev Sergeye­vich Ter­men was alive again.

Postmedia News/Files

Sean Michaels, au­thor of Us Con­duc­tors, poses with a theremin, the mu­si­cal in­stru­ment at the heart of his novel, that his fa­ther made for him.

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