Ghost in the machine
Debut novel explores spies and musical history
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.
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.