Author’s oblique prose suits its instrument
Details enliven story about the theremin creator
Never a man prone to doubt, Vladimir Lenin once expressed communism as an equation to be fulfilled: “Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.”
In 1920 he demonstrated what it might look like to an audience at the Kremlin, displaying the map of some future Russia, vastly illuminated — a geographic reverie that required power to be cut everywhere else throughout Moscow.
Lenin appears near the end of Sean Michaels’ debut novel, bemused and marvelling at a machine that summons music visible only from the wave of antennae. Us Conductors fictionalizes the disparate careers of Lev Termen, who devised both the first drum machine and espionage technology he called, like a symbolist writer, the Thing. (It’s a lot of fictionalization: In this telling, he receives kung fu training.)
Termen’s most famous creation was the theremin, which used those antennae to probe electrical fields for melody, and when he went to the United States he took its name for himself, reinvented by his invention.
Michaels shows Termen belatedly sensing how contradictory his life became: the patriotic Soviet scientist dispatched to Manhattan as a kind of infiltratorentrepreneur; the cherubic socialist who finds commerce baffling but ends up defecting to modernist composers and Harlem nightclubs instead.
One would expect Michaels to know such frequencies by ear. In 2003 he co-founded Said the Gramophone, a long-running mp3 blog — which, unlike most of its remaining peers, has never made a fetish of novelty, something that eventually subsumed these sites in the same writhing hype mass as second-tier TV recaps.
The Gramophone trio didn’t corkscrew deep inside a particular genre, either, contextualizing rarities of gangsta rap or francophone black metal. Certain favourites emerged over time — folk music(s), idiosyncratic Canadians, pop craft from anywhere — but Michaels et al treated mp3 blogging more like a minor liter- Sean Michaels Random House Canada ary form, poetic and enigmatic.
The file itself might only be background music at dinner, or heard faintly two seats away on the subway. One of his recent posts begins: “A training regimen. A parade of many different floats. A decade of variegated boyfriends. A very tall smoothie. A bag of weird 78s. A rave on the steppe.”
So Michaels knows oblique, the better to describe an instrument whose sounds are all ghostly suggestion. What I didn’t anticipate was his precise regard for the small crucial moments of performance, as when the young violinist Clara Reisenberg, Termen’s never-quite-requited love, steps onstage:
“You presented the complete cello part on theremin. It is a composition of sustained and devastating yearning, a wavering conversation between one voice and the ensemble. Your right hand was a fist. You opened it one finger at a time, asking and withdrawing.”
Earlier, on more intimate terms, Termen observes: “When your wrist touched the window glass there was an instant when your mouth moved, almost smiling, and then you said that you felt outside and inside at the same time.” Clara will master the theremin, but does not care to carry its namesake with her too.
The breathless prose guiding Termen’s New York spree takes on larger meaning once the scale of his lying becomes clear.
The ending makes both Theremins each other’s eerie reverb: a scientist listening for human song in electrical particles, forced to become an unlovely instrument themselves.