Au­thor’s oblique prose suits its in­stru­ment

De­tails en­liven story about the theremin cre­ator

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - CHRIS RAN­DLE

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.

Us Con­duc­tors

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