Dubbed the “Russian Edison” for his brilliant, wide-ranging innovations with electricity, Leon Termen née Lev Sergeyvich (1896-1993) invented the electronic instrument known as the theremin by chance while working on an early motion sensor prototype. Though initially used in highbrow, symphonic contexts, the theremin became inexorably tied to the thriller and sci-fi films of the 1950s, where it provided the quavering fanfare to alien landings.
It also enjoyed, briefly, a kind of cowbell-status in the psychedelic pop of the late 60s, most memorably in the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations. His childhood love of theremins inspired Robert Moog to develop the synthesizer, which also makes it an important precursor to modern electronic music.
The theremin’s ethereal, otherworldly quality is enhanced by the fact that it’s played entirely by means of gesticulation. Moving through an invisible magnetic field, the thereminist’s hands control pitch and volume by means of their proximity to the instrument’s two antennas.
Montreal author Sean Michaels, Random House’s 2014 New Face of Fiction—a series that, with only a few exceptions, has reliably filled its mandate to shine a light on promising first-time Canadian authors—has also been a pioneer of sorts in the realm of electronically conveyed music, his popular website, Said the Gramophone, having been one of the first Mp3 music blogs.
His new novel, Us Conductors, is a fictionalized account of the mid-section of Termen’s life. Beginning and ending in the Soviet Union, its prime focus is the decade Termen spent enjoying the fruits of capitalism in Depression-era New York, where his invention made him, for a time, the toast of the town. Termen lived at the Plaza Hotel, hobnobbed with Einstein and Glen Miller, and—in Michaels’ telling at least—danced and drank till dawn at the speakeasies that flourished during Prohibition. That Michaels has Termen narrate much of the novel from the hold of a Russia-bound cargo ship on which he’s held captive on the eve of the Second World War offers a nudge that the good times didn’t last.
The cornerstone of Michaels’ story is Termen’s unreciprocated love for fellow Russian émigré Clara Rockmore, the theremin’s beautiful foremost virtuoso. (All that’s really known of their relationship is that Termen proposed to her, and was turned down.) Michaels sometimes overplays the geek card here: “It was you I felt in my electromagnetic field,” he moons.
There’s no mistaking the pride in Michaels’ Author’s Note declaration that Us Conductors is “full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies.” Most readers, however, won’t know where the truth ends and the lies and omissions begin, especially given that Michaels plays it straight with a clipped Dick-and-Jane prose style.
Termen’s biography abounds with enough improbable elements that it hardly requires fictional enhancements. In 1938, he was reportedly abducted from his New York studio by Soviet agents and sent—unbeknownst to his friends and wife, the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams—to perform hard labour in a Siberian gulag as an enemy of the state (which he wasn’t). Later, he was moved to a science prison, where he helped develop espionage technology, including the bugging device known as “The Thing”: a wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States that was conveniently hung inside the American Embassy after it was presented to the ambassador by Russian schoolchildren.
The novel’s most flagrant embellishments—Michaels makes Termen is a kung-fu expert and a murderer—are comic bordering on camp, meaning that on the biographical fiction spectrum Us Conductors is closer to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter than, say, Colm Toibin’s The Master. The combination of all these things can make the novel feel like an entertaining and occasionally eerie confidence game—one well suited to the entertaining and occasionally eerie instrument that inspired it.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor