Unusual instrument sets tone for ‘Us Conductors’ book, musical tour

The theremin. Even if you don’t know what it is, chances are you’ve heard it.

It’s the unearthly, eerie music on the soundtrack of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Lost Weekend” and in the themes of “The Outer Limits” and “One Step Beyond.” Tim Burton re-created it in “Ed Wood” to mimic the soundtrack for “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” A version of it opens the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”; Jimmy Page used it to create the ethereal interlude in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

Invented in 1921 by a Russian physicist, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the theremin is an electronic instrument played without physical contact. Two antennas sense the to and fro movement of the player’s hands, which control high-frequency oscillators for pitch and volume. These electric signals are then amplified and sent to a speaker. For something almost a century old, the theremin still feels as if it time-traveled out of the future.

Termen, or Leon Theremin as he was known in the West, arrived in the U.S. following a grand tour of Russia and Europe, and was soon playing Carnegie Hall and performing throughout the United States. He patented the instrument in 1928, and RCA began to manufacture and sell theremins across the country. Devotees of the theremin included violinist Clara Rockmore, one of its finest practitioners, and teacher and music theorist Joseph Schillinger.

And then, in 1938, Leon Theremin disappeared.

This is where Sean Michaels comes in. Michaels, award-winning music writer and founder of music blog Said the Gramophone, has written a wildly imaginative first novel inspired by the life of the Russian inventor and reluctant spy. “Us Conductors” (Tin House, $15.95) is a timeless story variously set in Bolshevik Russia, New York City in the Roaring ’20s and the new Soviet Republic’s punishing labor camps.

“It’s a book about love, lies, longing and kung fu,” Michaels says, “with this strange, one-of-a-kind musical instrument at its heart.”

As the book opens, Theremin, imprisoned in a cabin on a ship returning him to the Soviet Union, is writing a letter to his “one true love,” Clara Rockmore. He reminisces about his early days as a student in Leningrad, the acclaim he received as the inventor of the theremin, and the Russian state’s decision to send him to America as a spy. We learn about the enthusiastic reception he found among New York City’s cultural elite, meet his eager students, and watch as he falls madly in love with the much younger Clara. But Russia has not forgotten him. Theremin’s brilliant career in the U.S. is soon cut short — while his new life in a Siberian gulag is about to begin.

Michaels, who was born in Canada and now lives in Montreal, says he was inspired to write about Theremin and his love affair with Clara for a number of reasons. “It seemed like such a strange yarn, with moments of thrill and solitude, glitz and science. It lit up my imagination — I wanted to imagine the places and scenes that surrounded these people. But it also nudged some other questions I had been puzzling over — questions of responsibility, coincidence, true and lying love.”

As imagined by Michaels, it’s a life filled with as much fact as fiction. Though Leon Theremin did not in reality practice kung fu or murder anyone as described in the novel, he really was a madcap dancer, hobnobbed with George Gershwin and Glenn Miller, taught Lenin the theremin and made metal detectors for Alcatraz. For the scenes set in Russia, Michaels traveled as far as Magadan, a former Stalin-era hard-labor camp where the second half of the novel takes place. He’s even learned to play a theremin, though he says it’s challenging: “Even the tiniest gesture affects the yowling sound.”

Michaels has embarked on one of the more offbeat book tours to hit the U.S.: He’ll be reading in various cities with local musicians whose specialty is the theremin — not the easiest crew to round up, he says.

Though “virtuosos of the theremin are rare as heck,” Michaels says, “I’ve managed to find masters of the device all across the country.” In Atlanta, he’ll perform with Scott Burland and Frank Schultz’s Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel, whose music has been described as the “long-lost soundtrack to a deep-sea documentary.”

Duet debuted at Eyedrum in December 2006, and has performed in England, Scotland and France, as well as in the U.S.; its most recent album, “Collaborations,” will be available at the show. Burland and Schultz will talk about the theremin and demonstrate Lev Sergeyevich Termen’s most lasting contribution; Michaels will read and discuss “Us Conductors.” He anticipates “a special and extraordinary evening … a weird mix of music and words.”

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