Published by Tin House Books on May 19th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Us Conductors is the imagined story of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, inventor of the theremin--one of the first electric musical instruments--and his unrequited love for Clara Rockmore, its greatest player. A tale of espionage and electricity, it takes readers from the gardens of St. Petersburg to the Jazz-Age nightclubs of New York, through concert halls, speakeasies, and the Siberian wastes. Sean Michaels’s debut novel is based on the true events of Termen’s life: his invention of the theremin, in Russia, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution; his decade as a Manhattan celebrity and secret spy, jostling with Gershwin and building weapon detectors for Alcatraz; and his eventual return to Stalin’s USSR. As the novel reaches its devastating climax, Termen is sent out into the Gulag--first to a forced labor camp and then to a prison for scientists—and bears witness to some of the Cold War’s deepest atrocities. But like the theremin, Us Conductors is also an eerie and magical invention. Subtle, thrilling, and melancholy, it is a story of secrets, of human ingenuity, of the lengths one goes to survive, and, ultimately, of the undiminishing hope for love that keeps us alive.
This book meets at the intersection of music, science, history, and unrequited love. Despite the blurb, this is not a epistolary novel. It is one long narrative presented in two parts. Michaels veers between sections that are clearly written to Clara and expository sections where most of the action takes place.
I found myself delighted with the ‘name dropping’ of 20’s and 30’s musicians that are now a part of classical and jazz music canon. There are discussions on Shostakovich, meetings with Glenn Miller. Many classical composers attended concerts by Termen while he was in New York – and quite frankly – it’s impressive that this man and his instrument that I had only vague knowledge of made such a huge impact on the music world at the time. His instrument, the theremin, is a testament to how closely music and science can intersect.
But wait, there’s more. So you’re not interested in music or science? That’s okay too. This book covers the USSR’s cold war espionage and the horrors of the gulags under Stalin. While this is still primarily what I would consider a character driven novel, there is plenty of action and intrigue to go with it. The story is immensely readable and highly enjoyable. Despite this being a Canadian novel, it feels remarkably American. (Which is part of the reason I don’t understand why it hasn’t been more successful in the U.S.)
This is a fabulous novel that transcends all the categories you want to try to put it in. Absolutely, without a doubt, you should read it. Since it is a true piece of historical fiction I found myself promptly ordering the non-fiction title Theremin: Ether, Music, and Espionage by: Albert Glinsky and requesting from the library the DVD for the 1993 documentary on the subject Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.
I’ll leave you with this clip of Clara Rockmore (Termen’s unrequited love interest) playing Saint-Saën’s ‘The Swan’ which is one of the first pieces that Termen introduced to listeners when demonstrating his new instrument.