Montreal writer Sean Michaels is well known as a music journalist and founder of the ground-breaking MP3 blog Said the Gramophone. His first novel, Us Conductors, is a stirring debut that charts the rise and fall of a brilliant scientist against the backdrop of Jazz Age New York and Stalinist Russia.
Us Conductors tells the story of Russian inventor and musician Lev Termen (aka Léon Theremin), best known for inventing the theremin. Written in Termen’s voice and addressed to his unrequited love Clara Rockmore (the theremin’s greatest player), Us Conductors follows Termen from his early years in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution to New York, where, for several years, he worked as a spy and sought out new markets for his inventions. Eventually he’s forced to return to Russia where he’s imprisoned in a Gulag.
Although based on a true story, a disclaimer warns that “this book is mostly inventions.” When I met with Michaels in late March, he reiterated this. While researching Termen, Michaels found that aspects of the inventor’s story resonated with his own concerns as a writer and he realized that he could use Termen’s story as a canvas for themes he was interested in exploring. Michaels “threw the historical record out the window,” adding murder and kung fu to the already farfetched story of the inventor’s life.
Michaels’s background as a music writer deeply influenced the novel. It’s not surprising that Us Conductors is full of music, including classical music played on the theremin, jazz that Termen danced to in New York, and the music he played in a small orchestra with his fellow inmates in the Gulag. Speaking of the centrality of music to the novel, Michaels says that “Rather than being interested in how music is made, I’ve always been interested in how each of us as individuals hear and engage and are moved by music. A lot of moments in this book are about a character experiencing music or sound in a certain way and then my trying to figure out how that affects them and how they engage with it.”
His research for the novel brought him to Russia where he visited Termen’s hometown of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and the Russian Far East, where Termen’s Gulag was located. Staying with people he met on the Internet, Michaels was moved by Russia’s extremely rich cultural traditions, as well as by the locals’ love for the rugged natural beauty of the forbidding Far East. His experiences there enriched the second half of the novel, much of which takes place in the Gulag.
Michaels’s upcoming book launch at the Cardinal Tea Room promises to be among the most interesting literary events of the season. Following a reading from the book, there will be a performance of one of the most famous pieces for the theremin, Saint-Saëns’s “La Cygne,” followed by a rendition of “Good Vibrations” performed by an all-star band of Montreal musicians. ■
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, 2014, 368 pp. $24.95 paperback (Random House)
The Us Conductors Theremin book launch happens at Cardinal Tea Room (5326 St-Laurent) on Thursday, April 24, 7 p.m., free
There’ll be an Us Conductors reading at Paragraphe Bookstore (2220 McGill-College) Thursday May 29, 6 p.m., free