Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Facts that might be useful to be aware of or find out about before you read this book:Us Conductors

1. On the title page written below the title is the following:


the heart of Clara Rockmore,


finest theramin player the world will ever know”;

2. This novel was awarded the 2014 Scotia Bank Giller Prize in 2014;

3. On the page prior to PART ONE and its epigraph, are these words: THIS BOOK IS MOSTLY INVENTIONS;

4. Investigate what a theramin is and perhaps find a site on the internet where you can hear one.

Numbers 1 and 4 above are probably the most important.

The novel opens this way:

“I was Leon Termen before I was Dr. Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theramin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player.”

It all began when Lev was fourteen years old and one of his teachers introduced the class to glass cylinders also called vacuum tubes. These came in wooden crates and were “wrapped individually like wine glasses”. One holiday the professor allowed Lev to take a vacuum tube home with him and he experimented while his parents thought he was practising piano and violin. When he returned to school and sent a letter to his professor in which he proposed doing a demonstration at a Family Day which was approaching. He had arranged to have vacuum tubes distributed to the audience of parents and he had strung up fourteen lines of criss-crossing copper wires on the ceiling of the gymnasium. The induction coils had been hidden in a broom closet. The professor instructed the audience to lift their vacuum tubes and they did so one after another.

This was Lev’s reaction: “The feeling I had was the feeling you get as you pass through a gate and into a walled garden. As each vacuum tube entered the electrical field of my lacework of wires, one by one, the Geisslers [vacuum tube] began to glow.

I felt then what I have felt many times since. It is the moment you forget the electricity…and for a hot, proud instant you think it is you who did this, who made the tubes glow, you clever mouse.”

“This is the hubris of the inventor. It is a monster that has devoured many scientists. I have strived to keep it at bay. Even in America, among ten thousand flatterers, I tried to concentrate on my machines, not their maker.”

Lev was born in 1896 (see bio here) and in his student years at Petrograd University invented something he called the radio watchman which was a “magical box” that set up an invisible electro-magnetic field and, if a human body passed inside that field, the circuit would close and an alarm would go off. You might imagine how this invention is applied in our modern world.

Lev worked at the Physico-Technical Institute on the outskirts of Leningrad where a number of chemists, mathematicians and physicists were employed doing research. In the book, Lev describes himself at this time: “I was not like the other physicists. My bicycle was ordinary, with a bell that played middle C.”

It was during his time at the Physico-Technical Institute that he had the idea for the theramin. He describes it as “more or less a combination of its precedents: the soundless watchman, the hissing gas monitor. I was monitoring human movements as if they were the fluctuations of a gas, and adding sound.”

“In November 1921, I was invited to demonstrate the theramin before the institute’s mechanical engineers and physicists, my first formal audience. ”

“I named and indicated the transformer, the oscillator, the unlit vacuum tubes. I closed the cabinet, concealing the components. I cleared my throat. “And so,” I said, and I turned the theramin on.”  See/hear him play it here.

Late in 1927, Lev went to New York and he was met by harpists hired by Rudolph Wurlitzer who wanted to license the theramin on the spot. Wurlitzer envisioned a theramin in every home in America. Lev did not sign the papers Wurlitzer had brought.

He had his debut in the Plaza Hotel’s ballroom and those present included Edsel Ford, Charles S. Guggenheimer and Vincent Astor as well as Sergei V. Rachmaninoff and Arturo Toscanini whom Lev met after the performance of Schubert and Offenbach.

In his studio on West 59th Street, Lev worked on building the commercial potential of the theramin and on prototyping new devices. He gave concerts to large numbers and met with marketing people for companies like RCA and Wurlitzer and he trained students. Among the latter was Clara Rockmore mentioned above. And so begins another chapter in Lev’s life in New York.

The author pulls the reader in effortlessly and the reader is compelled to continue. The glitzy New York world is juxtaposed with the darker Russian world of  Thermin’s early and later life. As a reader, I experienced the entire story almost seamlessly and simply soaked it up one page at a time.

The Giller was well deserved and I recommend the book wholeheartedly.


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