100-MILE BOOK CLUB: Origins of an odd instrument

Book reviewer Heather Allen takes an in-depth look at the origins of the theremin and the instrument's creator.

Years ago when studying at university, I used to go to the sound library and pick out obscure recordings on strange instruments to keep myself amused. On one occasion, I listened to the eerie sounds of an instrument that sounded like the mix of a human voice, a violin and a musical saw.

The recording was of a theremin, an electric device developed in the 1920s. The musician would wave his hands over two antennas protruding from a box-like contraption. One antenna would change the pitch and the other the volume. Although the theremin’s sound can now be made on a synthesizer, you can hear the real deal in some ‘60s sci fi movies, and more popularly in the Beach Boys song Good Vibrations.

The theremin didn’t ever become a household item like the piano. But many more people are going to know about the instrument, thanks to this year’s Scotia Bank Giller Prize winning book, Us Conductors by Sean Michaels.

Michaels has fictionalized the life of the instrument’s inventor, Lev Termen. A Russian scientist in Leningrad during the Bolshevik Revolution, he accidentally invented the instrument while working on another device. According to Michaels, Termen then toured Europe with the instrument, and then went to America where he gave concerts and taught master classes.

After years in America, being watched over by Russian agents and forced to become a spy, Termen was sent to the gulag in Siberia. After miraculously avoiding death at the camp, Termen was transferred to a prison for scientists. There, he was forced to invent contraptions for the Russians, including a bug that was planted in the American embassy.

With such biographical material, I found it odd that Michaels chose to centre his book on Termen’s unrequited love for the virtuoso theremin player Clara Rockmore. In real life, not much is known about their possible relationship. Why fabricate, when in this case, truth really is stranger than fiction.

I was more interested in Michaels’ exploration of Termen’s survival skills – how does a person cope when moving from one type of imprisonment to another? Even while hobnobbing in American jazz clubs, and seemingly free, Termen was under surveillance and forced to meet Soviet demands. His American friends were unaware of the pressure he was under – and although surrounded by people, Termen often felt completely alone.

Michaels also accomplishes the truly difficult in this book: he is able to write convincingly about the sounds of the theremin. Even if you’ve never heard one before, by the end of the book you will feel as if you had.

This year’s other Giller Prize nominees were: Miriam Toew’s All My Puny Sorrows, Heather O’Neill’s The Girl who was Saturday Night, Frances Itani’s Tell, David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers, and Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.


Just Posted

Reel Reviews: The Wakanda Way

We say, “Black Panther is too shallow to be deep, too disposable to be important.”

Medical foundation closing in on goal with lots of help

Coming right on the heels of the 2018 Scotties women’s curling championships… Continue reading

Robinson Crusoe+Friday sails into Penticton

Children’s Showcase presents Axis Theatre’s take on the classic tale

Helping others is his present

Turning his birthday into a gift for others

Vees hang their hats on number 7

The Penticton Vees clinched their seventh consecutive BCHL Interior Division title

The 2018 B.C. Games wrap up in Kamloops

The B.C. Winter Games comes to a close after a weekend of fun and excitment

Book Talk: Praise for the novella

It’s too long for a short story and too short for a novel, but the novella is gaining in popularity

B.C. Games athletes try out wheelchair badminton ahead of Paralympic debut

Wheelchair basketball and badminton give wheelchair badminton a shot

B.C. boosts support for former youth in government care

More support coming for rent, child care and health care while they go back to school

How to keep local news visible in your Facebook feed

Facebook has changed the news feed to emphasize personal connections. You might see less news.

Luna Fest issues callout for artist submissions

Festival’s art installations transform downtown Revelstoke in the fall

Concert-goers unfazed by Hedley sexual misconduct allegations

Frontman Jacob Hoggard thanked fans from the ‘bottom of our hearts’ at Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre

Curtain falls on Revelstoke Glacier Challenge

Annual slo-pitch tournament had been running for 30 years

Most Read