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.