Talking about the theremin and the unreliable narrator

Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors, hosts book reading at Mt. A

The story of the Theremin, one of the first electronic instruments, is described in detail by author Sean Michaels in his novel, us conductors. Ashli Green/The Argosy

Author Sean Michaels visited the Ralph Pickard Bell Library last Wednesday to talk about and read from his debut novel, Us Conductors, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2014.

Music librarian Laura Snyder, an avid fan of Us Conductors, introduced the author. “One of the real tests of a good book, of course, is whether you would read it a second time,” she said. “I’ve been busily rereading it this past week in preparation for this event – and yes, it’s at least as good the second time through.”

Us Conductors is the story of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the inventor of the theremin, one of the first electronic instruments; and of Clara Rockmore, his student and the theremin’s greatest player. “It’s a story of their love, and it’s a story of the reach that this instrument had; it’s a story of the highs and lows of Termen’s life,” explained Michaels. “And it is also packed full of lies.” Michaels wrote the book based partially on the true story and partially on his imagining of the story. “Most of it is true but every scene is made up,” he said.

Michaels reflected on the nature of writing, noting that it is very solitary work that involves many hours sitting and wrestling with words and sentences. “To come tonight and see all of these strangers, who are curious about those dumb sentences I spent all that lonely time wrestling with, whether they’ve read some of those sentences or whether they have yet to read them or may never, it’s very moving,” he said, gesturing to the crowd before him. “Thank you.”

The author touched on his early career as a music journalist, when he wrote for a MP3 blog called Said the Gramophone that was started in the early 2000s to share reviews of new music. His work with music meant that this was not Michaels’ first visit to Sackville, as he has covered Sappyfest, Sackville’s annual music festival, for several years.

Michaels explained where his inspiration came from for Us Conductors, referencing the one night he heard a stunning theremin performance on the radio and mistook it for a soprano singer. When he realized that is wasn’t a human singing, but an instrument playing, he was immediately curious.

The audience watched a video featuring a masterful and haunting performance on the theremin by Clara Rockmore. “Who is that woman?” Michaels asked after first seeing the video, and explained how the performance had inspired him to write. “What is going on in her head as she plays that? Something’s going on in her head. What is she thinking? What is she remembering?”

This was followed by a slightly less masterful demonstration of the theremin by Michaels, who openly admitted to not being the best or most attentive player. He explained how the unusual instrument works and invited the audience to come up after the talk and try their best to play. Jokingly he played happy birthday for a member of the crowd.

Renée Belliveau, who currently works in the Archives, explained that although she had heard of the author before she had yet to read Us Conductors. “He seemed really interesting and the book seemed really interesting, so I thought I would check it out and it was a great talk,” she said.

Later in his talk, Michaels read three excerpts from the novel. During one he asked for a moment of audience participation, asking his listeners to make the sound of the theremin, which he described as “dz eeeee ooooo.” To everyone’s amusement, the crowd did so.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” said Jacob Macpherson, a second-year geography student. “But I did actually end up really enjoying it.  I found the way he wrote things was really engaging.”

2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the theremin’s invention.

Julianna Rutledge
Julianna Rutledge is a third year English major at Mount Allison University. She grew up outside of Toronto (which she never quite liked) and moved to Sackville for university (which she would like better if there were less exams). She is an Arts and Culture reporter at the Argosy.