Tag Archives: Music

Us, Conductors by Sean Michaels: The life and times of Leon Theremin

Cover imageI first heard about Sean Michaels’ novel from Tanya at 52 Books or Bust earlier this year. She’d read the Canadian edition and was raving about it, hoping to convert North Americans south of the border. Picking up the link for her review I checked my own comment which begins ’Sold!’ I hope that some of you will have the same reaction but if neither Tanya nor I can persuade you perhaps the judges of the Giller Prize – Canada’s equivalent of the Man Booker – can: they made it last year’s winner. It’s about, Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor born in 1896, and if that name seems familiar you may have come across the musical instrument he devised. Once heard its strange haunting sound is hard to forget.

Leon is a bright child with a keen ear for music, always devising strange contraptions. He wins a place at Leningrad’s Physico-Technical Institute where he invents an electrical musical instrument for which the player’s body acts as the device’s conductor. Notes are produced by waving an arm in front of its antenna. Leon’s invention goes down a storm, catching the attention of Lenin, no less, who sees an opportunity. Leon is packed off to the United States where he acquires a handler in the form of Pash who wheels, deals and finesses their way around the rapturous audiences attending Leon’s concerts. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Glen Miller and George Gershwin, Leon makes a splash in American society where he meets his beloved Clara. The years roll by: Leon continues to enjoy the theremin’s success, inventing new devices to catch Americans’ attention; Pash disappears when the Crash of ’29 hits but Leon’s adoring coterie rescues him. When the two Karls appear, Leon must spill what few beans he has every fortnight in order to stay in the US. Life becomes murkier and murkier, taxes accrue as do debts – it eventually becomes clear that returning to the motherland is the only option but things are not as they were: Lenin is dead and Stalin is in power. Leon finds himself convicted of spying, shipped off to a gulag until his inventive mind finds a way out albeit into another kind of imprisonment. Throughout it all, he remains hopelessly in love with Clara to whom the book is addressed in the form of two letters: the first written in the locked cabin of the ship taking him back to Russia tells the story of his American adventures; the second is about the gulag, written from his ‘scientists’ prison’ in the midst of the most secret of missions.

The bare bones of Us, Conductors are based on Leon Theremin’s life but as Michaels is careful to point out at the very beginning ‘This book is mostly inventions’, a nice little pun on Leon’s activities which gives you a flavour of Michaels’ writing. Those inventions are spun out into an absorbing story, beautifully told. Michaels has an eye for the succinct yet striking phrase – Leon is ‘baffled by comfort’ when the depravity of the gulag is swapped for what feels like house arrest, Pash’s eyes have ‘the glint of safety deposit boxes’ when making his many deals. The American chapters are as vividly exciting as the gulag sections are gut-churning. Leon is a cleverly drawn character, disarming in his naïveté yet entirely believable. It also has one of the best lines I’ve come across in fiction for some time: ‘I had never been so hopeful as when Lenin played the theremin’ Beat that! Many thanks to Tanya for alerting me to Us, Conductors, and if you want to hear the theremin pop over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by its inventor.

Orfeo: A journey through a very modern underworld

Cover imageThis is the third novel I’ve read by Richard Powers – The Echo Maker and Generosity were the first two. Both deal with complex issues in erudite, meticulously crafted prose: The Echo Maker looks at identity and neurology through the plight of Mark Schluter who suffers from Capgras syndrome – an inability to recognise the people he knows as anything but their imposters – while Generosity explores the link between personality and genes through a young woman fleeing terror whose happiness seems inexplicable. These brief synopses barely scratch the surface of either novel, stuffed full as they are with observations on the myriad complexities of modern life all neatly wrapped up in engrossing stories. I was expecting a challenge, then, rather than a breezy little read.

Peter Els has spent much of his life composing avant-garde music. He’s tapped out rhythms with his fingers for as long as he can remember. He’s also had a lifelong interest in science, beginning a chemistry degree but changing to music thanks to the charismatic Clara who can see no other path through life. Now seventy he’s embarking on an attempt to bring these two strands together: setting up a lab in his home, ordering samples of DNA through the internet and experimenting with ways in which the notation for a musical piece might be transcribed into those samples. When his beloved dog suffers a stroke Els panics, phones 911 and the police turn up, their security antennae soon alerted by the presence of bacteria-filled petri dishes in a suburban home. Next a duo from the Joint Security Task Force lands on his doorstep quizzing him about what he’s up to. Then, while he’s out for a run, his house is raided and he’s faced with a decision: give himself up or make himself scarce. He chooses the latter, giving his weekly lecture at a retirement community before starting out on a road trip which will take him to his ex-wife, his old friend and colleague, and his daughter all of whom try to help him.

Els’s journey is played out against the vivid backdrop of his life story: his childhood marked by the sudden loss of his father, his passionate love affair with Clara, marriage to Maddy and – always – his passion for his work much of it in collaboration with the manic Richard. Both the journey and his story are punctuated by brief and apparently random thoughts on music, science and life which was, at first, somewhat perplexing but all became clear as the novel drew to an end making me look back over them again. It’s a novel bursting with ideas. In its complexity, intellect and sheer chutzpah, Orfeo put me in mind of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, in particular the way Powers writes about music. If I wasn’t such a musical illiterate I’m sure I would have been able to hear Messiaen’s The Quartet for the End of Time in my head from Powers’s description but instead I was captivated by his telling of the story behind it. It’s not a novel that lets you slip your brain into neutral but if you’re prepared to work at it expect to be rewarded even if, like me, you’re left scratching your head over some aspects of it.

And if you think that the idea of Homeland Security raiding a music professor’s home lab containing nothing that you can’t buy through the internet seems far-fetched, Powers’s novel was apparently inspired by the case of Steve Kurtz, a performance artist arrested for terrorism for similar reasons.