Theremin’s life basis for Giller prize-winning book

Dave Johnson Photo - Giller Prize-winning author Sean Michaels talks about his novel, Us Conductors, at Roselawn Centre last week.

Dave Johnson Photo – Giller Prize-winning author Sean Michaels talks about his novel, Us Conductors, at Roselawn Centre last week.


A desire for free CDs set Sean Michaels on his path of becoming a writer.

“Despite the fact I always wanted to be a writer, I really think I stumbled backwards into being a successful, in as much as I am published, writer of literary fiction,” Michaels told the crowd at Roselawn Centre in Port Colborne last week.

Michaels was the Canadian Authors Series last author to appear on stage for the 2014-2015 season, and spoke about how he came to write the 2014 Giller Prize-winning novel, Us Conductors.

“By the time I hit university, McGill, I wanted to be writer. I also really wanted free records. And the end of my adolescence and early 20s I woke up to the splendour of all kinds of music in the work. As a broke student I thought how could I get more CDs without paying for them, how could I get into concerts without paying,” Michaels said.

He started writing music reviews for one of the students papers at the Montreal university and said he was terrible at it.

“Usually you’re bad at things when you first start doing them. I look back at my early music reviews … I was terrible, I didn’t have the knowledge, the language. But I became better by doing it over and over because I wanted more CDs.”

Michaels turned putting his reviews online and soon had dozens and dozens on the internet.

“I was getting better and better and found a certain kind of voice,” he said.

In 2003, Michaels started an online music review blog called Said the Gramophone.

“I was one of the first people that started to write super regularly online about music,” he said, adding he wrote a column for the National Post for four months.

When he was home in Ottawa for a weekend, a driving to pick up a friend, Michaels turned on the car radio.

“Out of the radio came this beautiful piece of opera music, singing in a beautiful, high, fragile voice. I love classical music, but I don’t listen to tons of opera music.”

Michaels said the music pierced him, and at the end of the piece, the presenter came on and said what had been playing wasn’t someone singing, it was music performed on a theremin.

“I had hear of the theremin … it was the soundtrack of bad 60s B sci-fi films, a weirdo instrument.”

The theremin, he explained, is a box full of electronics with vertical and horizontal antennas coming out of it. The theremin generates an electromagnetic field and relies on the human body’s ability to conduct electricity to be played.

“When a body enters the field, the parameters of the field change and those changes are translated into sound. The closer you get to the horizontal antenna the lower the volume gets … the vertical antenna controls the pitch, the closer you get, the higher the note. Together, you move your hands in and out … subtle moves make music. I never realize the capacity the instrument had to be truly beautiful.”

Michaels told the audience of book lovers that he started to get interested in the theremin and learned more about it. His research led him to its inventor, Lev Sergeyevich Termen or as he was known, Leon Theremin.

“The theremin was invented around 1920 and Vladimir Lenin fell in live with it,” he said.

Lenin sent Theremin around Russia and then Europe, where he performed in front tens of thousands of people, and in some instances, up to 100,000 people.

Theremin was eventually invited to America, where he was treated like a celebrity. He even invented a metal detector for the infamous Alcatraz prison.

“While in America and Europe, he was working as a spy,” said Michaels.

In American, Theremin met Clara Rockmore, a violinist who took up the theremin.

“The two were sweethearts … Clara said no to marriage when Theremin asked her.”

When Theremin left for home, Michaels said he expected to be welcomed back as a hero. Instead, he returned to a homeland now ruled by Stalin and was sent to Siberia instead.

Theremin was imprisoned in a gulag, one that was a special prison for scientists.

Michaels said the more he looked into Theremin, his life and imprisonment, and his relationship with Rockmore, their story became the basis for his book.



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