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Authors: Sean Michaels

Us Conductors

BOOK: Us Conductors
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PUBLISHED BY RANDOM HOUSE CANADA

Copyright © 2014 Sean Michaels

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published in 2014 by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited.

www.randomhouse.ca

Random House Canada and colophon are registered trademarks.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Michaels, Sean, 1982–, author
Us conductors / Sean Michaels.

ISBN
978-0-345-81332-9
eBook ISBN: 978-0-345-81334-3

I. Title.

PS
8626.117
U
83 2014      
C
813′.6      
C
2013-905753-6

Cover design by Andrew Roberts

Image credits: Photo of Clara Rockmore by Skippy Adelman, year unknown.
Photo of Lev Termen, photographer unknown, 1924.

v3.1

For Jan, Arlen and Robin Michaels

THIS BOOK IS MOSTLY INVENTIONS
.

PART ONE

In memory, everything seems to happen to music.
Tennessee Williams,
The Glass Menagerie

ONE
DIALS

I WAS LEON TERMEN
before I was Dr Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked “termenvox.” He liked its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox—the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.

I laughed at this notion, and yet in a way I think I also believed it. Not that the theremin emulated my voice, but that with it I gave voice to
something
. To the invisible. To the ether. I, Lev Sergeyvich Termen, mouthpiece of the universe.

That mouthpiece is now atop the sea, aboard a ship, in a rectangular cabin the size of an ensuite bathroom at New York’s Plaza Hotel, the hotel that was once my home. This vessel is called the
Stary Bolshevik
. The walls are made of steel and painted
eggshell blue. There is a cot in the corner, a frayed grey rug on the floor, and I sit in a folding chair before a desk that is also made of steel, also painted eggshell blue. The bare light bulb glows. When the weather is rough, as it is now, I am as sick as a dog. I clutch my sides and listen to the drawer beside my bed sliding open and slamming shut and sliding open. The room rocks. I go to the toilet in a tiny closet, and then I come back and stare at what I have written. Rows of symbols—qwe asd zxc, the the the, lt, cr, lt, cr (((((((((&. I wonder who will see these pages. Will I send them away, like a letter? Will I keep them in a safe? Will they drown one night, in seawater?

On the other side of the hall there is another room like this one, lit by its own incandescent bulb. It is filled with my equipment. Some of this equipment is delicate and easily damaged. When the waves heave, it would be reassuring to go across and unfasten the cases’ clasps, check that all the wires are coiled, the batteries capped, the tubes intact. Check that my theremins still sing. For the last seventeen years, a day has rarely passed that I did not hear their sound. From Archangelsk to New Haven, in palaces and shacks, I travelled and taught, performed for longshoremen and lords, and almost every night I was able to reach across the room and find the electrical field of one of my humble theremins, coaxing current into sound.

But the door to my cabin is locked. I do not have the key. Just a typewriter, just paper and ink, just this story to set down now, in solitude, as the distance widens between us.

WHEN I WAS FOURTEEN YEARS OLD
, one of my teachers at the gymnasium introduced the class to Geisslers—glass cylinders, vacuum tubes. They came in wooden crates, wrapped
individually, like wineglasses. I say like wineglasses but really to me they were like intricate conch shells, the kind of treasures that wash up on a beach.

Professor Vasilyev must have recognized my fascination, because one holiday he let me take a vacuum tube home. I kept it wrapped in butcher paper, strolling with it in my jacket pocket, one hand resting over it, and in my mind’s eye it was an emerald. At home I experimented with wires and Fahnestock clips, spark coils, and the new lamp beside Grandmother’s bed. While my parents thought I was practising piano and violin I was crouched over a wooden board, assembling circuits with brass screws. I knew to be careful: I had been tinkering with machines for years, phonographs and an old wireless set, Father’s camera. At the end of the break I wrote Professor Vasilyev a long letter proposing a demonstration at the upcoming Family Day. I delivered the letter together with the vacuum tube—intact, undamaged—into his hands. He took more than a week to answer. I remember it was a Friday. He called me aside after class, drummed his fingers on the desktop, stared at me from under patchy eyebrows. “All right, Lev,” he said.

BOOK: Us Conductors
2.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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