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The unbelievable true story of the theremin fuels Sean Michaels’ book Us Conductors

The theremin's story is stranger than fiction 

Dave Yarwood, who performs at Sean Michaels’ reading in Durham, shows off his theremin skills.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Dave Yarwood, who performs at Sean Michaels’ reading in Durham, shows off his theremin skills.

A tattoo of a circuit diagram encircles my forearm. It's from an electronic instrument I built from a kit—a theremin, which is played by moving your hands around a pair of antennas. Even if the instrument's name is unfamiliar, its eerie whistling sound is not.

You know it from many sci-fi and horror films, where it flags something as spooky, as parodied in a great Simpsons joke. "It's one thing for a ghost to terrorize my children," Homer says upon hearing it, "but quite another for him to play my theremin!"

Or maybe you know it from the iconic portamento sailing though the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"—though that was really a Tannerin, a variant where a sine wave generator is dressed up like a keyboard.

Even more fascinating than the instrument is the story behind it, which forms the backdrop for US CONDUCTORS (Tin House Books), Sean Michaels' first novel. "It's an imagined version of the true story of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the inventor of the theremin," Michaels says, "exploring his relationship with Clara Rockmore, the greatest thereminist of all time."

click to enlarge Sean Michaels - PHOTO BY JOHN LONDON
  • Photo by John London
  • Sean Michaels

Michaels lives in Montreal, where he founded first-wave mp3 blog Said the Gramophone. Before he comes to Durham's Letters Bookshop with local thereminist Dave Yarwood, we talked to Michaels about the man called Léon Theremin in the U.S., and how his shrouded life links a technology story, a music story, a Jazz Age story, a spy story—and, finally, a love story.

INDY: How does the theremin work?

SEAN MICHAELS: Very simply, it's a box with two antennas. Each emits an invisible electrical field. Because of the human body's natural electrical capacitance, when the player's hand or body enters and disrupts the field, the theremin notices the changes.

One of the antennas is for pitch; the closer you get to it, the higher the note that is played. The other works the same with volume; if you touch it, it's completely silent. Every time you play, you have to change the settings to decide how big or small you want those fields to be, keeping in mind walls and metal and other people in the room.

Can you sum up the inventor's story?

In a nutshell, Lev was a Russian scientist around the turn of the 19th century. He was working in Leningrad, or St. Petersburg. He invented the theremin and became an instant sensation—it was the iPad or Google Glass of the mid-1920s. It was essentially the first electric musical instrument, predating the synthesizer and electric guitar, and played in such a magical way, without touching.

He was seen as a symbol of post-revolutionary Bolshevik scientific possibility. He started touring through Western Europe and eventually went to America, where he was also a great star, living at the Plaza Hotel and brushing shoulders with the glitterati. Throughout this time, he was to some degree working secretly with Russian intelligence agencies in their nascent espionage work.

In America, he fell in love with a beautiful young violinist called Clara. They had a brief but intense relationship, and she rejected him. Some years later, he disappeared in the night, returning to Russia. But instead of being hailed as a hero, he was tossed into the gulag under Stalin in the time of the purges.

He spent time in a Siberian work camp before being brought back to Moscow, still basically imprisoned, to work on eavesdropping devices and weapons, which culminated in him spying on Stalin himself for the internal secret service.

That's the true story of what happened. But Lev and Clara's relationship, in the historical record, is told in these mythic terms of unconsummated true love. My book interrogates how true or false that myth may be. I like to say that it looks at how useful an untrue true love, a lying true love, can be.

The documentary Theremin oddly glosses over what sounds like Theremin's abduction by Russia.

It's a complicated tale, hard to parse out. It was 1937 and he was in the United States. Possibly still in love with Clara after she spurned him, he married one of the first African-American ballerinas in New York. In the middle of the night, men came to his door. He left with them and she never saw him again.

In my book, I'm imagining what caused him to depart, how different feelings about his relationships may have nudged him to leave in the night. For decades, no one quite knew what happened to him. He probably left of his own volition. But it's also likely that he had tax issues, and possibly, the American authorities were catching on to what he was up to. He landed back in Russia but found himself with not much to do. He had demonstrated the theremin for Lenin, but Stalin was a very different story.

Theremin invented all sorts of transistor technology, right?

Yeah, he really experimented in every corner of technology. He invented the first metal detectors for Alcatraz prison, he did early television work and, back in Russia, he developed this bug known as "The Thing," one of the most infamous of the Cold War, which was found hidden in a whittled wooden American seal that was given by Boy Scouts to the American ambassador in Moscow.

click to enlarge Dave Yarwood demonstrates theremin hand positions. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Dave Yarwood demonstrates theremin hand positions.

How did you get interested in this story?

I used to think of the theremin as this sound effect, a sci-fi novelty. But about 10 years ago, driving at night, I was listening to this beautiful aria by a soprano on the radio, this eerie, perfect performance. At the end, the host said, "You've been listening to Peter Pringle performing on theremin." It hadn't been a singer at all. It was beautiful music, not just a UFO sound. That stayed with me.

But really, I've always been interested in true stories that feel like they have to be lies and in lies that feel true. This book is those two things coming together.

How did you approach the research?

I read all of the stuff that's available about Theremin. There's a great academic biography by Albert Glinsky that gave me the biographical silhouette of the story I wanted to tell. I drew a lot from reading about American nightlife in the Jazz Age and about the gulag in Stalinist Russia.

I also visited Russia. I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and flew another eight hours east to Magadan, which is sort of the entry to Coloma, a coast of Russia Theremin traveled through—gulag country. I spent the night at a former gulag site, a mine in the tundra. There were collapsing wooden barracks and guard towers, but nature is kind of reclaiming it, and it's very peaceful, as happens sometimes at sites of atrocity. You can see all that misery being sapped away as the grasses grow higher and birds build their nests.

The theremin was revolutionary for being an early electronic instrument, but also for being an instrument you don't touch. Have you thought about its impact on musical culture?

The theremin was thought to be the next big thing. People imagined a theremin in every home; it was compared to the piano; RCA marketed it as a consumer home device. The Marx Brothers had a weekly radio segment promoting it and Charlie Chaplin bought one. But because of the Great Depression, some patent issues and how hard it was to master, it flopped.

Some of the successes that came soon after—the electric guitar, the keyboard synthesizer—their big promotional push was in some ways a response to the failure of the theremin. If the theremin had succeeded, I wonder what similar instruments might have followed. A version of the electric guitar with something more tactile—I think of a whammy bar or something—as the central part of the instrument? I wonder if the shape of contemporary music could be very different if everyone was used to using electronic instruments that were infinitely variable instead of with set notes.

Dave Yarwood’s theremin, on which he’ll perform at Sean Michaels’ reading at Letters Bookshop in Durham. Michaels’ novel Us Conductors is inspired by the story of the inventor of the theremin. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Dave Yarwood’s theremin, on which he’ll perform at Sean Michaels’ reading at Letters Bookshop in Durham. Michaels’ novel Us Conductors is inspired by the story of the inventor of the theremin.

It was almost like a virtual instrument way before their time, which is now.

Exactly. Theremin also worked on something called the terpsitone, essentially a dance stage hooked up like a theremin. A dancer, moving their whole body, would create sound and trigger lights. Think about some of the interesting directions that modern dance in some ways did go, contemporary experiments with motion sensors, Microsoft's Kinect—how all those things are being used for art making. Theremin's technology was pertinent to that a hundred years ago. To be honest, I'm kind of disappointed with the legacy of the theremin, where the instrument is used almost as a joy buzzer, a gimmick, and people have lost track of its real beauty.

Why did you want to write this as fiction rather than nonfiction?

Fundamentally, it's because I like stories. I like lying. I like to explore the questions that are screwing around in my heart and brain. In this case, some true events became a great screen onto which to project my own questions about love, duty and invention.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Listen don't touch."

  • The unbelievable true story of the theremin fuels Sean Michaels’ book Us Conductors

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