Remember that eerie music from sci-fi movies of the 50s? That sound was created by a theremin. Here's the studio session for the theremins for the most famous of those movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Us Conductors is a fictionalized account of the life of Leon Theremin, its inventor, and you can see it played by one of the characters in the book here. Theremin narrates the novel and here is his description of the instrument:
My theremin is a musical instrument, an instrument of the air. Its two antennas emerge from a closed wooden box. The pitch antenna is tall and black, noble. The closer your right hand gets, the higher the theremin's tone. The second antenna controls volume. It is bent, looped, gold, and horizontal. The closer you bring your left hand, the softer the instrument's song. The farther away the louder it becomes. But always you are standing with your hands in the air, like a conductor. That is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor.
Leon Theremin (Lev Sergeyvich Termen) in Russia became famous for the instrument after he performed for Lenin. He was sent to the US in the 1920s for eight years and according to the fictionalized account, was a spy for Russia during that time, reporting on industrial secrets. He lived the high life in Manhattan, dancing at the famous hot spots and hosting a meeting place for famous musicians: Tommy Dorsey, Jascha Heifetz, Glenn Miller, among others. The narrator addresses Clara, a much younger musician he fell in love with who became the premier practitioner of the instrument. I like this conversation with Clara:
You said the weather in Lithuania had always seemed comprehensible; that even as a little girl, you felt the rain coming, saw the sunshine departing. You could intuit the clouds. "In America, what sense do things make?" you said. I chided you. "You know as well as I." "It's as if no one here ever learned that there are ways things are supposed to be." "Yes," I said. "It's why I've stayed."
He is sent back to Russia and before long runs afoul of the Soviet regime and lands in Kolyma, a forced labor camp in one of the coldest locations on earth. No one expected to live long enough to complete a sentence there and the description of his year is riveting. He was somehow plucked up and sent to Marenko where political prisoners who were scientists worked in relative comfort. Again he was chosen for a special project, this time directed by the monstrous Levrentiy Beria, to create a bug for the American Ambassador Averell Harriman that had no exiting wires, no power source, and no traditional microphone. After the success of that project, he was given others.
The author says this book is a work of fiction and "is full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies." He suggests Albert Glinsky's Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage for an accurate picture of the inventor, a book he used to write the novel. While I am curious enough to read the biography, this treatment was wonderful in its breadth and the multi-faceted voice of the narrator.
Sean Michaels, Us Conductors, Tin House Books, 2014, 464 pages (I read the kindle version). Despite the fact this is a Giller Prize winner, it is not available at either the public or UVa libraries, but is at Amazon.