Sean Michaels to pay tribute to the theremin at Largo reading tonight

Sean Michaels, author of "Us Conductors," will read from the book at Largo at the Coronet on Wednesday night.
Sean Michaels, author of “Us Conductors,” will read from the book at Largo at the Coronet on Wednesday night.
(John Londono)

The theremin is just about the only musical instrument one can play without touching it.

Musicians create sounds by moving their hands in the open air around the theremin’s antennae. Players get close to it, but outside of adjusting some knobs and settings, they never actually get their hands on it.

For Sean Michaels, a writer and music critic, the theremin embodies all the modern, electrified ways that human connections come in and out of thin air. His debut novel, “Us Conductors,” follows the instrument’s creator, Russian inventor Lev Termen -- known as Leon Theremin in the West -- as he enjoys Jazz Age celebrity in New York’s avant-garde music circles, and chronicles his deportment to a Siberian prison camp after his return to the Soviet Union.

After the theremin’s 1920 invention, Michaels said: “It was one of the first times that people found the beguiling confusion that can come from wires and electricity. It was a new feeling.”


Music-obsessed readers will recognize Michaels’ style from his decade-plus at the helm of Said the Gramophone, one of the earliest and most influential MP3-sharing blogs.

There he honed a voice that was both precise and earnest -- little paragraphs that felt less like criticism and more like vivid depictions of how a song made him feel. The blog was a launching pad for many of the indie rock titans of the mid-00s (including Arcade Fire, a band from Michaels’ hometown of Montreal).

While the MP3-blog format has largely withered in the face of social media, “Us Conductors” was, in a way, a chance for Michaels to get back the sense of discovery that he got from writing about music, in a time when processing so much “content” leaves little time for considered reflection.

“Few people are writing about music in a personal, thoughtful way. There’s no time to think and breathe, and people have largely stopped having that kind of conversation,” he said. “The novel has fast and slow points, but yeah, it was an opportunity to write about music and try to rekindle the idea that people can be moved by it.”


The novel’s scope is bigger than a music blog -- it draws from Russian history, spycraft and America’s Gilded Age economic collapse. While researching for the novel, Michaels traveled to Russia to see its cities and Siberian hinterlands for himself. (“Moscow and St. Petersburg are so much more beautiful than the stereotypes suggest, and even in Siberia, at the sites of the gulags, there are these endlessly long sunsets.”)

But the book’s core is a love story, between Termen and the violinist and theremin prodigy Clara Reisenberg, better known as Clara Rockmore. The novel is told in letters from Termen to her, and the format echoes the play of distance and touch that one gets from playing Termen’s instrument.

Michaels will read from the book at Largo at the Coronet on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m., for a program devoted to the lost art of the theremin. The bill also features Beach Boys’ player Probyn Gregory (who made the eerie sounds on “Good Vibrations” with a theremin-like instrument called a tannerin), the experimental-leaning indie rock band Califone and composer Eban Schletter.

Fans unfamiliar with the sound can hear it on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” or Dmitri Shostakovich’s film scores, which sometimes featured the theremin’s eerie, disembodied tones.


Though anyone with a smartphone is surrounded by invisible, digital music, Michaels still gets awed by the sensation of watching sound come out of nothing more than a hand gesture.

“There’s nothing like beholding a theremin played by a master,” he said. “It’s this weird sci-fi gizmo, but it can be played as this graceful, noble instrument, and when used that way, it’s dumbfounding. You hold your hands in empty space, and it goes straight to your heart.”

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