Sean Michaels: dubious romance and noisy, electric music

Interview by Vince Pollard // from issue 2. Vol. 2

Based on the true story of Lev Termen, inventor of the theremin—one of the world’s first and weirdest electronic instruments—Sean Michaels’s debut novel Us Conductors was published last year by Random House Canada and subsequently won the prestigious Giller Prize. Equal parts tense spy novel, heart-wrenching tale of unrequited love and history of the most unlikely of instruments, Us Conductors tells the story of the theremin’s invention in Leninist Russia and Lev Termen’s obsession with Clara Reisenberg (later Rockmore), who was fifteen years his junior and one of the first virtuoso players of the then prototype instrument. Music journalist Vincent Pollard spoke with Sean Michaels this summer about the inspiration behind the book, what it is to blur the lines between fact and fiction, and how his background as a music journalist influenced the writing of the novel.

VP: The theremin is a curious instrument and an interesting one to write about. What was your first exposure to it?

SM: I honestly don’t remember, but I feel like I knew of it since I was a kid. I probably heard it on some old science fiction films, or I may have run into one at the Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, growing up.

I have a clear recollection of seeing one onstage in the early 2000s at a Wolf Parade gig in Montreal, but by then I knew it as this kind of joke of an instrument. It didn’t really hold that much interest for me. It seemed like a punchline someone might wheel out onstage as part of a science demonstration. 

VP: What made you take the theremin more seriously?

SM: One night around 2007-2008 when I was visiting my parents, I got into their car and turned on the radio and I was listening to this beautiful piece of opera music, this gorgeous aria, with this incredible voice. At the end of the segment the radio presenter explained that it was not in fact a human singer but someone playing the theremin. That was my first time recognizing that this could be an instrument of great beauty. I’d seen it used by bands but always as this wailing, unmelodic, ambient noise and never as a real instrument communicating real emotion.

VP: What in particular interested you upon hearing the stories behind the instrument’s invention?

SM: One of the things that really motivated this book was seeing the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey and coming to realize that, among theremin enthusiasts, there was this very romantic view of the relationship between Lev Termen and Clara Rockmore. Many people seem to view it as almost a mythic love story, a mythic tale of unconsummated true love. I think it’s really painted as two people who had this really powerful connection, but circumstances got in the way, and it never quite happened, and that’s not what is represented in the historical record, where both of them married other people. Certainly Clara chose somebody else.

VP:  In the documentary, Rockmore seems very blasé about her relationship with Termen and even seems quite dismissive of their supposed connection.

SM: Watching that film actually provoked quite a bit of suspicion in me. I didn’t quite believe that version of events, pointing toward this being a kind of magical love story. It felt a little bit more complicated. So, in some ways Us Conductors is an attempt to write a more skeptical or dubious version of that great, romantic tale—to question the narrative of destiny, true love and star-crossed lovers.

Because of the way both of their lives centred around the theremin and the way they were separated by geography for many years and then reunited towards the end of their lives, I think there’s a feeling that these two people’s lives were very much braided together, and for me that begs the question of what was doing the braiding. Was it really the universe saying, “You two will be tied together”? When we feel a connection with someone, is that because we’re inventing that connection or because that’s something that exists in the universe outside of us? In the book, Lev is vacillating between acknowledging his role and his responsibility for the events of his own life and trying to pretend that this life just happened to him and he wasn’t responsible for it.

VP: In the book, Termen often seems to be willfully in denial of what is happening around him.

SM: A question that hopefully is provoked is how much is he not looking at what’s going on and how much is he pretending to not notice what’s going on and maybe deceiving himself for the reader a little bit. The book consists of two letters written to Clara, and in both of those letters he’s painting a story—in the way that the victors determine history (or whoever writes history determines history), he’s trying to compose his version of events. I don’t think the way he’s telling the story is necessarily the way it actually happened, even within the universe of the novel.

In the first half of the book, in his first letter, it seems that he leaves America without ever having said goodbye to Clara, and in the second half of the book, towards the very end, we learn that in fact he did have a final meeting with Clara and their relationship was not left in doubt. It ended with quite a lot of finality.

VP: One thing I found interesting is that all of the chapter titles are either song or album titles taken from mostly British eighties artists such as Kate Bush, The Chameleons and Cocteau Twins. At what point did you decide to assign these titles—was it after the fact, or did these songs somehow play into the writing of each chapter?

SM: It’s great that you picked up on that. The musical references are intended as a coded message to certain readers for whom they will be significant. From the beginning of writing this book I was very clear in my head that I wanted to write a book where the musical soundtrack, or the aesthetic feeling of the book, wasn’t one of historical romance from the 1920s. I didn’t want it to feel like an old-fashioned movie or even an old-fashioned book. The more I thought about the theremin and the electricity of it and the way the story moved, with Lev hearing voices in the staticky noise, trying to tune all these electrical components while full of longing for this woman far away, I kept thinking of all the other much more modern artwork that plays with longing and wistfulness and brutality through a lens of noisy, electric music. 

So music by all the bands referenced, especially the Cocteau Twins, captured the ambiance and feeling that I wanted to try to represent. I started really early on trying to hide song lyrics inside the prose, but at a certain point I felt it was too clumsy and too “winky” to have Termen just happen to use phrases that were from lyrics. I realized I could take the same technique and apply it to the chapter titles. And in fact this let the chapter titles have a really interesting role where instead of explicitly describing the action, they could be more poetic, almost like diptychs beside the text that interact with the content of the chapter—a more expressionist riff on what’s happening.

VP: You were talking on Twitter recently about the accidental synergy between certain songs, such as Wilco’s “You Satellite” and Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor,” and your book. You felt like you could hear echoes of your book in songs that were written completely independently.

SM: It’s very common that works of art show artists struggling with, trying to explain or exhume, or just trying to work out the same or similar questions. There are only so many things to wonder about in the world, so it’s always satisfying to come across a piece of art that is playing with the same thing you are grappling with at that moment. 

The songs in question are cases where I feel like the singers are, to some extent, asking some of the same questions that are at the heart of Us Conductors and those have to do with the fact that in the course of your life there are moments when you feel like you are sending out feeling and connection to other human beings, and there’s the question of whether they’re receiving those messages, or whether you can trust the ties that are linking you, or whether it’s an illusion or something you’re just imagining into being. Both songs play with this idea of “Are we conductors? Are we receiving? Are we reflecting? Are we in communication truly?”

VP: Do you think that given your background in music journalism you approached the novel differently than an author with a background in purely fiction would?

SM: I think the book is very coloured by the approach I’ve had to music criticism and the way of writing about music I have cultivated over the years, which is that I’ve always tried to pay the most attention to my own personal experience of listening to music. Trying to find a vocabulary of that first-person experience of music. Not just “How does this make me feel” but “What does this music make me think about? Who does it turn me into? How does it act upon me?” There are many moments in Us Conductors where the sound of music is really felt by the characters and has a tangible effect on their person.

VP: Despite being fictional there’s so much in the book that is true. What made you decide to stick so closely to the real events in some ways as opposed to extracting the essence of the story and taking it further from the truth?

SM: If I was going to write a story of the theremin, I didn’t want the awkwardness of calling the protagonist Bev Bermen or something. There were also many true parts of the story that were so incredible they seemed made up, so I got a thrill out of including all these things that seemed like they must have been made up but in fact were not.

VP: It brings to mind the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.

SM: I’m really influenced by first-person journalism, where your experience of the thing is more important than the facts of what really went down. By the same token, I’m influenced by authors like W. G. Sebald who wrote these things that you can’t work out, in terms of genre, whether they’re travelogue, diary or short story. Or Borges, where you, the reader sitting calmly at home, start to feel the walls move around you, and you’re not quite sure where reality ends and fiction begins. 

VP: So it’s a lot to do with playfully blurring that line between the two?

SM: I love the fact that anyone who’s read Us Conductors who then starts researching what really happened gets really confused, trying to track each granular element. “Okay, so these seven elements are true, these two are made up but these two aren’t very important.” My response is always “Well, that’s your problem.” My job as the writer of this novel wasn’t to help you understand the true story, it was to try to write a convincing lie about it. Which is much like how we deal with so much of the world we know. Sometimes it’s really hard to remember where our knowledge ends and some fairytale we read begins.


Sean Michaels was born in Scotland, raised in Ottawa and lives in Montreal. He was responsible for one of the world’s first MP3 blogs, Said the Gramophone, and as a prominent music critic has written for publications including the National Post and the Guardian. He currently writes “Heart Beats,” a weekly music column for the Globe & Mail. Us Conductors is his first novel.