A fictional account of the theremin's intriguing history

Jul 2, 2014

Sean Michaels’ first novel, Us Conductors, is loosely based on the life of Russian inventor Leon Theremin.

Theremin’s story spans continents and cultures, beginning in the laboratories of Russia, then corssing the Atlantic and dipping into Harlem speakeasies of the late 1920’s, only to end up back in Russia, in the brutal isolation of a Siberian gulag.

The story of Leon Theremin even has a connection to Asheville through electronic music pioneer Bob Moog.

Leon Theremin invented an instrument most of us don’t know we know.

“When I say that I’ve written a book inspired by the theremin,” Michaels says, “There’s always kind of one of two responses, which is either complete bewilderment, like a baffled look, or a huge light goes off in someone’s eyes.

“Most people are kind of bewitched by it, or they’ve never heard of it yet.’

Odds are, you fall into one of those two categories. And I think the most interesting aspect of that description is the yet at the end of that sentence. You’re either bewitched, or you’ve never heard of it yet. Because there is something truly bewitching about the theremin.

Many of you have probably heard its sounds without even knowing what it was-- like the synthesizer, theremins are often used for sound effects in movies, or as quirky whistling in songs. You can hear it in the background here. It’s that ooooh weeee ooooh, the otherworldly sound of fun.

That’s how Michaels himself knew of the theremin growing up-- from pop music and sci fi.

But then about ten years ago, Michaels says, he was out for a drive and he turned on the radio, and found himself entranced by what he calls an “impossibly gorgeous” soprano voice singing an operatic aria.

“At the end of the piece, an announcer came on and said, ‘You’re listening to Peter Pringle performing on the theremin.’

“So in fact what I thought was a woman singing was just this machine, performed really really really well.”

Michaels says this was his first introduction to the theremin as, in his words, “beautiful sound”

“I thought there was something really interesting in the contrast between this kind of madcap, crazy, cooky machine and the sound that could come out of it,” Michaels says. “It felt like this really longing, fragile gorgeous music that felt really connected to the human soul or the violin of the blues guitar or something like that.”

  The theremin is electronic but humanistic, ethereal but precise, and it was intended to sound like a hybrid of the human voice and a cello, which Leon Theremin grew up playing.

Theremin had a musical background, but his career was heavy on electrical and mechanical engineering. Every time we walk through a motion-sensing automatic door at the grocery store, we can thank Theremin the inventor.

The creation of the theremin as a musical instrument was a happy accident. Theremin had been working on a motion-sensing alarm system.

When Leon Theremin disappeared from the United States to go to a Russian proson camp, it was a young Bob Moog who took up engineering the theremin. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Paul Gaeta is s the store manager at Moog Music, which makes one of the more popular theremins today. He sits behind the desk at the Moog Factory Store. The front door is open, letting in the warm air. The shop is connected to the Moog Factory, and there’s a quiet energy to the open space filled with electronic instruments.

“Prior to Leon Theremin,” Gaeta says, “Prior to 1920, when the instrument was invented, alarm systems were all mechanical. So if you’ve seen The Three Stooges, you’ll know what I’m talking about. They’re always playing pranks on each other by rigging an alarm system. A very basic one. So Leon Theremin was kind of experimenting with motion detection and ultimately leading up to his electronic alarm systems and kind of my happy coincidence discovers he can make an instrument out of one of these things.”

Theremin discovered that the pitch would get higher the closer he got to his alarm system. So he decided to market it as an instrument, which is essentially the same as the theremin we know today.

In addition to telling the story of the creation of the theremin, Us Conductors is also, as most good stories are, a tale of unrequited love.

Renowned thereminist Clara Rockmore

Clara Rockmore was a classically trained violinist who had perfect pitch. But a bone disease left her so fragile that she couldn’t play the violin, making the theremin-- an instrument that you don’t actually have to hold or touch-- the perfect medium for her.

Leon Theremin fell for Rockmore.

He even proposed to her, but she married a successful attorney instead.

She did, however, continue to play the instrument after Leon Theremin returned to Russia.

In 1977, she recorded an album called 'The Art of the Theremin,' which was produced by Bob Moog. (Here she is performing Camille Saint-Saenz's 'The Swan.')

Gaeta, the manager of the Moog store, said he looks forward to talking with Michaels about Us Conductors so he can find out what’s historical fact and what Michaels embellished for the novel.

“The cool thing about this book,” Gaeta says, “Is it’s Sean Michaels imagining what it would have been like for Leon Theremin. It’s first person point of view. but it’s also fictional in a sense that all the pieces aren’t there. So you have to imagine the in between spaces. And that in itself is really fascinating to me.”

And in a sense, isn’t playing a theremin imagining the in between spaces, too?

Sean Michaels will read from, and sign copies of, his book Us Conductors tonight at 7 at the Moog Factory Store in downtown Asheville. There will also be a performance by the Atlanta-based group Duet for Lap Steel and Theremin.