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Us Conductors

In Which I Seek the Heart of Clara Rockmore, My One True Love, Finest Theremin Player the World Will Ever Know

by Sean Michaels

Paperback, 459 pages, Pgw, List Price: $15.95 |


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Us Conductors
In Which I Seek the Heart of Clara Rockmore, My One True Love, Finest Theremin Player the World Will Ever Know
Sean Michaels

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NPR Summary

A Russian spy and scientist imparts to his paramour interconnected memories detailing his early days as a Bolshevik-era theremin innovator through his Moscow imprisonment and assignments to eavesdrop on Stalin. By the award-winning founder of the Said the Gramophone blog.

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Excerpt: Us Conductors


I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked termenvox." He liked its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox?the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin's trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.
I laughed at this notion, and yet in a way I think I also believed it. Not that the theremin emulated my voice, but that with it I gave voice to something. To the invisible. To the ether. I, Lev Sergeyvich Termen, mouthpiece of the universe.
That mouthpiece is now atop the sea, aboard a ship, in a rectangular cabin the size of an ensuite bathroom at New York's Plaza Hotel, the hotel that was once my home. This vessel is called the Stary Bolshevik. The walls are made of steel and painted eggshell blue. There is a cot in the corner, a frayed gray rug on the floor, and I sit in a folding chair before a desk that is also made of steel, also painted eggshell blue. The bare lightbulb glows. When the weather is rough, as it is now, I am as sick as a dog. I clutch my sides and listen to the drawer beside my bed sliding open and slamming shut and sliding open. The room rocks. I go to the toilet in a tiny closet, and then I come back and stare at what I have written. Rows of symbols?qwe asd zxc, the the the, lt, cr, lt, cr (((((((((&. I wonder who will see these pages. Will I send them away, like a letter? Will I keep them in a safe? Will they drown one night, in seawater?
On the other side of the hall there is another room like this one, lit by its own incandescent bulb. It is filled with my equipment. Some of this equipment is delicate and easily damaged. When the waves heave, it would be reassuring to go across and unfasten the cases' clasps, check that all the wires are coiled, the batteries capped, the tubes intact. Check that my theremins still sing. For the last seventeen years, a day has rarely passed that I did not hear their sound. From Archangelsk to New Haven, from palaces to shacks, I traveled and taught, performed for longshoremen and lords, and almost every night I was able to reach across the room and find the electrical field of one of my humble theremins, coaxing current into sound.
But the door to my cabin is locked. I do not have the key. Just a typewriter, just paper and ink, just this story to set down now, in solitude, as the distance widens between us.

When I was fourteen years old, one of my teachers at the gymnasium introduced the class to Geisslers?glass cylinders, vacuum tubes. They came in wooden crates, wrapped individually, like wineglasses. I say like wineglasses but really to me they were like intricate conch shells, the kind of treasures that wash up on a beach.
Professor Vasilyev must have recognized my fascination, because one holiday he let me take a vacuum tube home. I kept it wrapped in butcher paper, strolling with it in my jacket pocket, one hand resting over it, and in my mind's eye it was an emerald. At home I experimented with wires and Fahnestock clips, spark coils, and the new lamp beside Grandmother's bed. While my parents thought I was practicing piano and violin I was crouched over a wooden board, assembling circuits with brass screws. I knew to be careful: I had been tinkering with machines for years, phonographs and an old wireless set, Father's camera. At the end of the break I wrote Professor Vasilyev a long letter proposing a demonstration at the upcoming Family Day. I delivered the letter together with the vacuum tube?intact, undamaged?into his hands. He took more than a week to answer. I remember it was a Friday. He called me aside after class, drummed his fingers on the desktop, stared at me from under patchy eyebrows. All right, Lev," he said.
On Family Day there were displays by the wrestling squad, the botanical club, one of the choirs, and a class recited parts of Ilya Muromets from memory. Vova Ivanov sang a song about seagulls. After this, Professor Vasilyev clambered onto the stage. In his gentle voice he explained to the audience that some of his students were about to distribute Geissler vacuum tubes. We were lined up and down the gymnasium aisles, crates of tubes at every corner. We passed them hand to hand as though we were building something together. Soon all of the parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents had Geissler tubes in their laps. They turned them over and over, like wineglasses, like seashells, like emeralds. Then Professor Vasilyev asked everyone to look up at the ceiling. What they saw were the sagging lines of fourteen crisscrossing copper wires. I had pinned them up myself as Professor Vasilyev held the ladder. We had hidden the induction coils in a broom closet.
The ceiling wires now flowed with electric current.
They made no sound.
Please raise your Geissler tubes," said Professor Vasilyev.
One after another, they lifted their little glass tubes. They held them up with their fingertips. The feeling I had was the feeling you get as you pass through a gate and into a walled garden. As each vacuum tube entered the electrical field of my lacework of wires, one by one, the Geisslers began to glow.

I felt then what I have felt many times since. It is the moment you forget the electricity, the conducting metals and skipping electrons, the tubes and wires and fundamental principles; standing with hands in pockets you forget these things and for a hot, proud instant you think it is you who did this, who made the tubes glow, you clever mouse.
This is the hubris of the inventor. It is a monster that has devoured many scientists. I have strived to keep it at bay. Even in America, among ten thousand flatterers, I tried to concentrate on my machines, not their maker.
Perhaps if I had been prouder, this story would have turned out differently. Perhaps I would not be here, in a ship, plunging from New York back to Russia. Perhaps we would be together. If I were more of a showman. If I had told the right tale.
But Lev Sergeyvich Termen is not the voice of the ether. He is not the principle that turned glass into firefly. I am an instrument. I am a sound being sounded, music being made, blood, salt, and water manipulated in air. I come from Leningrad. With my bare hands, I have killed one man. I was born on August 15, 1896, and at that instant I became an object moving through space toward you.

The idea for the theremin came to me in 1921. It was Sasha's doing. I remember he was standing in the laboratory, still in his coat, dripping wet. I was on my hands and knees, soaking up the water with towels. Scenes like this were common in those days. To get to the Physico-Technical Institute, on the outskirts of Leningrad, you had to wedge your bicycle into the tram and ride forever. Past the library, over the Okhta River, under blue skies or gray skies or in the rain, pinned against a wall with a pedal in your neighbor's calf. You could recognize the other scientists by their bicycles. Chemists with their hands on the handlebars, biologists resting their briefcases in their bicycle baskets. The mathematicians always had the most elegant bikes, minimal and gleaming. Physicists usually had complicated ones: hand-rigged gear systems, precision brakes. I was not like the other physicists. My bicycle was ordinary, with a bell that played middle C.
Anyhow, you took the tram to Finlandskiy, the last stop, and extracted your bicycle from the train car, and saluted the driver, and off you would go?weaving five miles along the dirt road, across the field and under a wide sky, through the green bends of the arboretum, fast, where birdcalls banish any heavy heart; then up the hill and panting, round the bend, coasting in low gear through the grounds of the Physico-Technical Institute, dodging bent boughs, passing students on their way to class. You'd leave your bicycle with Boris the skinny clerk and duck through the arches, saying hello to the charwomen Katerina and Nyusya, and ascend the marble staircase, past the landing, round the corner, and then you would find yourself, sweaty and alive, in the midst of all the lab's buzzing equipment.
In the winter you couldn't ride your bicycle, not in the snow and mud; and so you didn't bring your bicycle; and so on the tram the scientists were indistinguishable from the tailors, from the bankers, from the bookbinders, until you got off the tram and trudged a barren highway to the polytechnic, every path unmarked except by ice-encrusted footprints; and you'd walk forever across the arboretum's empty woods, and the institute's empty woods, over spaces where bushes had stood, in summer, and finally the bare trunks parted and you ducked through the arches, and said hello to Katerina and Nyusya, and climbed the slippery marble stairs, past the landing, round the corner, and if you were prudent you changed into a second pair of trousers and left the other on the radiator.
Sasha was not prudent. He stood before my latest experiment with caked ice melting from the soles of his boots, the cuffs of his trousers. I was on the floor, patting the tiles dry. Water was a dangerous thing in the laboratories of the Physico-Technical Institute.
It's very clever," Sasha said.
Thank you."
He tapped one of the dials with his fingernail. This is the density?"
Y?yes. Be careful. It's very sensitive."
Both of us had been at the Physico-Technical Institute for a couple of years. Sasha, the brilliant theorist, was already a senior researcher. I was less feted, coasting in on the fumes of my radio watchman. We worked together and apart: competitors, coworkers, scientists who sometimes went to concerts, or for cherry cake at Café du Nord, who talked of family and politics, of elementary particles. If I had mentioned my sister to him, it was to say that Helena seemed distant to me, a creature of another phylum. And if he had mentioned his own sister, Katia, it was not to reveal that she was pretty, or that she was unrelenting, like a flood; it was to describe a holiday they had shared as children, or the ham she had carved, at New Year, while Sasha scored chestnuts.
I would learn for myself that blue-eyed Katia was pretty, that she was unrelenting.
I got up from the floor. Sasha was still peering at the same dial. Very clever," he repeated.
I hoped he would say something to Ioffe, my supervisor.
But alas for the blind man," Sasha said.
All these dials."
There were many dials. Splayed before us, the device was a disparate contraption of coiled wires, readouts, rubber piping, and a hissing chamber with two suspended plates. The plates formed a circuit: electricity jumped from one to the other, through the air. When the chamber was filled with gas, the electricity's crackle changed, quickening or slowing. And thus it was able to measure the properties of various gases, particularly their dielectric constants. A dial read: 1.055.
It's a calamity," Sasha said. How will the blind man learn the dielectric constant of helium?"
How is he to check his pocket watch?" I said.
You mean he should ask his wife. Machines like this are the reason we don't see more blind physicists." The joke really entertained him. Couldn't you rig something up? Make it spray a new scent for each gas?"
So sulphur gas can smell of roses?"
He chuckled.
It would be easier for it to make a sound," I said.
If the constant's higher than 1.2?a puff of cinnamon and the sound of a barking dog."
A tone," I said. Actually . . . " I thought about this. A pitch that reflects the conductivity?" I picked up my notebook. By adjusting the temperature, the gas could be made to sing a song. Or just wave your hand . . ."
Sasha tapped his fingertips against the wall of the chamber, making the dials' needles wag. This made him laugh again. But what about the frostbitten soldiers," he asked, without any fingers?"
I was no longer paying attention. I watched the needles flicker, a tiny back-and-forth, as if they were gesturing for my attention, and an image came to me, strongly, the kind of intuition a scientist leans on. It was like a film loop, the same scene over and over: a man inside a bell jar, his hand hovering above a metal plate, and the metal plate singing. La, it sang. Fa so la.
I looked at my own small hand.

In November 1921, I was invited to demonstrate the theremin before the institute's mechanical engineers and physicists, my first formal audience. I felt again like Lyova with a crate full of vacuum tubes. But these were not credulous dedushki and babushki: these men had invented and reinvented radio, sent complex messages through the air. They spoke the language of electricity. They'd not be dazzled by twinkling little lights.
I was nervous. All right?I was petrified. Beforehand, I shut myself in Ioffe's office. The sun had dipped behind the hills and filled the room with blue silhouettes. As I paced, the shadows skewed and reoriented themselves. I felt as though I was sabotaging something: the order in the room, its tranquillity, its dusk. I went to turn on the electric lamp on Ioffe's desk, but it was broken. I took a small screwdriver from my jacket pocket. I was partway through the repair when he knocked on the door and said through the wood, It's time."
In the low-ceilinged hall I stood beside the apparatus. Twists of smoke rose from cigarettes. I named and indicated the transformer, the oscillator, the unlit vacuum tubes. I closed the cabinet, concealing the components. I cleared my throat. And so," I said, and I turned the theremin on.

Here is the way you play a theremin:
You turn it on. Then you wait.
You wait for several reasons. You wait to give the tubes the chance to warm, like creatures taking their first breaths. You wait in order to heighten the audience's suspense. And, finally, you wait to magnify your own anticipation. It is a thrill and a terror. You stand before a cabinet and two antennas and immediately the space itself is activated, the room is charged, the atmosphere is alive. What was potential is potent. You imagine sparks, embers, tiny lightning flecks balanced in the vacant air.
You raise your hands.
Raise the left hand first, toward the pitch antenna, and you will hear it: DZEEEEOOOoo, a shocked electric coo, steadying into a long hymn. Raise the right hand, toward the volume antenna, and you will quiet it.
Move your hands again, and the device will sing.
My theremin is a musical instrument, an instrument of the air. Its two antennas rise up from a closed wooden box. The pitch antenna is tall and black, noble. The closer your left 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 right 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.