Giller-prize winner Sean Michaels talks about the connections between science and the arts

On Nov. 17, as part of York’s Canadian Writers in Person course, Sean Michaels spoke about his novel Us Conductors. York teaching assistant Dana Patrascu-Kingsley sent the following report to YFile.

Sean Michaels (image: John Londono)

Sean Michaels (image: John Londono)

In an event co-sponsored by the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, The School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design, the Faculty of Science and the Lassonde School of Engineering, Sean Michaels came to York to talk about his novel Us Conductors, winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and finalist for the 2014 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the 2014 Concordia University First Book Prize. The event took place Nov. 17 at York University’s Keele campus. 

A novel about Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the inventor of the theremin, Us Conductors underlines the connections between science and the arts. Lev Termen − inventor, scientist, musician, engineer, spy, and prisoner in the Russian gulag − is telling us his own story in this fictionalized account of his life. The novel is ostensibly made up of two letters that the protagonist writes to Clara Rockmore, the woman he is in love with. The letters are a prisoner’s lyrical attempts at preserving his memory and his sense of self.

Michaels himself is a music aficionado, a writer and editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone. He became interested in the figure of Lev Termen, the inventor of the theremin, an electronic music instrument played without touch by the thereminist. Its music is most often remembered for its presence in sci-fi B-movies, and Michaels explained that what led him to wanting to write the book is that after years of knowing the theremin as a “joke instrument,” he discovered that “the theremin, in the hands of a gifted person, can sound beautiful.”

For this event at York, talented thereminist Hillary Thomson performed several pieces on the theremin, to the delight of the audience, who were excited to listen to the music as well as to learn more about how the theremin works.

Us Conductors book coverPlayed by moving one’s hands closer and farther from two metal antennas − one determining frequency, and the other one volume − the theremin is a fascinating instrument that Michaels sees as “an eerie analogy for our relationships with other people” with whom we interact, coming closer and moving away in our attempts at establishing a connection.

The theremin was a sensational invention in the 1920s. Lenin himself met the inventor and was fascinated by this instrument, which he then instructed Termen to travel and show to the masses. Later on, Termen was invited to talk about it and demonstrate how it can be played all over Europe, and eventually he made the trip to the US, where he patented and sold his invention, while also working as a spy for the USSR. Upon returning to the USSR under mysterious circumstances, he was sent to the Siberian Gulag for a while, and then moved to a prison for scientists where he was forced to work in the service of the very state that kept him prisoner.

In Us Conductors, Michaels depicts the lack of hope and options in a labour camp. For this portion of the book, he travelled to Russia, and went to Magadan, a remote town on the Eastern side, to visit the site of a Gulag and imagine what life there must have been like. Through his research, Michaels has provided insight into the intricate connections between scientific innovation, ethics, and love.

On Dec. 1, Lee Maracle will read from and talk about her novel Celia’s Song. Readings are free and open to any member of the public. For more information, contact Professor Leslie Sanders at leslie@yorku.ca or Professor Gail Vanstone at gailv@yorku.ca. All readings are held Tuesdays from 7 to 9pm in 206 Accolade West Building, Keele campus.

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