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Us Conductors


Locked in a cabin aboard a ship bearing him back to Russia and away from the love of his life, Lev Sergeyvich Termen begins to type his story: a tale of electricity, romance and the invention of the world’s strangest instrument, the theremin. He recollects his early years as a scientist forging breakthroughs during the Bolshevik Revolution and his decade as a Manhattan celebrity and reluctant Soviet spy. Against the backdrop of Prohibition and the 1929 Crash, Termen spends his days in his workshop, devising inventions, and his nights in Harlem clubs, jostling with famous bandleaders and falling in love with the young violinist Clara Reisenberg. When the boat reaches his homeland, Termen finds it is not the Russia he remembers. He is imprisoned in the Gulag system, sent first to a Siberian work camp and then to a secret laboratory. In the face of all this, his love for Clara remains constant, passing through the ether like the theremin’s song.

Steeped in beauty, wonder, and looping heartbreak, Sean Michaels’s debut novel explores the lies we tell, the truths we imagine, and the lengths we go to survive.

  • Page Count: 456
  • Direct Price: 12.75
  • List Price: 15.95
  • 5 x 7 3/4
  • June 2014
  • 978-1-935639-81-7
Format Price

Price as Configured $0.00

Sean Michaels is a writer and music critic. A two-time National Magazine Award winner, his work has been published by the GuardianMcSweeney's, the WalrusBrickPitchforkThe Believer, and many other outlets. In 2003, he founded the music-blog Said the Gramophone. He lives in Montreal.



*Us Conductors makes NPR's 2014 Best of the Year list

*Chosen as an Indies Introduce pick

*Flavorwire picks US Conductors as one of the 50 best independent fiction and poetry books of 2014

"Us Conductors is an impressive debut, a novel as somber and haunting as the voice of the theremin itself."
—Friends of Atticus


"Both the voice and the stories it tells transcend the dusty contrivances of much historical fiction, resulting in a novel that feels both fresh and timeless."
Kirkus Starred Review

"Us Conductors stretches its arms to encompass nearly everything— it is an immigrant tale, an epic, a spy intrigue, a prison confession, an inventor's manual, a creation myth, and an obituary—but the electric current humming through its heart is an achingly resonant love story. Sean Michaels orchestrates his first novel like a virtuoso."
—Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

“A fascinating novel! Told with grace and confidence, and in a finely wrought voice, Us Conductors kept surprising me to the end. I was swept from the speakeasies and artistic fervor of 1930s Manhattan to bleak, secretive Soviet Union prisons, and never once was the illusion shattered. Throughout the story, the themes of love and music sing like the pure, ethereal notes of the theremin.”
—Eowyn Ivey, author of the New York Times bestseller The Snow Child

“DZEEEEOOOoo! Just as hard as it is to make a theremin sing so it is hard to pull off a novel like this. But Sean Michaels does it. Us Conductors bridges body and soul, science and art, and like theremin music, it’s of this world and magical at the same time.”
—Ismet Prcic, author of Shards

“I’ve been awaiting a book by Sean Michaels for a decade, ever since he helped create not only the online MP3 blog but his own form of criticism—imaginative, bird-like devices of prose that soar in and out of the paths of songs. In his novel, Us Conductors, Michaels finds his ideal subject in another inventor, the enigmatic Leon Termen, who with softly lit-up wisdom calls himself ‘a sound being sounded, music being made,’ amid the noise of history. Michaels’s voice will pass through you like live current and conduct you to parts unknown.
—Carl Wilson, music critic for Slate.com and author of Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste

"Sean Michaels has chosen an engrossing subject in Lev Termen, the Russian scientist and spy, most famous for his invention of the unusual instrument, the theremin. Michaels details Termen's rise to fame, his trips around Europe and America to demonstrate his creation (bankrolled by the Russian government and not without its costs), as well as his new life in the States and subsequent incarceration in a Russian gulag following a shift in relations with his homeland. Us Conductors is engaging throughout. A fascinating look at a fascinating man."
—Liberty Hardy, RiverRun Bookstore

"Doctor Zhivago meets The Great Gatsby in this lyrical novel in which the charming and magnetic inventor of the theremin is torn between the poles of capitalism and communism."
—David Enyeart, Common Good Books

"Probably best known as founder of the influential music blog Said the Gramophone, Michaels’ debut novel fictionalizes the life of Lev Termen — scientist, spy and inventor of the theremin, an ethereal and eerie musical instrument."
National Post

"Hipsters and the tragically indie know Sean Michaels as the founder of music blog Said the Gramophone. In April, he’ll release his debut novel, Us Conductors, a fictionalization of the life of the inventor of the theremin. Yeah, I’m not sure either, but Michaels writes about music with care and attention, so I’m interested to see where this goes."

"Music blogger Sean Michaels has written a lushly imagined biography of the Soviet inventor of the theremin, one of the first electronic instruments."
Toronto Life

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.