Us Conductors: An Excerpt

Sean Michaels


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 en suite 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, in palaces and 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.


My first invention was called the radio watchman.

I was still a student, scarcely out of adolescence, and I invented a magical box. The radio watchman emits an invisible electromagnetic field and then waits for a disruption. If a human body passes inside this field, the circuit closes and an alarm goes off.

Imagine a vigilant wireless set, keeping guard.

It was a small triumph to have devised something new. At Petrograd University my class was full of rivals and each of us wanted his own calling card. During my first semesters, the only thing distinguishing me from the other students was an uncommon interest in music theory. Twice weekly, I attended courses at the conservatory across town. Sometimes I jangled out Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” on the piano in the physics lounge. Nobody was impressed. But now I had a desk with a magical box, a bulb that flashed whenever I came near it. Classmates would stand just outside the watchman’s field, as if by setting it off they were submitting to my success. Only Sasha came close and backed away, waved his arm or threw a shoe, testing what I’d done. Only Sasha wasn’t intimidated; he was always so sure of his cleverness, that he was cleverer than I.

My friend was tall and thin, with an unknit brow. His life seemed effortless. The day I presented the radio watchman, he insisted on taking me out to celebrate. It was a winter night, one of those chill evenings when your vision is interrupted by a million wild snowflakes. We were talking science. Probably Sasha was telling me about the paper he was writing. We ducked into a tavern near the gray Fontanka River, took two stools near the window, but the spirits hadn’t even started flowing when a commotion blasted through from around the corner. Banging, shouts, and then the procession of a few hundred people, dark coats flying past our window, rippling banners, a gathered effort in the marchers’ faces.

“Reds,” Sasha said, without any disdain. We were Reds too. This was 1917. Both of us had mustered for protests at the university. Now we watched the parade of Communists and read their slogans, and more than anything I remember feeling the rhythm of their drums, the clang of wooden spoons on iron pots.

“Should we join the rascals?” Sasha said. He was already a party member. I hesitated. It was one of those instants when you feel your youth. I glanced back into the safety of the tavern, where drunks were slouched against the tables. Then we threw on our coats and went outside. The mob was boisterous and happy. To be in a parade like that, bold and loud, owning the road, is a messy jubilation. The snow was still falling. The crowd was strident, casual. “Bread and land!” we shouted. We moved together through the city. “Bread and land and freedom!”

Suddenly there was disorder up ahead. The front of the procession stalled. We bumped into our neighbors. Sagging banners, yells, then two loud pops. “What is . . . ?” Sasha began to say, before a channel opened through the crowd.

There, at the square, a row of riflemen, their guns aimed straight through the snowstorm.

We bolted. Men and women were breaking in all directions, some toward but most of them away from the Imperial soldiers. Bodies pushed into us like shoving hands. Snow was still falling. Cold light. More pops, thin trails of smoke, dark coats, and now glimpses of green uniforms, gold buttons, then rising up, the terrifying silhouettes of horses, cavalry, and we ran and ran and ran, over torn earth, over ice, filled with raw, fierce terror. From the street ahead, another bang−deafening, like an explosion. Reality seemed to be on the diagonal; I was so scared I felt I might be sick. We dashed down a bright alley and I pulled Sasha into a half-open doorway. Pressed together, we caught our breath. “You all right?” I said, finally.

“Still in one piece. You?”

I swallowed, then let out a breath. The city’s din had vanished. Before us just snowflakes.

Our bundled coats had pushed the door farther ajar and we stood at the entrance to a long, wide room, lit with lanterns, a crackling stove. Eight or ten men, stripped to the waist, stood staring at us.

Most of them were Chinamen, or they looked like Chinamen. At first I thought it must be a dormitory, somewhere workers slept. But almost at once I realized no. It was a gym. Two of the men were holding long sticks, like shepherds’ staves. The air smelled of sandalwood and sweat.

One of the Chinamen approached us, an older man maybe my father’s age, barrel-chested, with a birthmark across his shoulder. “Good evening,” he murmured. “Can I help you?”

“We, er . . .” Sasha said. “Well, we−”

“Please come in,” he offered. We did and he pulled the door closed behind us. “It’s cold.” In the partial dark, the students eyed us. I felt very clumsy in my greatcoat.

“This is a gymnasium?” I asked.

“Yes. Training room. We call kwoon. Are you hurt?”

“No,” Sasha and I said together.

A pair of men had lost interest in us and began to spar. One was Asian, the other Russian. They attacked each other in slow motion, with short, fluid punches, pirouetting kicks.

The man beside us called out something in Chinese.

“I tell them, ‘Breathe like a child,’” he explained to us.

I watched them dodge and shift. “This is judo?”

Wing chun kung fu,” said the man.

“There are soldiers outside,” Sasha said.

The man regarded him levelly. “You are Bolsheviks?” I noticed that he had bare feet. They all had bare feet.

“Yes,” I said.

He nodded. “I also.”

He shouted something at the students who still watched us. They laughed and fell back into their own practices.

“You’re a communist?” Sasha said.

The man shrugged. “Yes.”

Sticks swung in slow arcs.

“Would you . . . fight?” Sasha said.

The man scratched his belly. “Against soldiers with rifles?” he said. “What use would we be?”

“You might be of use.”

The man, the teacher, sifu, clicked his tongue. “When you have the right tools−that is when you serve,” he said.

A painting of a slender old man, midkick, hung on the wall beside us. He seemed to be floating above a lake. He looked serene.

We never went back to find the protesters, who had bravely rallied, evading the soldiers, gathering at the Winter Palace. They shouted long into the night. Instead we watched the men do kung fu and then I followed Sasha back to the tavern, where we drank vodka and toasted our safety, pleased with our little adventure.

Only much later that night, lying in my sheets, did shame come and find me. It rose up from the floor like a mist. I kept seeing the whirl of the crowd, the way I had clutched my fists and run. My mindless fear. My premature departure.

I hadn’t stayed to learn the ending.


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 Finlyandskiy, 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 walked 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.


The theremin was more or less a combination of its precedents: the soundless watchman, the hissing gas monitor. I was measuring human movements as if they were the fluctuations of a gas, and adding sound.

The early prototypes were variations of the metal plates I’d shown Sasha, with added oscillators and an earpiece. I demonstrated the concept to the department head, Abram Fedorovich Ioffe. My waggling hand sounded out something between a shrieking bumblebee and Massenet’s “Élégie.” Ioffe was tickled. “One day,” he pronounced, “our orchestras will run on batteries.”

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 right hand first, toward the pitch antenna, and you will hear it: DZEEEEOOOoo, a shocked electric coo, steadying into a long hymn. Raise the left 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 emerge from a closed wooden box. The pitch antenna is tall and black, noble. The closer your right 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 left 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.

My colleagues at the institute did not applaud that day. They simply listened very carefully. I played works by Minkus and Massenet. I performed Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan.” I remember looking out over the sheet music into rows of faces, mostly moustached, and seeing Andrey Andreyevich Korovin, a man I had never spoken to, a man I had only seen, his features like the scored bark of a tree. Andrey Andreyevich had worked in the metals lab for fifty years. He had sharp gray eyes and a thin mouth. He was listening to me. My hand was in the air and I was playing a low note. Andrey Andreyevich Korovin, a man I had never spoken to, appeared to be on the verge of tears.

The theremin has always been a machine with two strangenesses. There is the strangeness of the playing: palms flexing in empty space, as if you are pulling the strings of an invisible marionette. But the stranger strangeness is the sound. It is acute. It is at once unmodulated and modulating. It feels both still and frantic. For all my tweakings of timbre, the theremin cannot quite mimic the trumpet’s joyous blast, the cello’s steadying stroke. It is something Else.

Yes, the Elseness is what brings audiences to their feet. It is what inspires composers like Schillinger and Varèse. But there is no escaping the other part, too: like the pallor of an electric lightbulb, like the heat of an electric stove, the theremin’s sound is a stranger to the earth.

I have escorted this stranger across the globe. For all the assembled multitudes, for Rockefeller, Gershwin, Shostakovich, cranky George Bernard Shaw, for wives and friends, enemies and lovers, lost hopes, and for empty rooms, I conducted the ether. In a hundred halls, Saint-Saëns’s “Swan” floated like a ghost. The voice that was not a voice neither paused nor took a breath.


Later, in America, one of the RCA salesmen, Len Shewell, told me the story of selling a theremin to Charlie Chaplin. Len had been invited to Chaplin’s vast mansion, a place done up in marble and ebony, as black and white as Chaplin’s moving pictures. Len dragged his suitcase after the butler, through corridors with sharp corners, to a wide parlor where the Little Tramp reclined on a chaise longue. A vase of roses posed on every table, Len said, and the fireplace was roaring even on that August afternoon. Chaplin asked him to begin his demonstration and Len launched into his routine, but when the sounds started, DZEEEEOOOoo, Len’s hand wavering by the pitch antenna, Chaplin gasped so loudly that Len turned off the machine.

“Is everything all right?” Len asked.

Chaplin was as pale as chalk. “No, yes, continue,” he said.

The actor was plainly terrified. The best-known phantom in the world, a man who had made his fortune as an illusion projected onto silver screens−he was scared of this box of ghosts. Listening to Len’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” his face leapt from horror to ardor and back. His eyebrows rose and fell as if they were on pulleys. He trembled. When Len was finished, Chaplin jumped to his feet, crossed the room, shook the salesman’s hand. “I’ll take one,” he said, and with one finger he reached forward to touch the theremin’s cabinet−as if it were a jaguar, a panther, a man-eating lion.

The sound of the theremin is simply pure electric current. It is the chanting of lightning as it hides in its cloud. The song never strains or falters; it persists, stays, keeps, lasts, lingers. It will never abandon you.

In that regard, it is better than any of us.

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

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