Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Lev Sergeyvich Termen is a wunderkind of early communist Russia.  Trained as a physicist, he also experiments withus conductors electronics and builds a musical instrument unlike any other – the theremin, which uses the hand movements of the musician to create an unearthly sound that mystifies and thrills audiences.

Termen travels through his native Soviet Union with the blessings of no less than Lenin, showing forth the wonders of his electronic devices.  The Soviet government later sends him over to live in the United States, ostensibly to show off his expertise, but secretly as a spy.

A love interest enters Termen’s life as an eighteen year old girl who is a talented violinist, and she quickly becomes the center of his hectic, New York City based life.  An early childhood injury that hampers her violin playing, but she quickly masters the theremin.

It is the intent of Termen’s superiors that his inventions, particularly the theremin, take off wildly and spread the glories of Mother Russia.  But the Great Depression takes hold all too quickly, and Termen, despite his whirlwind lifestyle, becomes heavily in debt, and ever more heavily under the scrutiny of certain individuals who want to make it clear that his time in America is not all bread and roses.

Termen lives about ten years in New York, and then is spirited away back to the Soviet Union, where he lives a stretch of depredations in prison camps in Siberia and in a more “liberated” environment in Moscow, creating increasingly harder innovations of spycraft by the behest of a certain high-ranking Soviet official.

Us Conductors is a fictionalized account of Termen’s life that switches between his time in the United States to his confinement on board a ship bound for Leningrad for the first two-thirds of the book, and then continues with his life of hardships in the Soviet Union.  The book provides an interesting depiction of New York City during the heyday of the late 1920s and 1930s.

Termen was an actual person; here’s a link to a brief background, and an example of him playing the theremin.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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