Debut novel featuring the theremin wins $100K Giller Prize

downloadSo, part of this story is about local author makes good. The other part is how a little-known musical instrument, the theremin, may finally have its moment in the spotlight.

In something of an upset, this past week Ottawa native Sean Micheals won the Scotiabank Giller prize for 2014. Canada’s biggest literary prize now stands at $100K for the winning author, and $10,000 for each finalist.

Michaels was born in Scotland and now lives in Montréal, But he grew up in Ottawa, something he remembers fondly, according to this interview in the Ottawa Citizen:

Ottawa, he says, was a great place to experience a broad spectrum of culture, from concerts at the NAC to films at the Mayfair Theatre, as well as meet a broad diversity of people. “You could be in a conversation about culture and art, even if you were a kid.”

The Giller jury had to go through 161 books. Their selection of Us Conductors was unanimous:

“Michaels’ book is based on the life of Lev Thermen, the Russian-born inventor of the Theremin, the most ethereal of musical instruments. As the narrative shifts countries and climates, from the glittery brightness of New York in the 1920s to the leaden cold of the Soviet Union under Stalin, the grace of Michaels’s style makes these times and places seem entirely new. He succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.”

Remarkably, this is Michaels’ first novel.

For those who don’t already know, the theremin is the erie/ethereal sounding instrument of many sci-fi movies. Here’s the real Lev/Leon Theremin playing his invention:

I have not yet read Us Conductors, but Theremin’s life and times were remarkable as described in this BBC profile from 2012, crediting Theremin as one of the fathers of electronic instruments.

Another main character in the book is Clara Rockman, described as the theremin’s greatest player.

Personally, I don’t really like the theremin’s sound. To invent a word, it’s too warbily. But so what? Among other oddities, it’s the only instrument one plays without touching. How so? From the website Theremin World:

Two antennas protrude from the theremin – one controlling pitch, and the other controlling volume. As a hand approaches the vertical antenna, the pitch gets higher. Approaching the horizontal antenna makes the volume softer. Because there is no physical contact with the instrument, playing the theremin in a precise melodic way requires practiced skill and keen attention to pitch.

And then there’s Theremin the man, who lived through extraordinary times. Two good reasons to give the book a read.

As depicted on Michaels’ website, his novel encompasses: vacuum tubes, memory, Charlie Chaplin, romance, Sergei Rachmaninoff, white noise, potato chips, Alcatraz, anagrams, secret agents, communism, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Zeppelins, murder Duke Ellington and …wheelbarrows!

For anyone interested in a non-fiction biography on the topic, there is Theremim: Ether music and espionage by Albert Glinsky. It is described by the Baltimore City Paper as “…hair-raising as any Holocaust narrative..reads like a mix of John LeCarre, Franz Kafka and Popular Mechanics”.

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2 Comments on “Debut novel featuring the theremin wins $100K Giller Prize”

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  1. Jim Bullard says:

    Great instrument for making spooky sounds. I suspect that like electronic keyboards it could be made to generate different sounds based on sampling. From what I’ve seen of them however I don’t think you can ‘strike’ a note. They are just blend into each other.

  2. Mitch Edelstein says:

    There is a movie about Theremin, appropriately named:

    Theremin – An Electronic Odyssey – it is a documentary but it’s an amazing story. It’s available on DVD, so I’m sure NetFlix has it.

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