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June 10, 2014

Book Notes - Sean Michaels "Us Conductors"

Us Conductors

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sean Michaels' engaging debut novel Us Conductors brings to life spy, scientist, and Theremin inventor Lev Termen, a story resonates throughout as much as that musical instrument ever has.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"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."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Sean Michaels's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Us Conductors:

So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to share with you some really great music.

I wrote a novel called Us Conductors, which is filled with electric singing; and since 2003 I've been doing Said the Gramophone, a blog that's mostly songs; and I spend all day listening to noisy racket, while I work. But this is the first time I've had the pleasure of joining Largehearted Boy - a blog as tenacious as saxifrage, as generous as a fruit-tree. LHB is stand-alone and extra-ordinary. The least I can do is share some really great music - songs that inspired Us Conductors and might inspire you too, if you press play & close your eyes & say, in a secret voice, ok.

Nicolas Jaar - "^Tre"

We'll start quietly. It is as if Nicolas Jaar is hiding his electronics in a lake. Voices lapping and cut-up, presents and yesterdays, through a rippling current. There is sun and there is moon. There is piano. Us Conductors is a book about solitude masquerading as a book about love. "^Tre" is a song of reminiscence, misunderstanding, and search.

Clara Rockmore - "The Swan (Saint-Saëns)"

But let's get serious. More than anything, my book's a book about the theremin. Arguably the queerest musical invention of the 20th century - a box with two antennas, played without touching, with a sound like the sound of a human voice. It relies upon the principle that the body is an electric conductor. Clara Rockmore, born in Vilnius in 1911, was the theremin's greatest player. Us Conductors is a dreaming of the story of the theremin's inventor, Lev Sergeyvich Termen, and of his relationship with Clara. Saint-Saëns' "Swan" floats through the tale, like a ghost. It is light and heavy, so so heavy.

Low - "Murderer"

My Lev is a fiction. He is imaginary, de-coupled from history. My Lev is a murderer. This is a role that comes to him unexpectedly, rising up like smoke. I wanted the violence to be like Low's song, "Murderer" - slow and unremitting. A wonderful song, luminous and menacing and beautiful and diffuse. How do you resist a noise like this? How do you fight what is already happening?

Ted Weems Orchestra - "Heartaches"

With distraction! The first half of Us Conductors takes place among the whiz and bang of jazz age New York City. Dancehalls and speakeasies, chop-suey and automats, dancing til your shoes come untied. I spent weeks drinking down the music of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and the Ted Weems Orchestra, trying hear what dancers would have heard back then. Not to feel this as dusty, bygone music - but as something young and thrilling, flexing at its edges, ripe as summer. There's lust hidden in all this swoony romancing.

New Order - "Age of Consent"

The chapters in Us Conductors are named after songs by bands like New Order, the Cocteau Twins and the Chameleons. Noisy '80s stuff - new wave, post-punk, spectral pop. I wanted to confuse the soundtrack in this story of American Prohibition and Stalinist Terror; to give it modern gallop, newborn distortion. For its decades-old dates to carry an adolescent energy. The chapter called "Age of Consent" begins like this:

At its new location, the Theremin Studio became a zoological garden for like-minded animals. There was still the same procession of pupils - naive amateurs, wealthy dilettantes, scions of Russian American New York − but also an entourage of artists, scientists, musicians, philosophers, showbiz characters. Awaking in the morning, I turned in my wide bed and wondered what the day would bring, whom the day would bring: which men and women would stand in my doorway removing their hats, spilling out introductions. Strangers arrived over breakfast, bowled into the living room after a night of dancing. "Let’s go to Theremin's!" they must have said. Like I was the host of a beloved dive.

Hopefully the dive's got a little of Manchester, in 1982. A little of New Order's raw longing.

Gillian Welch - "I Dream a Highway"

I'm not the first Book Notes contributor to cite Welch's "I Dream a Highway" as inspiration. Maybe there's something writerly in the song's patience - unfolding minute after minute, accumulating. Maybe there's something writerly in its spirit, all full of yearning. But really, for me, it's that I aspire to Gillian Welch's poetry. So few writers can make the beautiful feel natural, can make the lilting direct. I think I'll move down into Memphis / and thank the hatchet man who forked my tongue, she sings. I'm an indisguisable shade of twilight / Any second now, I'm gonna turn myself on. / In the blue display of the cool cathode ray / I dream a highway / back to you. When Lev sits alone in the glow of a snowed-in window, searching his memory, let this song curl 'round his heart like a riddle.

Tim Hecker - "In the Fog II"

Us Conductors ends with noise. Noise advancing and encircling, crowding out everything else; noise, and a faraway voice, impossible. Writing the novel's last pages I listened to "In the Fog II" again and again. Here it was: gorgeous, terrible sound, immediate and loud, incomprehensible. Is that a melody we hear, or are we imagining it? Meaning or its opposite? We ask and ask if the composer is sending a signal, making a message; Hecker won't say.

You hear a noise and you think it is a presence; but it is just a shrieking emptiness, interference. You have made a mistake.
Still I hear your voice. It is what I have.

Our lonely lives are all this: can we feel the ones beside us, or have we made a mistake?

TEEN - "Better"

At least we have this.

Sean Michaels and Us Conductors links:

the author's website
the author's music blog
the author's Wikipedia entry

Globe and Mail review
Kirkus review
Toronto Star review

Canada Writes guest post by the author
Kreative Kontrol interview with the author
Nardwuar interview with the author
National Post profile of the author
Noisey interview with the author
Quill & Quire essay by the author
Vancouver Sun interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists