Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Sean Michaels Rides the Theremin's Unique Waves to Giller Nomination

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Sean Michaels Rides the Theremin's Unique Waves to Giller Nomination

Article excerpt

Michaels' theremin interest leads to Giller


TORONTO - Chances are, if you have a memory of theremin being used in a pop song it's the trilling whistle surfing through the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations."

But that's not a theremin -- it's a Tannerin, or electro-theremin.

Well, how about the oft-cited quivering birdsong that memorably sings through the theme from "Star Trek," often believed to be the theremin? No, actually, that was just the voice of studio soprano Loulie Jean Norman.

Such is the plight of the oft-misunderstood theremin -- a mystery of an instrument, a magic trick to play. It's then perhaps not surprising that Sean Michaels, even after writing a Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated novel inspired in part by the theremin and then acquiring two of the instruments for himself, is still basically terrible at playing it.

"I'm incompetent," he conceded cheerfully during a recent telephone interview from Montreal. "My ability in the theremin is not very much better than a person on the street.

"I can play 'Happy Birthday,' but it's only recognizable as 'Happy Birthday' if it happens to be your birthday."

A celebration has indeed been in order, of course, given Michaels' Giller nod for "Us Conductors." His life has been a "restless zoom" since, with appearances in Calgary, Toronto, Halifax, Montreal and Vancouver following each other in close sequence.

There was a time when Michaels would have brought one of his theremins to those public readings and appearances before attempting to weave some onstage magic. Eventually, the music journalist-turned-author decided the message was better-delivered by professionals.

Invented by Russian physicist Lev Termen (the westernized version of his name giving the instrument its title), the theremin is played without physical contact. Antennas ascertain the position of the player's hands, which manipulate frequency and amplitude, and the signals are sent to an amp.

Michaels memorably described the resultant sound in his book: "DZEEEEOOOoo. …

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