Steven Martin On "US CONDUCTORS"

Posted: 7/25/2014 10:11:29 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Film maker Steven Martin (THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY) has written the following concerning the recently published novel, US CONDUCTORS, by Sean Michaels. 





Tonight I attended one of the weirder shows I have ever been to. It was billed as a celebration of the life of Leon Theremin and to promote the new book about him, which is being sold as a 'novel'. I read the book this last weekend and was, uh, underwhelmed. Except for getting the character of Lev Sergeivich completely wrong, along with that of Clara Rockmore, Henry Solomonoff, Nicolas Slonimsky, and everyone else I knew personally, as well as being historically and chronologically inaccurate and demonstrating no knowledge of basic Russian culture, and claiming our beloved Lev Sergeivich was a spy, which is of course, nonsense, and lifting dialog from my film as well as imagery,and then adding in a postscript that the book is a lie, as if that somehow makes it all okay, it isn't that bad. 


Anyway, an irritating little radio personality came out, with her dog, and made some arch comments before the author came out and read from his 'novel', while a thereminist and guitar player performed. Then there was more reading from the book and more theremin music and more inaccurate arch recounting of the Theremin's life by the radio personality, and then, for some reason, an old movie of a ballet dance started while two new musicians, on drums and electric guitar, played an endless drone to which a theremin was added. This went on for a long time. A long time. Finally, it was over, like some sort of summer camp talent show. 


I spoke with the thereminst, about technique and he was a very nice guy and there was even a guy who had been at the Los Angeles premiere of THEREMIN all those years ago and that was nice for me. And then I went to speak with the author and, controlling myself, was very friendly, as was he, the lazy slob. I told him he was wrong about Theremin being a spy and he told me he thought Theremin was probably a jerky sort of guy. I told him he was dead wrong about that, and that Clara would have smacked him, then, headed home. Thank God I control the theatrical rights to Clara Rockmore's life story or this schmuck might end up with a movie deal. His book, and let's face it, I admire anyone who actually writes a book instead of just talking about it, wasn't for me, and I think the closest thing to it is the film Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Killer. I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry at seeing my close friends, all departed, treated so shabbily.


Thank God for all the serious thereminists out there who do the instrument and our beloved Lev Sergeivich justice. What a world. Ahhh....... I feel a little better. Time for sleep. I'm sure I'm going to catch hell for writing this, but you know, one has to stand up for their friends...

Posted: 7/25/2014 4:59:28 PM

From: Tucson, AZ USA

Joined: 2/26/2011

With a misguided generation trapped in digital devices, reading a misguided novel and now access to a digitally faked theremin it all makes sense to me, Theremin never had a chance to find his proper place in History unless…


Posted: 7/27/2014 3:11:38 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

"...and claiming our beloved Lev Sergeivich was a spy, which is of course, nonsense..."

I thought this had some truthiness to it?  Here's his biographer Albert Glinsky's take (from: emphasis mine):

"His very reason for being sent over was his espionage mission," says Glinsky. Demonstrating the theremin instrument was just a distraction, a Trojan Horse, as it were.

"He had special access to firms like RCA, GE, Westinghouse, aviation companies and so on, and shared his latest technical know how with representatives from these companies to get them to open up to him about their latest discoveries.

"He also ran his own companies, which were fronts for industrial espionage, and he reported to Amtorg, the Soviet trading corporation in America, itself a front for espionage activities."

So I guess I'm kind of confused.  Martin and Glinsky - two people who should know - seem to be making entirely opposite claims, so perhaps the author of this novel could be forgiven for getting this wrong (or right as the case may be).


Posted: 7/30/2014 9:20:36 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

I didn't know Steven Martin appeared in the Addams Family movies:

The above is a screen cap from my DVD of "Addams Family Values".  That's him and his real life twin brother (Douglas Brian) playing conjoined twins Donald and Dexter.  It's a very brief appearance and took me a while to find.  Their roles are also credited in the first movie "The Addams Family" but I couldn't find them in any scene on the DVD. 

They're great movies if you haven't seen them!  IMDb links:

Posted: 8/1/2014 3:29:39 PM

From: Eastleigh, Hampshire, U.K. ................................... Fred Mundell. ................................... Electronics Engineer. (Primarily Analogue) .. CV Synths 1974-1980 .. Theremin developer 2007 to present .. soon to be Developing / Trading as . ...................................

Joined: 12/7/2007

"So I guess I'm kind of confused.  Martin and Glinsky - two people who should know - seem to be making entirely opposite claims" - Dewster

It doesn't stop with those two people making different claims - It seems that a lot (most?) of Lev's life is a mystery, and this extends to his family and acquaintances having different contradictory tales.

I suspect that Lev was used for espionage but was not a "spy" in any dramatic sense of the word.. He designed / invented and perhaps built espionage devices, and probably enthusiastically fed back technical information that had been passed to him by careless engineers, but I dont see him as the sort of person who would sneak into offices and lift technical files or the like..

Engineers are excited by their inventions and discoveries, and finding someone bright who understands and shares / evaluates their ideas will often get them talking far more freely than any truth drug could! I suspect that Lev was in this "flow" - both with those who he was "spying" on and those he was "passing information to" and whilst probably aware of his "role" as a "conduit" this was not his motivation.

Its real sad, but this "espionage" mindset has now pervaded technology to such an extent that it holds back our progress - We cannot talk to engineers or scientists in 'competing' organizations, we have piles of legal documents to sign before we are given any job - Even in public funded establishments like universities we are driven by the need to be the first to publish a paper - and this means that we dont pool resources and information, we all do the same experiments as other teams, and everything is a stressful crawl.

And we are into another cold war again (IMO initiated by "our side", but being ratcheted up by nationalistic morons on both sides) - a war which can only damage both us and the "Theremin Homeland", debilitate Ukraine and damage the exchange of ideas which would benefit us all. It is awful to see fascists take control of a country and start persecuting one ethnic group in that country, and this is what happened in Ukraine in the early days of the junta before the Russians took up arms - the junta even banning the speaking of Russian in any official capacity! - And we (Europe and the USA) backed the fascists! One could hardly design a set of events that more precisely engineered the reaction and consequences we are seeing today - An open door for extremists on both sides to spill the blood of innocents. 

I am inclined to think that those who leak secrets to the public domain and even "spy's" like Lev who facilitate distribution of science and technology are the true heroes.



Posted: 8/2/2014 10:20:07 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

Having watched Martin's documentary and read Glinsky's book, I think you've summed it up quite well Fred.  Theremin's life is something of a mystery, and it's hard to tell how much of it was luck and how much of it was ingenuity that enabled him to survive the exceedingly perilous political climate he was born into (standard operating procedure in dictatorships / wars seems to be to "marginalize" anyone who thinks too much).  Lord knows he was a genius when it came to electronics, and it's easy to imagine that his obvious value in that regard played a large part in his making it through the purge in one piece.

Posted: 8/2/2014 3:55:21 PM

From: Eastleigh, Hampshire, U.K. ................................... Fred Mundell. ................................... Electronics Engineer. (Primarily Analogue) .. CV Synths 1974-1980 .. Theremin developer 2007 to present .. soon to be Developing / Trading as . ...................................

Joined: 12/7/2007

" Lord knows he was a genius when it came to electronics, and it's easy to imagine that his obvious value in that regard played a large part in his making it through the purge in one piece." - Dewster

Yes - We dont really know whether his disappearance from the USA was voluntary, we do know (I think) that he revered Lenin, but not too much about where his real political feelings lay - I suspect that whatever he 'felt' he was probably careful to hide any ideas / feelings what could be seen as "dangerous" - the only "dangerous" idea he proposed was probably the idea of resurrecting Lenin - but this was so unrealistic that it could be ignored by the Stalin regime.

Scientists of that era seem even more amoral than scientists today, Werhner Von Braun for example was another of these eminent genius who's political 'feelings' (if they had them) were ignored because of their value, really, IMO, Werner should have been tried for his Nazi war crimes - But perhaps I am wrong, perhaps he had no option but to use his skills to serve the masters, and needed to play the full game to survive.

" survive the exceedingly perilous political climate "

I think the "climate" is, and always has been perilous - oh, it comes to a head when one has dictatorships and wars, but for scientist or engineers with a conscience who speak out, their survival (or certainly freedom) is at risk even in our present day, even when living away from the regime they are exposing (as was the case for Mordecai Vanunu)

And at a lower level, if "survival" includes the ability to earn from ones skills, then a large number of scientists and engineers probably suppress their feelings and work for some death industry because this is the major employer for the 'brightest' people. A friend of mine (a young man I mentored from when he was a 8 year old, and steered into engineering) became a brilliant IT consultant, and shares (or I should say shared) my views on the death industry - But he was offered a project management role in Bahrain, doing IT for a new military (airport) complex - wages >£180kpa, jumping his income from ~£50kpa.. 5 years and he can come back to the UK and buy a house... He's been there 6 months, he wont be coming back - he is changing his views, mixing with those who have sold their soul to the "other" side - I asked him how he will feel when the aircraft drop their payloads on some innocent families and in his view, its nothing to do with him - "If I didn't do the IT, someone else would".

And he's right. But so wrong..


Posted: 8/2/2014 9:25:37 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
- Upton Sinclair

Posted: 8/3/2014 9:05:28 AM

From: Eastleigh, Hampshire, U.K. ................................... Fred Mundell. ................................... Electronics Engineer. (Primarily Analogue) .. CV Synths 1974-1980 .. Theremin developer 2007 to present .. soon to be Developing / Trading as . ...................................

Joined: 12/7/2007

I Am Your Spy

by Mordechai Vanunu

I am the clerk, the technician, the mechanic, the driver.
They said, Do this, do that, don't look left or right,
don't read the text. Don't look at the whole machine. You
are only responsible for this one bolt. For this one rubber-stamp.
This is your only concern. Don't bother with what is above you.
Don't try to think for us. Go on, drive. Keep going. On, on.

So they thought, the big ones, the smart ones, the futurologists.
There is nothing to fear. Not to worry.
Everything's ticking just fine.
Our little clerk is a diligent worker. He's a simple mechanic.
He's a little man.
Little men's ears don't hear, their eyes don't see.
We have heads, they don't.

Answer them, said he to himself, said the little man,
the man with a head of his own. Who is in charge? Who knows
where this train is going?
Where is their head? I too have a head.
Why do I see the whole engine,
Why do I see the precipice--
is there a driver on this train?

The clerk driver technician mechanic looked up.
He stepped back and saw -- what a monster.
Can't believe it. Rubbed his eyes and -- yes,
it's there all right. I'm all right. I do see
the monster. I'm part of the system.
I signed this form. Only now I am reading the rest of it.

This bolt is part of a bomb. This bolt is me. How
did I fail to see, and how do the others go on
fitting bolts. Who else knows?
Who has seen? Who has heard? -- The emperor really is naked.
I see him. Why me? It's not for me. It's too big.

Rise and cry out. Rise and tell the people. You can.
I, the bolt, the technician, mechanic? -- Yes, you.
You are the secret agent of the people. You are the eyes of the nation.
Agent-spy, tell us what you've seen. Tell us what the insiders, the clever ones, have hidden from us.
Without you, there is only the precipice. Only catastrophe.

I have no choice. I'm a little man, a citizen, one of the people,
but I'll do what I have to. I've heard the voice of my conscience
and there's nowhere to hide.
The world is small, small for Big Brother.
I'm on your mission. I'm doing my duty. Take it from me.

Come and see for yourselves. Lighten my burden. Stop the train.
Get off the train. The next stop -- nuclear disaster. The next book,
the next machine. No. There is no such thing.

-1987, Ashkelon Prison

Posted: 4/29/2015 2:37:08 AM

From: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Joined: 4/24/2015

Fred and Dewster...

I think your discussion shows the value of this novel... a work of fiction... Inspired by history... That engages the imagination in a way that encourages political thought, discourse, and reflection... 

I am in the midst of reading the novel now (almost finished), and did a quick search to see if it had come up on the forum here.  I was really curious to see how it was received here.


I've also watched Martin's documentary, and Glinsky's biography is next on my reading list.


I take these things for what they are... Fact, fiction, or fabulation.

Martin's documentary was excellent and informative. I cringed a bit at his bringing Lev and Clara together again... I was uncertain as to whether it was kindness or cruelty... But I was not there and did not know them, and cannot judge, but I do want to watch that film many more times to get a better sense.


As for the novel, I take it as the fiction that it is. Literature. Beautifully written. The evocative and poetic language excites the imagination and stirs political reflection -- imagery rich in taste touch and smell. Of course I do doubt the facts at every turn. But fiction is not about the facts or the details. Fiction draws out unexpected truths from oblique angles... It comes at things sideways, and pulls things out from between the lines, between the words... Abstractions hidden behind  manufactured stories. In this way, fiction can dare to say things that documentary cannot... While documentary must remain true to facts and history and proofs, fiction can pull at the edges, and distort the details in ways that draw unusual conclusions, disagreement, excitement, disgust, and curiosity.  It reaches new audiences. It causes existing audiences to discuss, debate, disagree, revisit, and rethink.


That said, I can totally relate to Martin's reaction. I would hate to read a fictional work or worse, to watch a fictional film, about my own friends, families, or loved ones.  The liberties that are required to be taken in order for a fiction to achieve it's goals (excitement, drama, intrigue, action, scandal, etc)... While these things often have some root in a small truth (just as most cliches and stereotypes are loosely rooted in truths), are often exaggerated to extreme in order to keep readers or viewers interest and to excite the imagination.  I could not bear to read a novel about a friend or loved one... I think it would be unbearable. so I see where Martin is coming from.


anyhow... This is getting long and I'm typing on my phone, as my computer is at the studio...


i checked in on this thread because Sean Michaels, the author of "Us Conductors" will be doing a talk here on Friday... Just 2 doors down from my studio, where I am working on my first theremin attempts... So I'm home trying to finish reading the novel before his talk.


His talk is entitled "Reimagining history to concoct stories"


So it falls in line with this thread... How far off can a historical fiction veer before it becomes more fiction and less history? I don't know...  I look forward to reading Glinsky's biography, and revisiting Martin's documentary (it's been a while since I last watched it)... I wonder if Sean has read Martin's response? I assume he has. It is a small world. I wonder how he reacted to it.


but yeah... Sean will be in town for a few events this weekend, all just down the hall from my studio... I have mixed feelings and curiosity about the book and look forward to asking him some questions about it. 


these questions about truth, history, fact, fiction, and fabulation have always fascinated me... 

Can we ever really know anyone, or even ourselves... And if so, does that knowledge come from facts and details? Or from broader strokes of bigger pictures and possibilities?

but now that is the wine talking (wine + novel = good combo). so, I'll stop trying to type on a phone, and will get back to finishing the reading of the novel, and thinking up what I'll ask Sean on Friday and Saturday.

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