“I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked “termenvox.” He liked its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox – the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.”
If that’s not a great first paragraph, I don’t know what is.
Meet Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors, last year’s Giller Prize winner. This gorgeous novel follows the star-crossed, apprehensive adventures of Lev Termen, a soviet engineer who invents a musical instrument – the theremin – almost by accident. Partially due to the theremin’s growing popularity, and partially due to the Soviet government’s interest in spying on America, Leon Termen finds himself on a whirlwind tour of New York’s 1930s music scene.
The novel documents a crossroads between science and music, electricity and sound, culture and experimentation. Even the title is a pun: “conductors,” after all, could refer to electrical components or orchestra maestros.
This is fertile ground for beautiful covers.
The hardcover edition keeps it pretty simple. This cover doesn’t blow me away, but I don’t loathe it either. I don’t agree with the decision to have the “Us of the title tucked into the silhouette cutout, but that’s a fairly minor quibble. I think the silhouette itself could be clearer, too – you have to study it a little to figure out which direction the figure is facing. It also took me a while to realize the figure is a woman, but maybe that just means I should stop looking at thumbnail images.
I much prefer the trade paperback cover, and it’s the version I bought for myself. It leans more obviously to the science side of things – but I think some descriptions are too quick to label this a purely musical novel, so I feel that bringing circuitry imagery to the forefront helps hammer home the engineering side of the story.
The UK hardcover takes the cake. It’s clean, it’s whimsical, and it plays with the more rigid lines of the North American hardcover. I think it’s actually a better representation of how a musician’s arms would interact and play with the field of the theremin – and it’s damn beautiful to boot.
Us Conductors is still relatively young – published barely a year ago – so I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more covers in the near future as the novel is translated and republished. Who knows – maybe we’ll see it on Cover to Cover again.
Cover to Cover is a weekly project comparing and critiquing the various covers of popular novels. Find more posts in this series here – and feel free to link to your blog in the comments if you do one of your own!