Said the Gramophone’s Sean Michaels: Us Conductors

For over a decade, Said the Gramophone has been one of the seminal music blogs and the most well written thanks to the distinctively eloquent prose of founder Sean Michaels. Though I’d been sharing music on Muruch a few years before Said the Gramophone was created, its literary presence in the then burgeoning mp3 blog scene certainly influenced my own approach to writing about music. Subsequently, I’ve rarely felt such excitement, sisterly pride and faith-like confidence in a book’s potential to entertain and inspire as I did turning the first page of Sean’s debut novel, Us Conductors.

“The sound of the theremin is simply pure electric current. It is the chanting of lightning as it hides in its cloud. The song never strains or falters; it persists, stays, keeps, lasts, lingers. It will never abandon you.

In that regard, it is better than any of us.”

Us Conductors is an extraordinary work of historical fiction that is equal parts love story and spy novel – and all about the theremin. The tale encompasses the unusual life story of the instrument’s Russian inventor, Léon Theremin, particularly his romance with the theremin’s most famous player, Clara Rockmore, as well as a whole lotta Stalin-era international intrigue.

Sean portrays Léon Theremin as the Steve Jobs of the early 20th century with his innovative inventions, motivational speeches about bringing cutting edge technology to the common man and his ongoing battle to maintain creative control amidst greedy corporations and sinister political agencies, both American and Soviet.

Yes, I imagined a theremin in every home; not just the billions of new songs that would sing out, but the realization of millions of Americans, Englishmen, Spaniards, Siamese: If we can do this, what else can we free people accomplish?”

I read the first half of the book during a recent vacation, happy to discover it was the perfect book for a perfect beach day. I fell into the novel’s poetic description of Léon and Clara’s budding romance with seagulls flying elegant circles in the clear blue sky above me, the sun glistening gold on the sea beside me and Allison Crowe singing “Hallelujah” into my ears.

The sweet, old-fashioned courtship of the protagonist scientist and his beloved muse often brought to my mind one of my favorite poems, “Recuerdo” by Edna St. Vincent Milay.

For dessert you ordered a chocolate parfait. I ordered a cup of coffee. I drank it sweet, with two small spoonfuls of sugar. Someone was playing records, one after another. They all sounded like love songs. You hid your grin as you scraped mousse from the bottom of the parfait glass.”

Unfortunately, my return home was accompanied by the novel’s Kafkaesque second half. It was a drastic change in tone, though the quality of Sean’s writing remained steady throughout. I suppose history left Sean little room for creative license. The sorrow and disillusionment that plagued the novel’s final pages ultimately overshadowed the pure joy of its exquisite beginning. Nevertheless, I hope this was just the first of many Sean Michaels novels to come.

Buy Book @ Amazon

You can hear music, both classic and modern, that inspired the novel at Sean’s Official Site and here’s a video of an aged Clara Rockmore herself playing theremin on Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan,” a piece frequently mentioned in the book…

Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove

Just finished and greatly enjoyed reading the enthusiastic musings about music in Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. The Roots drummer/Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon bandleader loves music (and music reviews) as much as any of us music geeks do. Plus any book with anecdotes about Prince is automatically awesome.

I do wish the book had gone into more detail about the record label drama surrounding “You Got Me” from the Things Fall Apart album, particularly how Jill Scott reacted to being replaced on her own song by Erykah Badu. But I suppose Questlove didn’t feel that was his story to tell. I would also have liked to know more about the writing and recording of the song, which features not only The Roots and Erykah Badu but also rapping by a then relatively unknown Eve. “You Got Me” is not only one of my favorite songs of all time, it was one of my very first mp3 downloads and possibly my most frequently played mp3 since I’ve had it so long. Video below.

One of the many relatable and thought provoking portions of the unusual memoir is when Questlove ponders his role as a musical “tastemaker,” particularly what subconscious (or socially conscious) motives may influence his choice to like and/or promote certain artists. He asks himself whether he genuinely loves a band or if he embraces them simply for the critical cachet they carry – a question I’m certain every music fan, critic or not, has wrestled with at some point. I know I have.

S. by J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

Remember how unique, intelligent and exciting Lost seemed to be the first few seasons? How we kept plodding through the weaker storylines, annoying characters and complicated plot twists, because the little cryptic details so strongly hinted at a greater mystery that we felt certain would ultimately lead to a mindblowing epiphany when the series finally reached its end? And how, after seven long years of fan devotion and theories, most of us were so disappointed and confused (and not in a good way) by the series finale that it made all those years feel like a total waste? That’s exactly how I feel about S., the new critically acclaimed novel by Lost producer J.J. Abrams and author Doug Dorst.

Once again J.J. Abrams came up with a very cool and clever concept, albeit blatantly derivative of both House of Leaves and Griffin & Sabine: the novel within a novel within a novel with postcards and other loose pieces inserted throughout the book. The main narrative is a controversial book by a notoriously mysterious author with coded footnotes by his equally mysterious translater, while the “handwritten” margin notes contain the philosophical debates and flirtatious correspondence between two strangers trading the book back and forth in a college library.

Unfortunately, the book is far more tedious than it is interesting and the ending was not worth the work it took to get through it. It’s an unquestionably beautiful book in appearance and I admire the high brow intentions of its authors, but it’s simply not an enjoyable or even functional read even for a die hard bookworm like myself. For one thing the book lacks the envelopes and folders of Griffin & Sabine, so it’s far too easy for the inserts to fall out with no way of knowing which pages they belong between. I found myself wrestling with the book and its paper guts every time I read it. That wouldn’t matter if I loved the novel, but the writing style of both plots is extremely dry and lifeless. Considering Abram’s awesome idea and his cinematic trailer for the book, it would seem the fault of the weak execution lies with the writer. But the same was true of Lost. An idea man is useless without someone to bring said idea to satisfactory fruition.

I hate to give the book a bad review simply because the authors at least tried to make a truly literary novel. But I feel like I’ve been suckered by the Lost people again – to paraphrase my favorite Bushism: fool me once shame on J.J. Abrams, fool me twice – won’t get fooled again! And I’ve long since lost my patience for books trying to copy the Houses of Leaves gimmick. Besides it was so much work and disappointment, I really wish someone had warned me not to fall for the critical hype.

Buy @ Amazon