I stood at the window, looking into the flurries. Head- lights flashed and went away, distant gestures of civilization. Heat lifted from the radiator. All my students had stayed home. There is weather all around us and then sometimes it interrupts our lives, as though a temporary new law has been passed.
There was a bell from downstairs.
I picked up my watch and went to the door to wait.
Dr Vinogradov wore a gray mohair coat and hat. Hewas accompanied by five other men, similarly dressed. They took off their hats. Two girls stood among them, shivering, heads lowered. You wore scraps of snow, as if you had been decorated by hand.
“Dr Theremin,” said Vinogradov, “I hope you don’t mind that I brought some guests.”
“No,” I said lightly.
Vinogradov was a friend of Schillinger. He taught chemistry at the New School. Often he would come to the studio and sit, eating oreshki, as I disassembled circuits. We would discuss metals. He loved the theremin but could not play it. He was utterly tone-deaf; his hands swam aimlessly in the air.
“This is Mr Larramy,” he said, “from the faculty of physics. Mr Gorev, from the Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra. Stanley Marbelcek, one of my postgrads.”
We shook hands.
“Gary Kropnik. I play in the orchestra,” said a man with sandy eyes.
“Trumpet,” someone added.
“Mitchell Pelt. I work at ETT. I’m an old friend of Vlad’s.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said. I turned to you and yoursister.
“And these are the Reisenberg girls,” Vinogradov offered, wiping fog from his glasses.
You raised your head, Clara, and a drop of melted snowslipped down the center of your face, from your brow to your chin.
“Nadia,” said Nadia. I kissed Nadia’s hand.
You cleared your throat. “Clara,” you said, without moving your lips, as if the word were lifting unspoken from the floor.
You all left your boots piled by the door. They looked like kindly, resting things. I led the grand tour, scientists and musicians in socks and stockings. It was a parade of zing and spark, static electricity jumping from our fingertips. The light fixtures glowed orange and although it was noon, it felt like night. In the workshop the men admired my wire cutters, my jars of Radiotron tubes. We looked upon the reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s Die Toteninsel, hanging above the fruit bowl. The image is of a strange island, a kind of relic, filled with tall trees; a boat approaches. “A tribute to mysteries,” Vinogradov remarked. For me, the painting had always been an evocation of destinations. The places we’re headed.
I took inventions from cabinets or kneeled beside them on the floor, and the group leaned in around me. The men drew on their cigarettes, Vinogradov on his pipe, while I explained the principles of conductivity and resistance. Nadia applauded my carpentry. But you were the one who seemed startled by every new idea, as if your world was not ready for it, as if I were knocking you off balance. You held my altimeter in the air and then lowered it to the ground. We all watched the needle flicker in your hands. Clara, you had such brown eyes.
We came to the theremins. New models, old models, models hidden in music stands or cabinets or bare on the carpet, like dismantled engines. I blew sawdust from boxtops, polished glass dials with a frayed sleeve. I had a key- board prototype, with just two keys. Gorev played it, slip- ping back and forth between the two notes, as I calibrated a regular theremin. It sounded like two kettles, you said, side by side. “You mean like a viola,” joked Kropnik. I didn’t laugh but you did, a laugh like a tumbling kite.
Nadia was the first to try. She stood before the there- min’s cabinet with me opposite, in mirrored pose. One of each of our arms was low, the other high. I leaned for- ward and flicked a switch. We could feel the buzz, the electromagnetic fields, the instrument’s tiny stormy thrum. I brought one hand in toward the pitch antenna, showing Nadia how to proceed. She followed. DZEEEEOOOoo, said the device. You all jumped. Mitchell Pelt began to giggle. The theremin warbled with the nervous gestures of Nadia’s hand. “Well, listen to that,” someone said. I indicated she should mirror me and guided her through a very shaky “Frère Jacques.” She was smiling wide but her eyes were serious. I could feel her frustration at the instrument’s sensitivity, its jumpy vibrato. She was a pianist: she was used to pure, chosen notes. You sat in the corner, by the wall, with your legs folded beneath you.
Nadia motioned to you to join her but you shook your head. Kropnik pushed off from his chair and they tried playing together, he and Nadia. He interrupted her high note with a low, trembly bass. She rolled her eyes at him. You were smiling.
Nadia went to sit down beside you. She said: “This is a remarkable invention.”
“It really is, professor,” you said.
I asked you to call me Leon.
Gorev tried playing, then the rest of the men. Vinogradov played a rough version of “Jingle Bells,” his tongue between his teeth, the rhythm unmistakable but every note wrong. You got up, then, tucking a curl of brown hair behind your ear. The theremin greeted you. You held your hand in the air and it was a perfect D. I wondered where you came from, Clara Reisenberg. Then you moved your hand, sliding between notes, trying to poke out a melody but lost in glissando. Almost immediately you stepped away. “I would need to practice,” you murmured.
I was going to say: “Come practice,” but you said: “Please play something, Leon.”
I played “The Swan.” I remember the early twilight, the way certain windows were frosted, others steamed up, and others clear. Outside the glass, the blizzard was infinite and slow. I remember breathing and seeing you all breathing, chests rising and falling, under the shelter of my roof. I remember our shadows slanting by the lamps and touching. My hands passed through the air and I looked at you, just a girl. Already, I knew: you were so many things. I tried to make the room tremble. I tried to make it sing. I think it sang.
In certain New York circles, you and your older sister were a sensation that winter. The Reisenberg girls, who emigrated from Lithuania as children; now seventeen and twenty-four, on violin and piano. In December 1929, I went with Schillinger to see you at Peveril Hall. The tickets said seven thirty but the concert must have begun at seven; the aisles were crisscrossed with latecomers and ushers. In the tumult of our arrival I did not look at the stage until we were seat- ed, my gloves folded on my lap, my hat on my knee. You were in a spotlight, violin on your hip. Nadia was playing a solo. You listened to her with perfect patience. You were so serious, slim and pale, with almond-shaped eyes and a fighter’s round jaw. You were always dry-eyed, playing mu- sic, listening to music. Nadia’s cascades rang and jumped, scattered like skipped stones in the quiet of the hall. Ushers were still escorting latecomers like will-o’-the-wisps, led by glimmers. I could not see the shape of your legs under your black dress, the arc of your ribs. You held your violin by the neck, its curves in silhouette.
When it was your turn, you played Mendelssohn. Your bow was a dragonfly. I felt my heart skimmed, skimmed, skimmed.
Schillinger turned to me and said, “They really are quite good.”
Montreal’s SEAN MICHAELS was born in Scotland in 1982. A long-time music journalist for outlets including The Guardian, McSweeney’s, CBC and Pitchfork, he founded the mp3blog Said the Gramophone in 2003. His debut novel, Us Conductors, is out now with Tin House Books/Random House of Canada. He can be found online at Twitter and Facebook.
Adapted from Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels, Copyright © 2014 by Sean Michaels. With the permission of the publisher, Tin House Books / Random House of Canada.