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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the March 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Trenton’s Bad Boy is Back
In the 1920s, the young American composer and performer
George Antheil captured Paris and Berlin with his insolence and charm.
When Hitler came to power Antheil returned to the United States, where
he abandoned his outrageous musical style to become a composer for
Hollywood. As his music lost its bite, Antheil was forgotten. Now,
40 years after his death in 1959, his exploits have mobilized a squad
of enthusiasts led by Paris-based pianist Guy Livingston to put on
a two-day Antheil festival in the composer’s home town this weekend.
The new interest in Antheil (pronounced an-tile) comes in part from
the intrinsic lure of his spiky music. In part, it’s the global range
of his musical output, which includes orchestral pieces, concertos,
piano music, opera, songs, and Hollywood scores. In part it’s a link
to avant-garde Paris in the 1920s, where Antheil associated with James
Joyce, Ezra Pound, Erik Satie, Fernand Leger, and Igor Stravinsky;
and where he introduced Gertrude Stein to Virgil Thompson.
Born in 1900 on Second Street in Trenton, the son of a shoe store
owner, Antheil was a child prodigy who never finished high school.
At least seven of his compositions survive from 1912, the first year
he began composing seriously. One of his piano teachers was Constantine
von Sternberg of Philadelphia, a former pupil of Liszt. Working toward
a career as a concert pianist, Antheil left home for Paris in 1922.
According to his factually questionable autobiography, "Bad Boy
of Music," Antheil determined to become "noted and notorious
as a new ultramodern pianist composer."
Most compellingly, for some, Antheil was a thoroughly outrageous person
with sweeping non-musical vistas. For his autobiography, he made up
a lot of facts about himself. He wrote columns of advice to the lovelorn,
as well as books on endocrinology and on military affairs. He and
his wife ran a Los Angeles art gallery. With film star Hedy Lamarr,
he held a 1940 patent for missile-guidance based on piano-roll technology.
A tireless self-promoter, he liked to create sensations.
Festival director Livingston says "Antheil was neglected even
in his lifetime. He was really neglected after he died. His music
was in-your-face. But once he wasn’t around to promote himself, the
music was eclipsed. Now people are seeking out American music —
brash, stimulating, challenging music — and they look back and
say, `He did have something going for him.’"
The Antheil celebration takes place in Trenton on Friday and Saturday,
March 21 and 22. Sponsored by the Composers Guild of New Jersey, the
festival opens in the Skyline Room of Conduit. A tightly-packed roster
of lectures, panel discussions, films, and live performances follows.
Festival admission is free except for a Saturday night dance party
The panelists are a dozen diverse Antheilists from the United States
and abroad. They include Charles Amirkhanian, executor of the Antheil
estate; Paul Lehrman, Boston composer, who has reconstructed "Ballet
Mecanique," one of Antheil’s most notorious pieces, which cubist
painter Fernand Leger used as the soundtrack of a film; Alan Mallach,
Trenton musician, critic, and music scholar; Arthur Antheil McTighe,
nephew of the composer; Mauro Piccinini of the University of Trieste,
Italy, who discovered the draft of "Cyclops," an Antheil opera
with a text from James Joyce’s "Ulysses;" Tony Rothman of
the Bryn Mawr physics department, who has looked into the missile-guidance
project; Carleton Wilkinson, New Jersey composer, formerly of Trenton
(U.S. 1, January 6, 1999) who produced most of the city’s Antheil
concerts to date.
The live music performances reflect Antheil’s circle. Guy Livingston
and vocalist Marni Rice perform Paris cabaret music in Maxine’s Restaurant,
Trenton, at 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 21. The College of New Jersey
Percussion Ensemble plays Edgard Varese’s "Ionisations" in
Conduit’s Skyline Room Saturday, March 22 at 2 p.m.
In a segment called "Man and Machines Concert"
at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 22, at Conduit, Livingston performs
Antheil piano music. The segment also includes a screening of the
Leger-Antheil "Ballet Mecanique" film, reconstructed by composer
Fortunately Antheil is no stranger in his home town. Trenton’s own
George Antheil Festival, the brainchild of Carlton Wilkinson, produced
by Trenton Avant Garde, began in 1993, with the first of seven annual
Antheil birthday concerts. Over the years, these grew in complexity
until 1999, when Daniel Spalding and members of the Philadelphia Virtuosi
joined Wilkinson in a performance of "Ballet mecanique." Wilkinson
had hoped to follow up with a staging of one of Antheil’s operas in
2000 honor of his 100th birthday. The project culminated instead with
a 2000 Antheil performance and lecture event for 500 students at the
Festival director Livingston is 35 and was born in Tennessee. His
mother, Morna Livingston, is a photographer. His father, Philip, is
a sculptor. Guy and his brother Hugh, a cellist, make up the musical
crux of the family; otherwise, the family is not notably musical.
Livingston’s piano study was with Russians Galina Belenky and Alexander
Edelman. He holds degrees from Yale University, the New England Conservatory,
and the Royal Conservatory of the Netherlands.
Livingston has lived in Paris since 1992. Active as a pianist and
producer on both sides of the Atlantic, Livingston’s performances
have taken him to Holland, Russia, Italy, Poland, Germany, and South
Africa, in addition to the United States. His CD, "Don’t Panic,"
consists of 60 one-minute compositions that Livingston commissioned
from composers in 18 countries.
Livingston’s latest batch of New York appearances has been heavy on
Antheil. In addition to performing Antheil’s piano music, he helped
introduce to America the sketches of the Antheil-Joyce opera "Cyclops."
Livingston’s interest in Antheil dates to the mid 1990s when the New
York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center invited
him to do an Antheil program. "I was already working with them
on the composer Charles Ives," he says, "and they knew I was
interested in the period of the 1920s and interested in Paris. I said
— naively — `Everybody knows Antheil only wrote a few good
pieces.’ They said, `We’ve got 14 boxes of the stuff. You should really
take a look.’"
"When I looked at the Antheil piano music, I realized that it
was a chance to enlarge my repertoire with things nobody was playing,"
he says. "The librarians already knew its quality."
Livingston is a fan of the Public Library for the Performing Arts.
"After the Library of Congress it’s the most amazing music library
in the United States," he says. "What I love about the Library
is their program of getting things performed. It’s a big step from
preserving a score to turning it into a performance."
Livingston’s first task in turning the Antheil manuscripts into a
performance was trying to read them. "Antheil’s scores are difficult
to read," he says. "The amount of work required was disproportionate
to working from an engraved score. Antheil’s handwriting makes Beethoven
look good. But it was worth deciphering the scores; I just knew they
were going to be good."
"You look at a score, and you try to figure out if it’s playable,"
Livingston says. "You ask yourself, `What’s the form?’ You consider
it visually. You ignore that sections are crossed out, that accidentals
are ambiguous, that the pagination is incorrect, and that the octave
markings are inaccurate. You try to cut to the meat of the piece.
Because I was playing contemporary music a lot, I was used to working
with penciled manuscripts."
"It was like looking at a work of art," he says. "You
can tell a lot about the personality of a painter from the brush strokes.
Antheil was tempestuous and his scores are wild. You can see that
he’s fighting the music. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. There’s
no extra academic layer, no `Let’s think about this soberly’."
Livingston excuses Antheil for his lack of neatness.
"Antheil was the only one performing from his scores," Livingston
says. "He only needed a sketch for himself. Once he got on stage,
he finished the rest from his head."
Livingston enjoys the detective work of tracking down people in Antheil’s
circle. Fresh from having discovered an unpublished 100-page manuscript
by Antheil’s wife in New York City, Livingston beams. "Stuff like
this keeps turning up all the time," he gloats.
Livingston confronts with equanimity the fact that Antheil’s accounts
of events are as likely to be fiction as fact. Indeed, he seems to
relish the halo of uncertainty that surrounds Antheil’s assertions."
About Antheil’s own catalog of his compositions, Livingston says,
"He invented pieces he had never written, or pieces he wished
he had written. He included pieces only in draft form. He thought
that everything he listed he would one day finish." Livingston
tells of Antheil’s planting the story that he had been eaten by lions
in Africa, and then turning up in Paris to conduct the premiere of
a small version of his "Ballet Mecanique."
The world has finally caught up with "Ballet Mecanique." Antheil
conceived the piece before the necessary technology existed. He scored
it for 16 mechanical pianos, two grand pianos played by musicians,
three xylophones, four bass drums, a gong, three airplane propellers,
seven electric bells, and a siren. With the coming of musical computer
language (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI) and computer-directed
pianos, such as the Yamaha Disklavier, it is now possible to perform
the piece as Antheil intended.
Paul Lehrman, an Antheilist who has been working with digital technology
for some 20 years, presented what he considered to be an authentic
version of the piece in 1999, calling it "the very first performance
of the work whose debut has been 75 years in the making." He described
his first step as "to take Antheil’s original score, all 1,240
measures of it, with about 630 time-signature changes and something
like 200,000 notes, and translate it into a giant MIDI file that could
be played from a standard sequencer." Subsequent performances
With a skepticism born of close encounters with Antheil, Livingston
says, "I don’t know enough about `Ballet Mecanique’ to tell which
is the definitive version; my personal interest is in the piano music.
What I like about `Ballet Mecanique’ is that it’s fast, loud, and
raucous. That’s common to all the versions. It’s one of the wildest
works of the 20th century. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go."
Then, Antheil-like, Livingston knowingly lunges into hyperbole. "In
Antheil’s music," he says, "there are three rests, and two
of them are in `Ballet Mecanique.’"
— Elaine Strauss
449 South Broad Street, Trenton, 917-770-6083. All discussions
are at Conduit. Use the Ferry Street entrance, and take the elevator
to the 4th floor. Www.GeorgeAntheil.com has the latest schedule.
Friday, March 21, beginning at 12:30 p.m.; and Saturday,
March 22, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.<
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