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CD Review

George Antheil

A Digital Re-Creation of the Carnegie Hall Concert of 1927

  • A Jazz Symphony
  • Second Sonata for Violin, Piano, and Drum *
  • String Quartet #1 **
  • Ballet pour instruments mécanique et percussion
* Charles Castleman, violin
* Randall Hodgkinson, piano
Davis, piano
Rex Lawson, pianola
** Mendelssohn String Quartet
New Palais Royale Orchestra & Percussion Ensemble/Maurice Peress
MusicMasters 01612-67094-2 60:46
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Roads not taken.

Antheil represents one of the great unfinished stories in American art. A prodigy and a polymath, he first came to notice as "the bad boy of music" in the Twenties Paris avant-garde, associated with Pound. Indeed, he served as Pound's "musical advisor" and may have helped with Pound's opera Villon. Then as now, the avant-garde had divided into little cliques. Poundians usually did not frequent Gertrude Stein's salon. One had to declare either for Stein or for Joyce. Stravinsky appears as one of the few above the day-to-day skirmishes, but many of his collaborators at the time seemed to hang around Stein. Antheil's works from this time still have the power to astonish us, but returning to the United States, he seems to have lost his spark. He became a neo-classicist in the Stravinsky camp. The more he marched behind Stravinsky, the less he sounded like himself. The later works I've heard sounded well-written but unremarkable and, surprisingly, pretty much impersonal. If this was due to Antheil's disappointment at his failure to bond with the American Boulangeristes and hence to nurture a career as a composer, to the desertion of his gift, or to something else, I don't know. He was a pioneer composer in Hollywood briefly, but he soon spent much of his time on newspaper work, including an agony column. I've always felt that his spark went out much too soon.

The works on this disk all show that spark still burning bright. Antheil speaks in a compelling and amazingly original voice, so original that I find myself wondering what might have happened to music if it had followed Antheil, rather than, for the most part, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Schoenberg. A Jazz Symphony, written in 1925 for Paul Whiteman's second "Experiment in Modern Music" (the first had introduced Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue) and premièred by W. C. Handy's orchestra with Antheil as piano soloist, structurally comes down to two notes, a whole step apart, much like Ellington's later "C Jam Blues." Almost every theme in the piece springs from that melodic sequence. It's instructive to compare this jazz piece with Stravinsky's and Gershwin's. Stravinsky sounds like a "gypsy" orchestra. Gershwin sounds American, but far more conventional in his structural thinking than Antheil, and reaches toward the habits and ideals of the late 19th-century symphony, particularly Tchaikovsky. Antheil's jazz is dirtier, more low-down. Furthermore, despite the structural cohesion of the piece, it comes across as a series of brilliant interruptions – from Milhaud-Brazilian music to blues and waltz – as if Antheil wants to create a musical bubbling gumbo of current vernacular styles. The second violin sonata presents the same musical image, this time a simmering of pre-jazz pOp. To some extent, it reminds me of Ives' "ragtime" works, even the "Hawthorne" movement of the Concord Sonata, but I doubt Antheil had heard Ives at the time.

According to his own testimony, Antheil wrote his first string quartet as a picture of a gypsy band playing better than it knew how. I don't know enough about the model to comment, except to say that parts of it remind me of Bartók, although I doubt at the time (1924) Bartók yet wrote music that sounded like this. It may well be the Zigeuner elements that raise the similarity.

The above works all show an assured talent and an original musical mind – the use of the drum in the second violin sonata alone points to this. The Ballet mécanique, however, shows a visionary. Antheil wrote the work in 1925 and revised the piece in 1952. I believe he revised for the worse, smoothing out what made it so extraordinary, although I must say that at least one Antheil expert prefers the revision. The original critics all seemed to focus on the orchestration – pianola, two or more pianos, three xylophones, four bass drums, tamtam, siren, a battery of electric bells, and three airplane propellers (small wooden, large wooden, metal). The propellers in particular drew everyone's attention to such an extent that their presence overwhelmed the music itself and the critics forgot to listen. In fact, many writers reported the rest of the instrumentation incorrectly and gave rise to the most astonishing misinformation about the piece. There are no, for example, electric dynamos. Nevertheless, the orchestration - although admittedly showy – has only a little to do with the work's considerable power. In any case, in the age of samplers and digital tape, Antheil's orchestration alone would provide little reason to listen. Fortunately, the music Antheil wrote remains exciting not only in itself, but for possible expressive expansion.

Nobody creates from nothing, of course, and without Stravinsky's Le Sacre, I doubt certain sounds and musical tropes and devices (particularly the extensive ostinati) would have found their way into Antheil's vocabulary. However, there's plenty of new stuff as well, notably ragtime riffs in the first movement and a new exploration of percussion, later taken up by Varèse, among others. In most scores, percussion provides accent and color, while other instruments carry on the main musical matter. Here, in an all-percussion orchestra, that can't happen. The composer conceives his musical material in a new way, as opposed to melody, bass, and accompaniment. The heavy reliance on ostinati, among other things, diminishes the importance of melody. Rhythm and color gain importance. One works with opposing masses of sound, as a Cubist painter works with opposing blocks of color. In the third movement, this comes out most clearly, as the pianola sputters to a breakdown. Pianola, electric bells, siren, and palpable rests play off against one another. Antheil judges these silences exquisitely and invests that element with a dramatic force seldom found elsewhere and surely not to this extent (most of the eight-minute movement). Here, the percussion sheds its machine regularity and becomes living, writhing creatures.

The performances are all quite fine, with the Ballet the best of all. Synthesized sound has taken the place of much of the percussion, although a human still controls those sounds. It's just that the propellers would take up too much studio room, among other things, and a workable balance among the forces becomes much easier to achieve. The sound is thoroughly professional.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz