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George Antheil — Tears in the Basic Fabric and Sound

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

“You know, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was play Antheil on the radio at 7 o’clock in the morning. I’d be guilty of somebody stabbing themselves in the eye with their own toothbrush…”

— Boston Radio Host Robert J. Lurtsema


When someone titles their autobiography “Bad Boy of Music” that’s got to be a character worth investigating, right!? George Antheil was hardly afraid of the “bad boy” label, the spotlight, any press, good or bad. He banged on pianos, composed soul-less, “mechanical” music, almost made torpedos more effective, tried to incite a riot in his own honor, and found time to raise a family and compose some symphonies. Intrigued?

Born in Trenton, NJ, 1900, most of Antheil’s childhood was as you would expect. Though, he studied piano with someone that studied with Franz Liszt and took composition lessons with Ernest Bloch. Then he was introduced to Mary Louise Curtis Bok, as in the eventual founder of the Curtis Institute of Music, who would be his benefactor for many years. Eventually, Antheil ditched the premiere of his 1st symphony, conducted by Leopold Stokowski (for most of us mortals that would be a career killer right there), and instead went to Europe. That’s likely where Antheil became the “bad boy” we know him as.

Antheil’s most well-known work—the 1926 premiere of which was the height of his career—Ballet Mécanique set a high-water mark for musical experimentation in the early 20th century. As I’ve already discussed in earlier blog posts, many of Antheil’s contemporaries were ambassadors for the Romantic, European style of music that had dominated the world (and still does!). Even today Ballet Mécanique is a striking work to behold, written for a player piano, numerous pianists, two grand pianos, electronic bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren, and three airplane propellers; all percussion. Antheil’s summation of the work from his fore mentioned autobiography: “All percussive. Like machines. All efficiency. NO LOVE. Written without sympathy. Written cold as an army operates. Revolutionary as nothing has been revolutionary.” Further, while the piece can be cacophonous, Antheil balances this with increasingly elongated periods of rest. In a letter published in a German periodical, Antheil says, “My Ballet Mécanique comes out of the first and principal stuff of music—time-space.” And this is partially what influences John Cage to write the notable and controversial 4’ 3”, a piece written for musicians to specifically NOT play their instruments for that specific duration of time. In her essay on Antheil’s piece, Carol Oja articulately describes the time-space phenomenon as it unfolds:

Near the end... Antheil incorporated increasingly prolonged stretches of silence, leading into them with episodes of unaccompanied electric bells. The modules begin toward the end of the piece with several-measure units; eventually, they increase to a 64-beat gulf. Occurring irregularly and disjunction, these tears in the basic fabric of sound perilously suspend the musical momentum...

If Ballet Mécanique is one extreme of Antheil’s compositional realm, his orchestral composition might serve, partially, as another. He still used contemporary sounds, purposeful dissonances, and striking effects. Yet, in his orchestral works, Antheil showed more aspects of his craftiness, incorporating his European training with “futuristic” tendencies. It was a forced situation related to the Ballet Mécanique. While Paris went crazy for the piece, the 1927 Carnegie Hall premiere was a flop from which his reputation never recovered. So, Antheil turned to Hollywood, where he wrote film scores. This allowed him the lifestyle to write what he wanted otherwise, including operas, ballets, and symphonies. The comparative nature of this period of music to his earlier work is jarring. While there are moments of heavy dissonance, wonky rhythms, and maybe some atonal inclination, the formal construction is mostly traditional, the lyrical lines and long and engaging, and the overall effect is very familiar in a Late Romantic era kind of way. To be sure, they are all wildly creative and hold hardly any similarity to anything modern. Even through today’s lens, the symphonies are distinct in composition and flavor, and that’s saying something!

A renaissance man of his time, Antheil wrote a murder mystery,—the principal character based on the poet Ezra Pound—he was a critic for a music magazine, and even wrote a relationship advice column syndicated in Esquire! On top of all that, Antheil teamed up with the famous actress Hedy Lamarr to invent a torpedo guidance system. This is not a joke. It used 88 separate frequencies (the same number of keys on a piano) to control the torpedo so that not all could be jammed by the enemy. While it was not used, the “frequency-hopping scheme” is like that of modern Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections. No, Antheil did NOT invent Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Not even close. Let’s just conjecture that he was brilliant enough that had he not decided to be a musician at such a young age... who knows.

Thankfully, there seems to be an interest in Antheil’s music. However, beyond recordings and some token performances, he is, like so many other subjects of this blog, not yet in the main canon of orchestral repertoire. The striking nature and high quality of his music demand that it be so.

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