Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bad Boy of Music

Perhaps you've heard the adage, "tell me who your friends are, and I'll tell you who you are".  George Antheil (1900 -1959) the self-proclaimed "bad boy of music" from Trenton, New Jersey kept close company with James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, Man Ray, Aaron Copland, George Balanchine, Jean Cocteau, and of course, his idol, Igor Stravinsky. After compositional studies with Ernest Bloch in New York City. Antheil spent most of his time in Europe from 1922 to 1933 before returning to Hollywood to work in the film industry. His well-known film scores include “Dementia”, “Once in a Blue Moon”, and “The Plainsman”.

In his autobiography, “Bad Boy of Music”, Antheil describes that in art, there have been but two basic phenomena, an inhalation and an exhalation. The first produces one series of art movements—among which we can include the so-called “classic”. It inhales, pulls in, restricts. The second produces an equally different general kind of art—into which we may place “the romantics”—Art remains healthy and alive only so long as its normal in-and-out breathing is not too long restricted—Art cannot hold its breath too long without dying. In the Sonatas for Violin and Piano featured on this disc, including the world premiere recording of the unfinished Sonata for Violin Solo (1927), superbly rendered by violinist Mark Fewer, Antheil proves an innovative and imaginative forerunner of today’s eclectic modernist composers.

It was in Paris that Antheil described his works in time-space terms; the new fourth dimension of composition; the machine music of the future. George Antheil infused his works with the wild rhythms and raw vitality of modern machinery and industry. In “Ballet Mécanique”, a composition which caused pandemonium in Paris, the piece was scored for ten pianos, one mechanical piano, six xylophones, two bass drums, a wind machine with a regulation airplane propeller and a siren.  His radical mixture of jazz, discords, and cacophony caused him notoriety. Antheil’s original title for the work might be revealing: Message to Mars.

Antheil’s two first violin sonatas (1923) were commissioned by Ezra Pound for his mistress Olga Rudge, a fine concert violinist, originally from Boston, renown for her dark beauty and penetrating lower register on the violin. While concentrating on the First Violin Sonata,  Antheil faced a period of intense, compositional writer’s block. It was during that time he set out for the exotic land of Tunis, and consciously absorbed the local Arabian music handed down from the centuries. This adventure ultimately enabled him to add more timbrel effects to his writing and break away from Stravinsky’s grip. He returned to Paris revitalized, and completed both the First and Second Violin Sonata. Both works are filled with dissonant melodies, parodies of popular folk songs, and a sense of humor.  

The performance on this CD by violinist Mark Fewer and pianist John Novacek is first rate. Both artists convey the versatility, intensity and dynamism inherent in Antheil’s eclectic style. Fewer and Novacek switch effortlessly from the primal pounding rhythms inspired by Stravinsky, which obviously require much stamina, to the pastiche of ragtime, vaudeville, tango, tin pan alley, fox trot and jazz. With incisive and well-muscled playing, they captivate the difficult effects required in Antheil’s compositions. The range of both instruments are pushed to the limit—hand clusters and glissandi on the piano, and unconventional sound effects, including arpeggiated chords played percussively behind the bridge and non-pitched scratches from the violin. For sheer virtuosity and panache, this recording is a towering achievement.

No comments:

Post a Comment