A great weekend in (yes!) Trenton!!

The George Antheil Conference, March 21-23, 2003 was a great success, any way you look at it. Antheil fans and scholars from all over the world came together to talk, argue, listen to music, and party. The event got terrific press from newspapers all over the area.

Click here for an article (in English) about the conference
in the German magazine "MusicTexte"

Below are the "before" and "after" reports from the Star-Ledger:

for a complete conference schedule, click here

Friday, March 21, 2003

Antheil festival in composer's hometown aims to restore reputation of pistol-packing visionary who shocked 1920s Paris

Star-Ledger Staff

Put the words "bad boy" and "classical music" together and, nine times out of 10, historians come up with the name of composer and pianist George Antheil (1900-1959).

Yet there was more -- much more -- to this American composer than the riot-inducing works he contributed to the artistic ferment of 1920s Paris, and the Composers Guild of New Jersey is presenting a two-day festival this weekend to prove it.

For instance, Antheil's early pals were Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. But most New Jerseyans probably don't know that the man was Trenton-born and -bred, the son of a shoe salesman who hopscotched right out of industrial New Jersey and directly into the frying pan of Paris in the heyday of French influence over American composition. At one point, he was considered more innovative than Stravinsky, and by the early '20s the Parisian literary movement adopted him as its most vivid spokesman for "modernist" ideas.

This weekend's festival events, which include several concerts, a cabaret, documentary films, panel discussions, a techno-mix dance event and the largest scholastic gathering of Antheil (pronounced ANN-tile) specialists to gather in one place to date, will take place in Trenton, where Antheil's nephew and other relatives still reside. Most of the events are free; all are open to the public.

Perhaps the name "Ballet mécanique" evokes a distant memory of some chapter read in a nearly forgotten music history course. This was the 1924 work that best summed up Antheil's conviction, about 20 years before home stereo systems would become commonplace, that music and machines would inevitably meet.

"He wrote a gorgeous essay, a manifesto, in 1927, that describes concerts of the future as being a composer sitting at a large piano surrounded by mechanical pianos and loudspeakers and electronic sound machines. He basically invented the synthesizer in his head before it existed," says Guy Livingston, a pianist and Antheil advocate who is festival director.

Antheil's "Ballet pour instruments mécaniques et percussion" was scored for 16 synchronized player pianos, airplane propellers and sirens, a concoction that in the age of samplers and synthesizers might evoke a yawn. It was dense, propulsive and repetitive music. The Paris premiere -- in a drastically reduced version -- was in 1926. No less a personage than Ezra Pound rose to shout at the cacophonous audience, "Shut up, you are all stupid idiots." The event was deemed a success.

It took the electronic revolution 70 years to catch up. In 1999, a Massachusetts professor, Paul Lehrman, put together the first performance of "Ballet mécanique" performed as Antheil scored it -- thanks to the invention of the computer-controlled Yamaha Disklavier. Yamaha is a co-sponsor of this weekend's festival. Lehrman's documentary about that performance will be screened this weekend, and panelists will discuss the work's impact.

"It was too much, the sheer loudness and almost violence of his performances," says Livingston, who discovered Antheil in an archive of the composer's forgotten piano music at the New York Public Library. Antheil's "Airplane Sonata" and other works have been a staple of Livingston's repertoire since, and Livingston will play several Antheil works this weekend.

"Now we look back and say this guy was a real visionary, one of the first composers to look at sounds beyond conventional concert instruments as music," Livingston says. "But he got audiences so mad or excited, it reached a point that he kept a pistol holster sewn inside his tuxedo."

That silken holster was part of the Antheil style: brash, confrontational, and in love with publicity. His showmanship ultimately sunk him in the arena of world opinion; eventually the French grew tired of his theatrics, and the 1927 New York premiere of "Mécanique" at Carnegie Hall, which had been hyped like a Barnum & Bailey center ring act, was an utter disaster.

Antheil ended up back home, writing lyrical film scores for Hollywood to support his wife and young family. His compositional style since the '20s had been evolving into what Antheil himself dubbed "neo-Romanticism"; by the early '40s, he re-established himself as an American symphonist whose works were played by major orchestras.

Part of the purpose of the festival, says guild secretary Frank Brickle, is to debunk the idea that Antheil's candle burned out after the Carnegie Hall flop.
"There's a certain amount of received wisdom about what happened to him, that at a certain point he turned conservative and wrote drivel," says Brickle. "I think you could make the argument that he hit the sweet spot of what everyone was trying to do in the '40s and '50s: write the musical equivalent of the great American novel. His Fourth Piano Sonata and Fifth Symphony are astonishing pieces. I think his music was as good as or better than anything from that period."

Antheil was a mercurial figure, an entrepreneur whose ideas were not limited to music. Besides composition, he wrote a murder mystery novel, contributed articles to Esquire magazine, studied glandular criminology (the now debunked study of whether facial characteristics incline one toward criminal activity), and with his friend, the actress Hedy Lamarr, patented a device that emitted constantly shifting radio frequency patterns for directing torpedoes.

In 1959, Antheil was writing music for Walter Cronkite's TV series, "The 20th Century," when he died of a heart attack. He left behind six operas, more than 100 film scores, five symphonies, and more than 50 other works for voice, piano or chamber ensemble.

Yet all most people remember Antheil for was "Ballet mécanique." Restoring a more balanced view is this festival's purpose, says Brickle. "Trying to bring attention to Antheil is one way of restoring a whole huge swath of musical history," he says. •

Monday, March 24, 2003
A busy weekend for music's 'Bad Boy'


For the Star-Ledger

George Antheil, the self-proclaimed Bad Boy of Music was neither bad, nor a boy, or just a musician. Discuss.

That's exactly what an international gathering of scholars, performers and family members did in Antheil's hometown of Trenton during a weekend of unvarnished reassessment and outright celebration.

Although almost unheard of today, Antheil (pronounced ann-TILE) was the fourth most performed American composer in the 1940s, after Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Samuel Barber.

Then Antheil moved to Hollywood to write film scores. He died there at age 58.

Eventually, Antheil interest fell off a cliff. As recently as the 1970s, almost none of his music was performed in the United States, according to the executor of his musical estate.

"It's been such a huge battle to get people to take him seriously," said executor Charles Amirkhanian, who also is a noted San Francisco composer.

If anything, Antheil is most known for the "unplayable" "Ballét mechanique," a scandalous piece for 16 player pianos, four bass drums, three xylophones, electric door bells, sirens and three airplane propellers. At the time of its 1926 Paris premiere, it caused riots. A year later in Carnegie Hall, it was a disaster, with percussion gone awry (the siren sounded too late and couldn't be stopped after the music ended) and the airplane propellers mistakenly turned outward (not upward), literally blew the audience (programs, hats and toupees) away, prompting one critic to wave a white handkerchief in surrender.

This came on the heels of huge European success, where the New Jersey piano prodigy, trained in Philadelphia, crossed the pond to find his fortune. Antheil was celebrated in London, Berlin and especially Paris.

He was friendly with James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemmingway, T.S. Elliot, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and other notables.

What hurt those 1920s performances of the dancer-less "Ballét mechanique" was extreme difficulty in synchronizing 16 player pianos. Now, computer-controlled instruments surmount such difficulties. In fact, electronic music crusaders like Boston's Paul Lehrman have made specialties out of it, linking Yamaha Disklaviers together for perhaps the first clean realizations of Antheil's vision.

Disklaviers are grand pianos with electronic mechanisms that can depress the keys as directed by an onboard CD-ROM. Shopping malls and hotels often have them chugging away as "live" Muzak. Lehrman pushed the electronic instruments to play at the impossibly fast speed Antheil wrote in the score.

"If you go any faster than this, the Disklaviers just fall over," he said.

In a controversial move, Lehrman recorded those 16 instruments and added the other parts under a film by Dudley Murphy and Ferdinand Leger, which originally was planned to go with the music. The film and music were never presented together, and Lehrman had to cut the music substantially to reduce it down to the film's length. He showed the results on Saturday at the Conduit Arts Complex in Trenton.

The film is a mind-numbing assembly line images in uniformly choppy and nonsensical takes, with Antheil's music pounding in the background. Trying to make sense of the two is futile.

Lehrman cut 500 bars from the score.

"To have extended silences, with all due respect, made no sense to me. I'm just taking liberties all over the place," he said. "I had to make aesthetic judgments, but what the heck. The whole Dadaist aesthetic says nothing has to do with anything else."

Lehrman's work caused some protestations from conductor Maurice Peres, a specialist in reconstructing historic performances. Most famously, he re-created the original "Rhapsody in Blue" by Gershwin. In 1998 he did the same for "Ballét mechanique" in Carnegie Hall.

"It's a fascinating work of genius," Peress said. "It seeks to re-create skyscrapers and subways in the Jazz Age."

He was more careful than Lehrman, making sure his 11 electric door bells were the right pitch and matching his aircraft propeller sounds to World War I originals. He also used the original piano rolls for player piano mechanisms, not computer-controlled instruments. But tipping his hat, he said to Lehrman, "You've engaged a future generation of people because of your film and computer skills. I think Antheil would be pleased."

Opposing this Dadaist fantasy, the singer Marni Rice with pianist Livingston gave a cabaret performance to contextualize other music Antheil would have heard. The world-wearing Kurt Weill songs including "Youkali Tango Habañera" with their pulsing rhythms and sweeping sadness. Against that, Antheil's "Jazz Sonata" coursed with an American energy, Stride Piano influences, pounding Stravinsky-like rhythms and consciously dissonant chords.

In a later performance, the Baudelaire String Quartet gave the 75th anniversary performance, to the day, of Antheil's String Quartet No. 2.

Cogent themes and insistent melodies only began in the third movement. The abrupt, agitated passages that he wrote in his piano music, were not effective for four strings in the first section. But the low, peaceful, reflective slow movement foreshadowed the heart-rending slow passages he would write during his film career.

The quartet also gave the world premiere of the last of Antheil's "Six Little Pieces for String Quartet," a sparse, Webernesque, unresolved miniature that was written to represent one of his friends.

Antheil inserted musical jokes for the performers to stumble across. In the "Ballét mechanique" he instructs the musician to turn a page quickly, only to find 64 measures of silence. What was the hurry? In the "Sonata Savage," a loud, aggressive piece, pianist Guy Livingston showed one passage marked, "quietly, with fist."

Giving a family perspective, George Antheil McTighe, the composer's nephew and a housing attorney in Trenton, related how hurt his uncle was at the reception Trenton afforded him. Of its two most famous musicians, only Ernie Kovacs had a street named after him. It caused his uncle to bitterly mock the city's bridge sign and say, "Trenton uses what the world refuses."

He also wrote a piece for an orchestra in Trenton called "McKonkey's Ferry or Washington's Crossing the Delaware" that few in Trenton have heard.

Participants in the conference organized by the Composers Guild of New Jersey also detailed Antheil's work with choreographers George Balanchine and Martha Graham, his romance column in Esquire and his off-beat crime fiction.

Participants in the conference organized by the Composers Guild of New Jersey also detailed Antheil's work with choreographers George Balanchine and Martha Graham, his romance column in Esquire and his off-beat crime fiction.

Scholars read from Antheil's windy fiction and laughed that he claimed William Butler Yeats, T.S. Elliot and other literary friends edited the work.

Perhaps Antheil's biggest footnote in history is his 1941 patent for, or all things, torpedo guidance technology the developed with actress Hedy Lamarr. It ensured torpedo guidance systems could not be jammed or hijacked.

Besides connecting scholars and performers, who were jazzed by the critical mass of Antheil cognoscenti, the finale attracted so many audience members (Okay, a few dozen), that organizers delayed the start of the concert to add more chairs. Maybe it bodes well for Antheil.

"He was a real original in American spirit and adventurousness," said New York opera director Nancy Rhodes. "I'm hoping more people take up George Antheil." •