Sunday, December 1, 2013

George Antheil / Mark Alburger

George Antheil (b. Georg Carl Johann Antheil, July 8, 1900, Trenton, NJ - February 12, 1959, New York, NY)  grew up in a family of German immigrants,  his father Henry owning a local shoe store.  George was raised bilingually, writing music, prose, and poetry early.

His autobiography The Bad Boy of Music (1945) idealized his origins as futurist, and emphasized his upbringing near a machine shop and prison.  

Antheil started studying the piano at the age of six, avowing that he was "so crazy about music" that his mother sent him to the countryside where no pianos were available.  Undeterred, George arranged for a store to deliver a piano.

In 1913, he began travelling to Philadelphia to study theory with Constantine von Sternberg, a former Franz Liszt pupil.  Antheil's trips also introduced him to conceptual art, including Dadaism.

At 19, in 1920, he began to work with Ernest Bloch in New York, beginning his Symphony No. 1 ("Zingareska"), whose last movement became one of the first symphonic pieces to incorporate jazz.
Antheil's trips to New York also permitted him to meet Leo Ornstein and Paul Rosenfeld, the painter John Marin, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and editor Margaret Anderson.  After Antheil was invited to spend the weekend with Anderson and friends, he stayed six months, becoming part of a close-knit group (including Georgette Leblanc, former companion of Maurice Maeterlinck), which became influential in Antheil's career.   The editor described the young composer as a short man with an odd-shaped nose, who played "a compelling mechanical music," and used "the piano exclusively as an instrument of percussion, making it sound like a xylophone or a cymballo."  Antheil worked on Mechanisms and Piano Concerto No. 1.

During this time, von Sternberg introduced Antheil to his patron of the next two decades, Mary Louise Curtis Bok -- later the founder of the Curtis Institute of Music.

Assured by von Sternberg of Antheil's genius and good character, Bok gave him a monthly stipend of $150, and arranged for him to study piano at the Curtis Settlement School in 1921 under George Boyle.  Though Bok came to disapprove of his behavior and work, she continued to respond favorably to his letters.  As her financial support enabled Antheil to maintain a degree of independence, many observers believed he should have given her more credit in his autobiography.

Antheil continued his piano and composition study, including works by Igor Stravinsky and Les Six. In 1922, he wrote his first in a series of technology-based compositions, Piano Sonata No. 2 ("The Airplane").

He also continued work on his Symphony No. 1 ("Zingareska"), managing to attract Leopold Stokowski's attention.

On May 30, 1922, at the age of 21, Antheil sailed for Europe to make his name as "a new ultra-modern pianist composer" and a "futurist terrible." He had engaged Leo Ornstein's manager, and opened his European career with a concert at London's Wigmore Hall.  The program featured works by Claude Debussy and Stravinsky, as well as his own compositions.

He spent a year in Berlin, planning to work with Artur Schnabel, and gave concerts in Budapest, Vienna and at the Donaueschingen Festival. As he had desired, he achieved notoriety, but often had to pay the concert expenses out of his own pocket. His financial situation was not helped by Mrs. Bok's reduction of his stipend by 50 percent, though she often responded to requests to fund specific aspects of his concerts.

During this time, Antheil met Boski Markus, a Hungarian and niece of the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler, who became his companion.

In the fall of 1922, Antheil took advantage of a chance meeting to introduce himself to his idol Stravinsky.  They established a warm intimacy and the more established composer encouraged Antheil to move to Paris.

Stravinsky went as far as arranging a concert to launch Antheil's career in the French capital, but the younger man failed to show up, preferring to travel to Poland with Markus.

Antheil and Markus finally arrived in Paris in June 1923, in time to attend the premiere of Stravinsky's Les Noces, but the relationship with Stravinsky did not survive for long.  Stravinsky cut the younger man dead, having discovered that Antheil had boasted that "Stravinsky admired his work." While the breach devastated Antheil, he continued to produce such works as Mechanisms, Piano Sonata No. 3 ("Death of Machines"), and Sonata Sauvage.

Antheil found Paris, at the time a center of musical and artistic innovation, to be a "green tender morning" compared to the "black night" of Berlin.

Antheil was asked to make his Paris debut at the opening of the Ballets suédois, an important Paris social event, on October 4, 1923.  The program included one of the Mechanisms, Piano Sonata No. 2 ("The Airplane"), and Sonata Sauvage.  Halfway through his performance a riot broke out, much to Antheil's delight.  According to Antheil "People were fighting in the aisles, yelling, clapping, hooting! Pandemonium! . . . the police entered, and any number of surrealists, society personages, and people of all descriptions were arrested. . . .  Paris hadn't had such a good time since the premiere of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps."

The riot was filmed and may in fact have been engineered, as the Marcel L'Herbier movie L'Inhumaine needed a riot scene set in a concert hall.  In the audience were Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Francis Picabia.  Antheil was delighted when Satie and Milhaud praised his music.

Other reactions were less positive.  His technique was loud, brazen, and percussive. Critics wrote that he hit the piano rather than played it, and indeed he often injured himself by doing so.  As part of his "bad boy" behavior, Antheil provocatively pulled a revolver from his jacket and laid it on the piano.

During this time, Antheil and Markus lived in a one-bedroom apartment above Sylvia Beach's bookshop Shakespeare and Company.  Beach described him "as fellow with bangs, a squished nose and a big mouth with a grin in it. A regular American high school boy."

She was very supportive, and introduced Antheil to her circle of friends and customers including Erik Satie, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virgil Thomson, and Ernest Hemingway.  Joyce and Pound were soon talking of an opera collaboration.

Pound, in particular, was to become an extravagant supporter and promoter of Antheil and his work, comparing him variously to Stravinsky and James Cagney, and describing him as breaking down music to its "musical atom."  Pound introduced Antheil to Jean Cocteau who in turn helped launch Antheil into the musical salons of Paris, and commissioned him to write three violin sonatas for his companion, Olga Rudge.  In 1924 Pound published Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony, as part of his campaign to boost Antheil's reputation.  The book may have done Antheil more harm than good, and the composer was to distance himself from it in his memoir.

He married Boski Markus in 1925, the year of Ballet Mécanique, originally conceived to be accompanied by a film by experimental filmmakers Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy (with cinematography by Man Ray).  The first performances of the piece, in 1925 and 1926, did not include the film, which turned out to last around 17 minutes, only half as long as the score.

Antheil described this "first major work" as "scored for countless numbers of player pianos. All percussive. Like machines. All efficiency. No LOVE. Written without sympathy. Written cold as an army operates. Revolutionary as nothing has been revolutionary."

The original scoring called for 16 specially synchronized player pianos, two grand pianos, electronic bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren and three airplane propellers, but difficulties with the synchronization resulted in a rewrite for a single pianola and multiple human pianists.

The piece consisted of periods of music and interludes of silence set against the roar of the airplane propellers.

Antheil described as "by far my most radical work... It is the rhythm of machinery, presented as beautifully as an artist knows how."  He assiduously promoted the composition, and even engineered his supposed "disappearance" while on a visit to Africa so as to get media attention for a preview concert.

The official Paris première in June 1926 was sponsored by an American patroness who at the end of the concert was tossed in a blanket by three baronesses and a duke.

The work enraged some of the concert-goers, whose objections were drowned out by the cacophonous music, while others vocally supported it, and the concert ended with a outdoor riot.

On April 10, 1927, Antheil rented New York's Carnegie Hall in order to present an entire concert devoted to his works, including the American debut of Ballet Mécanique in a scaled-down version. He commissioned elaborate backdrops of skyscrapers and machines, and engaged an African American orchestra to premiere his Jazz Symphony.

The concert started well, but according to the concert's promoter and producer when the wind machine was turned on "all hell, in a minor way, broke loose." During the gale, audience members clutched their programs and their hats, one "tied a handkerchief to his cane and waved it wildly in the air in a sign of surrender."  Much to the amusement of the audience, the untested siren failed to sound on cue, despite frantic cranking and reached its climax only after the end of the performance, as the audience were clapping and leaving the hall.

American critics were hostile, calling the concert "a bitter disappointment" and dismissing the Ballet Mécanique as "boring, artless, and naive" and Antheil's hoped-for riots failed to materialize. The failure of the Ballet Mécanique affected him deeply, and he never fully recovered his reputation during his lifetime, though his interest in the mechanical was emulated by other prominent composers such as Arthur Honegger, Sergei Prokofiev, and Erik Satie.

In the late 1920's, Antheil moved to Germany, where he worked as assistant musical director of the Stadttheater in Berlin, and wrote music for the ballet and theatre.

In 1930, he premiered his first opera Transatlantic, which involved American politics and gangsters, and was a success at the Frankfurt Opera.

That same year, as "Stacey Bishop," he wrote a murder mystery called Death in the Dark with a character based on Ezra Pound

In 1933, the rise of the Nazi party made Antheil's avant-garde music unwelcome in Germany, and at the height of the Depression, he returned to the US and settled in New York City.  He reentered American life with enthusiasm, organizing concerts, working on committees with Aaron Copland and Wallingford Riegger, and writing piano, ballet and film scores as well as a Trojan-subject opera Helen Retires, which did not meet with success.  While his music moved away from more extreme aspects of modernism, and more tonal, neo-romantic aspects were discernible -- the Léger-Murphy film and Antheil Ballet Mecanique score were finally performed together at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1935... a year which also included the premiere of his film-score The Scoundrel.

In 1936 Antheil travelled to Hollywood, where he became a sought-after film composer, writing more than 30 scores for such directors as Cecil B. DeMille and Nicholas Ray, including The Plainsman.

He was the film music reporter and critic for the magazine Modern Music from this point to 1940, writing columns considered lively and thoughtful, noting the comings and goings of musicians and composers during an era when the industry was flirting with more "modern" scores for films.  Antheil was disappointed, however, and wrote that "Hollywood, after a grand splurge with new composers and new ideas, has settled back into its old grind of producing easy and sure-fire scores."

Antheil wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper relationship advice column, as well as regular columns in magazines such as Esquire and Coronet. He considered himself an expert on female endocrinology, and wrote a series of articles about how to determine the availability of women based on glandular effects on their appearance, with titles such as The Glandbook for the Questing Male (1936).

Another book of "glandular criminology" was titled Every Man His Own Detective (1937), the year the Antheils' only child, a son, was born. 

Before World War II, he participated in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, putting on exhibits of artworks banned in Nazi Germany such as those by Käthe Kollwitz.   He also published a book of war predictions, entitled The Shape of the War to Come.

Despite finding the movie industry hostile to modern music, complaining that it was a "closed proposition" and describing most background scores as "unmitigated tripe" -- he became increasingly dependent on more independent producers such as Ben Hecht to give him work, such as Angels Over Broadway (1940).

This was the year in which Antheil's younger brother was Henry W. , Jr., as a diplomatic courier, was killed over the Baltic Sea on June 14.

On a more positive note, the following year found the breach with Stravinsky healed, when older composer sent the Antheil family tickets to one of his Hollywood concerts.

Antheil's interest in endocrinology brought him into contact with the actress Hedy Lamarr, who sought his advice about how she might enhance her upper torso.  He suggested glandular extracts, but their conversation then moved on to torpedoes.

During World War II Lamarr, who was fiercely pro-American, realized that a single radio-controlled torpedo could severely damage or sink enemy ships.  However these radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be detected and jammed, by broadcasting interference at the frequency of the control-signal, thereby causing the torpedo to go off course.

Using knowledge of torpedoes gained from her first husband -- munitions manufacturer Mandl -- Antheil and Lamarr developed the idea of using frequency hopping: in this case using a piano roll to randomly change the signal sent between the control-center and torpedo at short bursts within a range of 88 frequencies on the spectrum (there are 88 black and white keys on a piano keyboard). The specific code for the sequence of frequencies would be held identically by the controlling ship and in the torpedo. This basically encrypted the signal, as it was impossible for the enemy to scan and jam all 88 frequencies, which this would have required too much power. Antheil would control the frequency-hopping sequence using a player-piano mechanism, which he had earlier used to score his Ballet Mécanique.

On August 11, 1942 -- U.S. Patent 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and "Hedy Kiesler Markey," Lamarr's married name at the time. This early version of frequency hopping, though novel, soon met with opposition from the U.S. Navy and was not adopted.

In 1945, Antheil published his autobiography Bad Boy of Music, which became a bestseller.

Other film work continued, such as Specter of the Rose (1946).

Serenade No. 1, Piano Sonata No. 4, Songs of Experience, Symphony No. 5 ("Joyous") (1948), and 6 ("After Delacroix") (1948) -- all written in 1948 -- showed a self-described desire "to disassociate myself from the passé modern schools of the last half-century, and to create a music for myself and those around me which has no fear of developed melody, real development itself, tonality, or other understandable forms."  Such works were in a more romantic style and influenced by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, as well as American music including jazz.

In scores including In a Lonely Place (1950, starring Humphrey Bogart), Antheil was confident in his ability of his music to save a weak film. "If I say so myself, I've saved a couple of sure flops," he said.

His 1953 opera Volpone was premiered in New York in 1953 to mixed reviews

In 1954, Antheil created a modified version of Ballet Mechanique for percussion, four pianos, and a recording of an airplane motor.

A visit to Spain influenced some of his late works, including the film scores to  Dementia (1955) and The Pride and the Passion (1957).

He also accepted a commission from the CBS Television network to compose a theme for their newsreel and documentary film series The Twentieth Century (1957–1966), narrated by Walter Cronkite.

Antheil died of a heart attack in  Manhattan, and was buried in Riverview Cemetery, Trenton.  His students included Henry Brant and Benjamin Lees.

The Antheil-Lamarr frequency-hopping idea was not implemented until 1962, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba after the patent had expired.  Perhaps owing to this lag in development, the patent was little known until 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr a belated award for her contributions.  In 1998, an Ottawa wireless technology developer, Wi-LAN Inc., acquired a 49% claim to the patent from Lamarr for an undisclosed amount of stock. The idea serves as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology.

Charles Amirkhanian is the executor of the Antheil estate.

Selected Works List

Piano Concerto No. 1 (1922)
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1922) 
Piano Sonata No. 2 ("The Airplane") (1922)
Symphony No. 1 ("Zingareska") (1922, rev. 1923)
Mechanisims (1923)
Piano Sonata No. 3 ("Death of Machines") (1923)
Sonata Sauvage (1923)
Symphony for Five Instruments (1923)
Violin Sonata No. 1 (1923)
Violin Sonata No. 2 (1923)
String Quartet No. 1 (1924) 
Violin Sonata No. 3 (1924)
Ballet Mécanique (1925, revised 1953)
A Jazz Symphony (1925, revised 1955)
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1926)
String Quartet No. 2 (1927)
Transatlantic (1930)
Helen Retires (1931)
Concert for Chamber Orchestra (1932)
Once in a Blue Moon (1935)
The Scoundrel (1935) 
The Plainsman (1936)
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
The Buccaneer (1938)
Symphony No. 2 (1938, rev. 1943)
Symphony No. 3 ("American") (1939, rev. 1946)
Adventure in Diamonds (1940)
Angels Over Broadway (1940)
Symphony No. 4 ("1942") (1942)
Decatur at Algiers (1943)
Symphony No. 5 ("Tragic") (1945, withdrawn)
Violin Sonatina (1945)
That Brennan Girl (1946)
Plainsman and the Lady (1946)
Specter of the Rose (1946)
Violin Concerto (1946)
Along the Oregon Trail (1947)
Piano Sonata No. 3 (1947)
Repeat Performance (1947)
Hot-time Dance (1948)
McKonkey's Ferry (1948)
Piano Sonata No. 4 (1948)
String Quartet No. 3 (1948)
Symphony No. 5 "Joyous" (1948)
Symphony No. 6 "After Delacroix" (1948)
Violin Sonata No. 4 (1948)
The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)
Knock on Any Door (1949)
Tokyo Joe (1949)
Tom Sawyer – California Overture (1949)
We Were Strangers (1949)
House by the River (1950)
In a Lonely Place (1950)
Eight Fragments from Shelley (1951)
Sirocco (1951)
Trumpet Sonata (1951)
Actors and Sin (1952) (uncredited)
The Sniper (1952)
Volpone (1952)
The Juggler (1953)
Target Hong Kong (1953)
The Brothers (1954)
Hunters of the Deep (1954)
Venus in Africa (1954)
The Wish (1954)
Capital of the World Suite (1955)
Dementia (1955)
Not as a Stranger (1955)
Air Power (1956) TV series (unknown episodes)
The Young Don't Cry (1957)
The Pride and the Passion (1957)