Thursday, May 25, 2017

Chandos Releases a Rollicking Album of George Antheil

Regular readers probably know by now that the British Chandos label has released three volumes in a project by Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to record the orchestral works of Charles Ives. They may also know (not from this site, however) that a project to record the orchestral works of Aaron Copland with John Wilson conducting the BBC Philharmonic has thus far advanced to its second volume. It would appear that someone at Chandos has gotten hooked on twentieth-century music from the United States, perhaps with a preference for foot-stomping thigh-slapping Americanisms.

Last Friday that preference was reinforced with the launch of yet another series, once again involving the BBC Philharmonic. This time the conductor is John Storgårds; and the music is that of our country’s most notorious “bad boy” (by his own choice of epithet), George Antheil:

courtesy of Naxos of America

That reputation was earned in 1935 with the performance of his “Ballet Mécanique” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Antheil wrote this piece as accompaniment for a silent film of the same name created by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, who worked with Man Ray as their cinematographer. The film was basically a Dadaist abstract study of mechanisms in motion, and Léger and Murphy may well have assumed the viewers would easily supply sounds of their own in their heads. Anyone who had done this would not, in any way, have been prepared for what Antheil came up with; and it takes only reviewing his instrumentation requirements to see why: sixteen synchronized player pianos, two grand pianos, electronically controlled bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren, and three airplane propellers!

Antheil also has a significant non-musical reputation. During the Second World War he developed a technique known as frequency hopping that would prevent enemy “wiretapping” of radio signals being transmitted to guide torpedoes. The coding of those signals involved the use of punched paper tape, so the idea probably was the result of that interest in player pianos. Particularly interesting, however, is that Antheil had a partner in developing this invention and filing the patent for it, Hollywood film star Hedy Lamarr.

There is nothing particularly “bad boy” about the music included on the first Chandos release. Basically, all three of the selections on the album are joyously raucous, even more extroverted than anything by Copland and entirely lacking in any of the metaphysical brooding that permeates Ives’ New England transcendental rhetoric. Indeed, the title for Antheil’s fifth symphony, the third selection on the album, is “Joyous;” and since it was begun in 1947, the joy probably has to do with the end of the Second World War and the defeat of Adolf Hitler. This is music that makes Copland sound positively stodgy, and its energy level seems to have mined the same sources that both Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich had tapped when the War ended.

The other symphony on this album is the fifth symphony’s predecessor. The fourth was composed in 1942, meaning that the ideas probably began to emerge after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The music has very much a call-to-arms rhetoric; and some of Antheil’s contemporaries were quick to point out  the “family resemblance” with Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (“Leningrad”) symphony in C major, which was premiered in North America on July 19, 1942. In this case, however, Antheil pushed back, asserting that his primary source for this symphony was an opera he had composed in 1930.

The album begins with the premiere recording of “Over the Plains,” which can probably be described as a concert overture. It certainly takes the cake when it comes to revving up the audience for whatever may follow on a concert program. The primary theme sounds like a mash-up of “Red River Valley” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” Given how little attention Ives had received by 1945, the year in which “Over the Plains” was composed, it is entirely possible that Antheil was unfamiliar with the trappings of “Ives country.” More likely, Antheil may have been wondering if he could use his friendship with Lamarr to get known by John Ford, the uncrowned king of the Western movie genre, so taken with the wide open spaces of Monument Valley that he had a house built there.

My guess is that there will be many quick to dismiss all three of these selections as pure corn. To them I would say, “Give it a rest, and let yourself have some fun for a change.” This music may not be profound, but it eschews both the rhetorical darkness of composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich and the tub-thumping patriotic fervor of Copland. The best way to enjoy Antheil is to lower your guard and let his music get to you on its own terms.

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