Like They’ve Never Heard Before

As I’ve mentioned once or twice before on NewMusicBox, I’m getting ready to teach a month-long continuing education course on radical American music before World War II. To that end, I recently checked Carol Oja’s Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s out of my university library (to which I’ll have access for only a few short months more). I haven’t finished it yet, but the first half held my interest ably during the flight from Minneapolis to BWI. Although the particulars of some of Oja’s attempts to situate and contextualize prewar music within the long 20th century will probably seem a little narrow to readers with a more robust knowledge of postwar and more recent musics, as a work of cultural history I recommend the book highly.

I found Oja’s writing on George Antheil especially noteworthy. The futuristic pseudoscience and chest-thumping self-aggrandizement that adorn Antheil’s hyper-rhetorical manifestos are leavened by impossibly forward-thinking observations about musical material and form. About the infamous Ballet Mécanique, Antheil wrote that “it was conceived in a new form, that form specifically being the filling out of a certain time canvas with musical abstractions and sound material composed and contrasted against one another with the thought of time values rather than tonal values.” Had anyone said things like this before the 1920s? It’s a revolutionarily explicit foregrounding of the linear category of time, which Antheil made explicit as “the space of our musical canvas.” Rather than understand musical experience as a symbolic or agonistic play of events, Antheil—probably, now that I think of it, drawing a conclusion or two from the music of Debussy and especially Satie—proposed a quantitative view of that which had previously been conceivable only qualitatively.

This isn’t a wholesale endorsement of everything Antheil ever wrote in words or in notes, but—as part of a larger argument about the creative agitations of American ultramodernism—I think this point is worth remarking on. The notion of musical clock-time’s independence from agogic time is almost as crucial to postwar modernism as the notion of breaking down musical sound as graduated parameters. It’s very possible that there are clear antecedents here that I’m failing to notice—it wouldn’t be the first time Henry Cowell beat someone to the prescient punch, for instance—and, if so, I hope someone will chime in and set us straight. In any case, as we charge into the New Year, do celebrate the possibility that—like Antheil—something you’re thinking about right now might be on everyone’s mind in a few decades.

4 thoughts on “Like They’ve Never Heard Before

  1. Phil Fried

    I did some work on Antheil and the elimination of distinct melody replacing it with ostinatos, an anti-romantic approach, can be found in his violin sonatas. That said his writings are problematic for me as he did not keep faith with his wild early work. Then again Antheil was one of the few composers who let external ideas shape his music. As to his creating new forms, perhaps-but an arch form is an arch form no matter what creates the surface.

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  2. Mark N. Grant

    I agree with Phil (and Colin?) that Antheil’s later music is very disappointing. It’s conservative but undistinctive in voice. But in his evergreen memoir Bad Boy of Music Antheil explains his evolution from “bad boy” to – what? “good boy”?? – very specifically as a by-product of his sincere desire to restudy traditional compositional forms that he himself felt he had never learned properly to begin with. It does not sound like a self-serving rationalization for his “selling out” to movie and TV scoring. In the context of what Colin notes about Antheil’s prescient aesthetics, Antheil’s recounting of his mentorship of the young and wild Henry Brant is fascinating, and his remark ruing Brant’s ultimate rejection of him tantalizingly vague.

    Apropos of what Colin says about Antheil’s “impossibly forward-thinking,” there is a brand new book about his bizarre WWII scientific collaboration with the gorgeous movie actress Hedy Lamarr in inventing a radio guidance system for torpedos. It’s called Hedy’s Folly and is written by Richard Rhodes, better known for writing about the atomic bomb. Rhodes claims that the Antheil-Lamarr patents actually paved the way for the cell phone and other late 20th century technologies. I have not read it, but Antheil himself covered a lot of the Lamarr episode in Bad Boy.

    Antheil was a larger-than-life character, picaresque and almost comedian-like in his amusing prose. There are episodes in his book that are clearly confabulated. But for its candid self-examination of how one becomes a composer at the beginning of a career, learns and chooses one’s tools, and sustains the creative hunt through life’s curveballs, I’ve always thought that Bad Boy of Music should be essential reading for budding (and mature) composers.

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  3. Phil Fried

    “..It does not sound like a self-serving rationalization for his “selling out” to movie and TV scoring…”

    Sorry. I’m not convinced at all. Form can be understood in many ways not to mention stretched. Yet you’re right. Read the book(s)and decide. My view of George is that he had the knack of turning up at the right place at the right time and blending in. Paris in the 20’s then Hollywood in its heyday. Certainly a handy skill.

    Of course, one might wonder if Ezra Pound had as much to do with creating Antheil’s music for Ballet Mecanique as he did with T.S.’s The Wasteland.

    But Mark, as you have pointed out before I tend to take the tragic view.

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  4. Colin Holter

    Thanks for your comments, guys.

    Personally, I don’t love any of Antheil’s music. The early work seems like it should be remarkable, but to me it always sounds like a description of a piece – like Antheil basically leaned over and said, “Dude, what if there was a piece where there was like a bunch of propellers…” or whatever, and then hired somebody to put together a piece in two hours that fit his description. (In contrast, Cage’s music – some of which actually was made more or less this way – doesn’t give me this vibe.)

    I think the later music is a little disappointing for exactly the reason Mark brings up: Maybe Antheil realized that making Art (which those early pieces certainly were, if only by the letter of the law rather than the spirit) wasn’t as satisfying as attaining a grasp on the craft of music, which after all is basically about internalizing simple and complex conventions and conventional detours from them… not to minimize it or anything.

    Nevertheless, I still think Antheil’s 1920s “Art by the letter of the law” is really stimulating. And it’s a crying shame that the Hedy Lamarr thing hasn’t been made into a movie yet.

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