- Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Joonas Ahonen: “Le monde selon George Antheil” (Alpha Classics)
- Florent Ghys: “Ritournelles” (Cantaloupe)
- Florent Ghys: “Mosaïques” (Cantaloupe)
- Latvian Radio Choir, Sigvards Kļava: “John Cage: Choral Works” (Ondine)
The fact that you are reading this article right now owes much to a request posed to composer George Antheil in 1940: “Hedy Lamarr wants to see you about her glands.”
At the time, Antheil—who had, reluctantly, moved back to the United States after the rise of fascism turned his Parisian paradise into a ticking bomb—had been moonlighting as an armchair expert in female endocrinology. His output on the matter included a column in Esquire magazine, where he once explained how a woman’s glandular makeup was reflected in how she presented in everyday life, thereby allowing men to sum up her personality based on traits like the size of her breasts and gait of her walk. (Now is a good time to mention that Antheil had no medical training.)
Nevertheless, influence doesn’t always check for credentials and Hollywood bombshell Lamarr, who had anxieties over the size of her chest, asked mutual friends to connect her with Antheil in hopes that the right glandular therapy would help. What they ultimately bonded over, however, was the war. Lamarr mentioned to Antheil that she had considered giving up Hollywood and offering her services to the U.S. government. This wasn’t vaingloriousness on her part; her first husband had been a weapons manufacturer in Austria and she knew many of the designs and details of his work. Instead of doing this, she and Antheil began to devise a system in which radio signals could switch across 88 frequencies, thereby making it harder for enemies to intercept or jam signals. They used a piano roll in building a prototype (hence the 88 frequencies) and patented the system in 1942. It was never used during the war, but the core concept of Antheil and Lamarr’s frequency hopping patent would form the bedrock of WiFi.
I love this story because it’s the sort of anecdote that illustrates how history is a set of happenstances generally agreed upon. Everything looks random, and to a large degree it is, but take a few steps back and you start to see patterns and shapes emerge, like forms in a Jackson Pollock canvas. There’s a similar sense of randomness with direction in the curation of Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s new album “Le Monde Selon George Antheil.”
Alongside pianist Joonas Ahonen, Kopatchinskaja has constructed an elegant matrix of connections and crossings growing out of Antheil’s time in post-World War I Paris. It was there that he palled around with James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Jean Cocteau. Erik Satie hailed him as a musical genius (one who gave recitals with a loaded revolver resting on the piano to discourage heckling when he moved from Beethoven and Chopin into his own, thornier works). Igor Stravinsky precipitously introduced him to the player piano. It was in Paris that the “wild and wooly” elements (his words) of Antheil’s earlier compositions became nurtured into herbaceous vines and long-tusked mammoths.
Kopatchinskaja and Ahonen ground their world according to Antheil in the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 1, written for Pound’s longtime mistress, Olga Rudge, paired with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7, Op. 30, No. 2. Antheil revered Beethoven, and his description of this particular work reprinted in the liner notes for this album doesn’t read too differently from his Esquire columns:
The first theme, a noble theme it is, as noble as a man’s true love, the woman he marries…Now comes the second theme. In the dominant, a brighter key. It is the mistress. The mistress always comes a little while after the wife, and she is in a brighter key. Don’t worry, though, for the mistress theme will be as dull as the wife’s in the recapitulation, in the same key. Isn’t that like life?…They call it counterpoint, I call it a cat fight!
Antheil’s world post-Paris comes into focus as well, with works by Morton Feldman and John Cage, two composers who formed a bond during a chance encounter in New York. Cage later introduced Antheil to Feldman, starting a friendship between the older and younger composers.
It’s a treat to hear Kopatchinskaja play Beethoven with her impulsive, wild-haired style. But the album’s centerpiece is her swan-dive into Antheil’s sonata. To place Antheil in a continuum of music history is to already program something motley by necessity, but his First Violin Sonata—written early in his Paris career as his musical style was beginning to crystallize—is even more of a Dadaist collage. You can hear where he pasted in influences from Stravinsky and Satie, along with the mechanical instrumental impulses that also became a hallmark of Antheil’s style. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” which premiered four years after this sonata, comes to mind in the first movement, all blazing energy and futurism. The wildness comes out of the shadows in the middle two sections: The second movement features an unsettling, crepuscular piano rhythm that the violin jackknifes into without hesitation. The third veers even further into no-man’s land; we’re on a road without a map, and that road may fall out from under our feet at any moment. But the views are worth it.
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I suppose, in some way, we also have Antheil to thank and/or blame for TikTok. Not only because of his of his contributions to the Internet as we know it today, but also due to his Dada streak and omnivorous sense of appropriation. What is TikTok, a platform where people take sounds, structures, and dances they like and make it their own, if not a platform of appropriation—in the most neutral sense of the term? What is the random assortment of memes denuded of context if not a recapitulation of Dada? And yet there’s also a conscious sense of what Antheil’s comrade Ezra Pound termed a fear of abstraction.
TikTok has revived a style of music formed as a literal representation of found text or sound that avoids abstraction. Any video, through its ability to be duetted, can be remixed and built upon. Countless accounts have therefore made their own songs across generations of iterations (see: sea shanties). Many have also used that function to build music out of sounds that have little to no musicality. Some, like Hiroki-san—whose compositions spring from huskies howling, lambs snoring, and cats being assholes—have made it into an art that is followed by over 360,000 people. It’s the sort of music that composers like Pamela Z have built a career on; the sort of collage art that led to Antheil’s definitive style. It illustrates the cyclical nature of history’s chance encounters and happenstances.
With this in mind, listening to French double-bassist and composer Florent Ghys’s latest release, the double-album “Ritornelles & Mosaïques,” as the kids say, hits different. Long before our lives began to merge with the algorithm, Ghys was setting everyday conversations and pre-recorded texts (like John Cage reading his diary entries, including his own thoughts on Satie). For Ghys, they’re the raw materials of musical alchemy; he composes a work rooted in a given individual’s rhythm, pitch, and intonation. But it’s hard to separate those early works from videos that now live rent-free in our collective memory.
It’s rare, however, that memes grow and develop to understand the contours of their own wildness and wooliness. “Ritornelles & Mosaïques” continues Ghys’s fascination with the musical qualities of the seemingly mundane, but pushes into starker territories. The “Mosaïques” album opens with a combination of spoken text and underscoring music, but the words have lost any sense of human rhythm, instead sounding like the earliest prototypes of Siri’s mechanical voice. The text itself seems AI-generated, as if written with a phone’s autocomplete: “A flower no one has ever seen before that could not be seen, afraid of the wind, a flower bloomed, a flower, it was terribly afraid of the wind, a flower no one has ever seen before was blooming.”
But there’s something captivating even in the mechanical randomness, and Ghys draws that out. His music is doing even more of the work to fill in the gaps of meaning left by chance and technology. In more human tracks, like one that sets an Ace Hardware video previewing interior color trends for 2020 with an actual person reading complete sentences, the nature of the marketing copy sounds even less sensical—albeit in some cases vaguely prophetic: “Citron lives up the 2020 trend of wanting to feel better with the choices we make.” Ghys draws out the colors and fry of the narrator’s own voice as she moves through the paint swatches; this moves swiftly into a subsequent, Talking Heads-y track. This collage-like curation invites all sorts of David Byrneian reads on what would otherwise be one out of hundreds of home improvement tutorials.
Ghys balances the ordinary and concrete with the abstract and conceptual. At times, his titles create—much like Eric Nathan’s “Missing Words”—a sort of synesthetic experience, like the smelting tones of “Gold” and the green blades of “Printemps permanent.” Other times, the effects are far more literal; “Téléphone” sounds like the guts of a landline call laid bare. Ghys offers room for both most noticeably with the pairing of “Northeast Corridor” on “Ritournelles” and “Trains” on “Mosaïques.” The former, a nod to the Amtrak line connecting Washington, DC to Boston, gets to the essence of that trip, sounding pixelated and digital with a sense of perpetual forward motion, but offering none of the landscape that passes from New England down to the mid-Atlantic region. In about half the length, “Trains” creates a more richly-textured landscape, beginning with the explicit sounds of train whistles and the articulations of a locomotive. While “Northeast Corridor” plunges forward, “Trains” creates a greater sense of stillness within this movement, departing as quickly as it arrived.
At their best, Antheil and Ghys exemplify John Cage’s idea of experimental music, the turning to which, he wrote, “is psychological and seems at first to be a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity—for a musician, the giving up of music. This psychological turning leads to the world of nature.” Yet, Cage cautions, this doesn’t exclude humanity from the equation. It—along with trains, the internet, and Hedy Lamarr’s glands—is innately tied to nature. That’s the fable of experimentalism for Cage: “Nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained.” Fitting, then, that some of Cage’s last works—the choral pieces “Five” (1990), “Four2” (1990), and “Four6” (1992)—represent another experiment for the composer. “I’m surprised at almost all the ideas that come to my head,” he said in 1990, “because they have to do with harmony.”
Cage still leaves much to chance. In “Five,” each of the parts has a particular pitch range, but allows any of the voices (or other instruments who are welcome to interpret the work) to move freely around that range. “Four6” leaves the pitch itself up to the performer, so long as they can be extended and each performer can find 12 different pitches (in this score, Cage provides the pattern for each musician to follow). The effect is profound. While many choral works operate on a cathedral of sound principle, Cage’s “Five—in a new recording from the Latvian Radio Choir and Sigvards Kļava—is a tunnel of sound, vital and vivid. The harmonies create a landscape that seems neutral and still, but simultaneously emotionally charged and unsettling—a bit like entering the Zone of Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” How much of this is Cage’s intent versus the interpretation of the choir (versus, for that matter, the interpretation of the listener)? Cage would probably argue none of that matters.
Which, halfway through 2022, is a tantalizing thought. What if none of the storyline actually matters? This also feels central to “Hymns and Variations,” one of Cage’s earlier choral works that removes the harmonics from two hymns by First New England School composer William Billings—“Old North” and “Heath”—and spins this out into a total of ten variations. Like a gut renovation, the bones of Billings’s music are still there. However, the exterior is something other than the subtraction of its parts. It’s this sort of systematic chance that refutes the idea of Cage’s music as directionless and slapdash, and it’s this sort of a work that makes a strong argument. “Hymns and Variations” is more akin to Quaker meetings, where no one speaks unless they’re compelled to do so. There’s still a sense of spontaneity as to when the silence breaks, but each time it’s broken with a rigorous deliberateness. Even randomness has meaning. ¶
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