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May 4, 2018

Introducing “Soundwaves,” A New Blog From WNET’s Music Services Department

WNET is pleased to introduce Soundwaves, a new blog from WNET’s Music Services Department. Each blog will focus on a specific subject and include a Spotify playlist curated by the Music Services team, related to the theme of the post. In this edition, Sue Sinclair, Director of WNET’s Music Services Department, explores the work of avant-garde composer George Antheil, who, with Hollywood film star Hedy Lamarr, invented a pioneering frequency-hopping technique that is the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth technologies.

Their groundbreaking invention is the subject of the new American Masters film, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, premiering Friday, May 18th at 9 p.m. on PBS. (Check local listings.)

We hope you enjoy this edition of Soundwaves!

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George Antheil in 1922 (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

When asked to write this article about the music of George Antheil (1900-1959), I enthusiastically agreed, but then realized that although I had read several of his scores in the rental warehouse stacks throughout my career as a music publisher, I had no firsthand performing experience to share. His music sometimes sounds note-dense with mechanical precision that ultimately sounds joyously cacophonous, all served up with a bit of cheekiness meant to challenge the listener. His film scores, owing to the genre, were lyrical with a tonality teetering on the edge of chromaticism and diatonism.

Thankfully, learning more about this very clever man is a completely joyous experience. A native of Trenton, New Jersey, he lived at a time when recording devices first became commonplace. (Click here for a rare recording of Antheil sharing a short bio of himself.) As well, ever the futurist, he left us with his autobiography, Bad Boy of Music (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1945), which is still in print!

His life was driven by music — first as a concert pianist, then as a composer. He knew the value of learning from his musical predecessors and sought their tutelage by traveling to Berlin in the early 1920’s. He made friends with Igor Stravinsky, and both used the same music copyist.

“Copyists always give me a turn, if for no other reason than that most of them are disappointed composers turning to the next best form of music-note writing. . .My present Hollywood copyist, for instance, makes no secret of the fact that he is not very impressed with my compositions. This does not particularly irritate me, for I know that he judges a composer, not by the quality of his sound, but by the neatness of his score page,” he wrote in his autobiography.

He added that Stravinsky’s copyist would judge the compositional value of the composer when copying a score, by the composer’s manuscript. If he had to use a magnifying glass in order to properly extract the parts, the copyist would say he wasn’t a very good composer. “All of which goes to prove that artists have their way of looking at art; artisans theirs; the latter is more visible,” he wrote.

For what it’s worth, my experience as a copyist is: the sloppier the manuscript, the more in-demand the composer, the best financial outcome for all. There’s no getting around the fact that composing is hard work: Antheil’s copyists were kept busy.

Cramped hand and pinched neck muscles aside, Antheil’s compositional output includes many solo works, 15 chamber ensembles, 20 orchestral works (including six symphonies), six operas, and over 30 film scores – composed circa 1922 up to his death. As heard in the interview, he knew if he were to compose two film scores per year, he could financially provide for his wife and son.

Primarily self-educated, George Johann Carl Antheil was also a film music reporter, music critic, syndicated newspaper and magazine columnist, endocrinology expert, teacher, and inventor. All accomplished in a tragically short 58-year lifespan.

For more biographical detail, troll around Antheil.org, and while you’re there, pay a visit to Paul Lehrman’s website, another extremely clever man whose efforts will be detailed in a bit.

Antheil first studied composition with Constantin von Sternberg, who was a pupil of Franz Liszt. A few years later, Ernest Bloch took him on as a composition student — but Antheil couldn’t afford to continue living in the States, so he headed to Berlin and Paris to earn a living as a concert pianist. One only has to read the first few paragraphs of Chapter 1 of Bad Boy of Music to appreciate just how difficult it is to perform for a living. The performance of the music itself (months of learning to play an evening’s program of music from memory, not just one piece), along with coping with the physical aspects of playing — sweat rolling down your face and hands, as well as limbs going numb, all the while listening to the audience’s reaction to your performance — all make for a hard day’s work. Antheil describes, in explicit detail, “sweating like a hog” as he performed the music of Frederic Chopin. (As a pianist, I break out into a sweat just thinking of playing Chopin, let alone actually playing the many little notes!)

Shortly after his arrival in Europe, Antheil started composing in earnest. His brash and cheeky personality led some musicians to either consider him either a mad genius or publicity hog. Regardless, the European audience ears were much more attuned to appreciating American-composed music than American audiences of the time. By the time he settled in Paris, he was a sensation.

Listening to one of his early piano works, Sonatina (Death of the Machines) (1923), written while living in Paris, one can hear the influence of Stravinsky. This work leads in to the one composition that is most closely associated to him, Ballet Mécanique — a  14-minute silent, abstract, Dada-esque film conceived by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy. Antheil composed a score nearly double the duration of the film, calling for the instrumental forces of three Xylophones, Electric Bells, three Propellors, Tamtam, four Drums, Siren, two Pianos, and 16 Pianolas.

The Pianola, also known as a player piano, became one of the first musical playback devices available for home use at the onset of the 20th century. The arrival of music on demand in private homes created quite the sensation, but also raised the ire of John Philip Sousa, who authored an article in Appleton’s Magazine (Vol. 8, 1906, pp. 278-284), who realized that music was no longer “confined” to public concerts and would therefore mean a decline of income. Sousa’s article was published at the time a new copyright law was introduced in Congress, and on June 6, 1906, he was part of a joint committee introducing the bill that would provide legal protection for the composer. The law was ratified in 1909, creating a “mechanical performance royalty” payable to the composer and publisher of the music for each sale of a piano roll and Edison cylinder.

Does this sound familiar? Artists, singer/songwriters, the music publishers and record companies are now awaiting the Senate’s vote on the Music Modernization Act (three bills in one) that recently passed unanimously in the House of Representatives — all in hopes of recompensing artists and creators for the performance of the works when streamed online.

But getting back to the Ballet Mécanique: Antheil actually composed this daring work for not just ONE Pianola, but 16 of the beasts. At the time, it was impossible to synchronize the simultaneous start of 16 machines at once, let alone coordinate the performance of live musicians playing the other instruments. As such, a successful performance wasn’t undertaken until 1926 with a slightly more “human” orchestration using eight pianos and one pianola. When the work premiered in 1927 at Carnegie Hall, however, the performance was considered (by some) to be a fiasco — the “propellers” (in this case, large electric fans) were pointed into the audience, creating an unintended effect of a windstorm, accompanied by a deafening cacophony.

As often happens during the career of any creative person, several “flops” of Antheil’s works occurred, and he migrated to Hollywood in 1935 to compose the first of many film scores. Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, Antheil’s son, Peter, was born. Check out this interview Peter gave to Mauro Piccinini towards the end of his life for yet more insight into Antheil’s wildly creative mind.

George Antheil and co-inventor Hedy Lamarr. Learn more about the pioneering frequency-hopping technology they invented in “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” premiering Friday, 5/18 at 9 p.m. on “American Masters.” (Estate of George Antheil)

As Antheil became more alarmed at the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Europe, he sponsored the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy, putting on exhibitions of “banned” works of art. Shortly thereafter, on June 14, 1940, his brother, Henry’s plane exploded in mid-air ten minutes after take-off. His brother was a diplomatic courier and his sudden death caused George to “change [his] environment completely,” by teaching music at the summer session of Stanford University. Upon his return to Hollywood a few months later, George and his wife were invited to a dinner party hosted by Janet Gaynor and her husband, where he was introduced to Hedy Lamarr, best described here in an audiobook excerpt. The next day, he phoned Lamarr — who had written her private number on Antheil’s windshield in lipstick — and met her several times. They eventually created a “radio-directed” torpedo to help the Allied forces, utilizing the synchronization aspects of the pianola rolls (a la méchanique) to force the radio frequencies guiding the torpedoes to hop frequencies, thereby eluding detection from enemy forces. A patent was granted, but it wasn’t utilized at the time – and neither Lamarr nor Antheil earned any royalties from it.

Antheil died of a heart attack in New York City on February 12, 1959, leaving us way too soon. But thankfully, we have the legacy of his music to enjoy.

As a postscript, Paul Lehrman, a pioneer in developing the first graphic-based MIDI sequencer for Macintosh computers, used his cleverness to create a performable edition of Ballet Mécanique utilizing MIDI synchronization in 1989. A monumental accomplishment, regardless of  the technological advances of 1980s.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story premieres Friday, May 18 at 9 p.m., and will be available to stream beginning May 19 via the American Masters website (pbs.org/americanmasters) and PBS apps.

Sue Sinclair is the Director of the Music Services Department at WNET.

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