Recorded August 1999
Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Viewed collectively, Herbert Henck's recordings for ECM add up to portrait gallery of some of the most fiercely independent spirits in 20th century music. In this series of recordings, Henck has illuminated composers whose work is outside all the "schools". So far, we've heard: the Spanish proto-minimalist Mompou, whose "voice of silence" was inspired by St John of the Cross; the Russian Mosolov who found poetry in the hammerings of the iron foundry; the French composer Barraque, whose massively complex Piano Sonata has defied all but the most gifted contemporary interpreters; the German composer Hans Otte, whose "Das Buch der Klange" proposed "a new consciousness of sounds". Now Henck turns his attention to two maverick Americans: George Antheil and Conlon Nancarrow. Though both can be held up as 'ahead of their time' and both did their most creative work outside America, their personal fates were quite different. Antheil enjoyed a burst of brief celebrity as the self-styled "Bad Boy of Music" in Paris of the 1920s and, after a disastrous New York debut in 1927 was regarded with suspicion by critics thereafter, a "defection" to the movies not helping his cause at all. (In the last decade, George Antheil's music has been reassessed and his critical reputation at least rehabilitated). Conlon Nancarrow, on the other hand, stubbornly followed his muse for 40 years in obscurity in Mexico, only beginning to gain any kind of recognition in his sixties.
Nancarrow (1912-1997) was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. Jazz and Brahms and Beethoven were his earliest inspirations. Trumpet was his first instrument and he played in his home town's brass band. In the 1930s, he studied privately with Walter Piston, Nicolas Slonimsky and Roger Sessions in Boston, was bowled over by exposure to Bartok and Stravinsky, listened avidly (at the urging of Henry Cowell) to music of India and Africa, and subsidized his studies by playing in jazz clubs and German beer halls. Nancarrow travelled to Spain in 1937 to fight against Franco's fascists, and also joined the communist party. On his return to the USA, his left wing radicalism drew the attention of governmental agencies. Nancarrow's application for a new passport was turned down in 1940. He decamped to Mexico City which was to be his home base for the next 57 years. There he began his lonely quest to realise his compositions by means of mechanical performance, painstakingly punching holes into pianola roles. The player piano became his sole musical outlet. When his more than 50 player piano studies were heard more widely in the late 1970s, many musicians were stunned by their beauty and complexity. Gyorgy Ligeti was prompted to remark that "Nancarrow's music is the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives...something great and important for all music history. His music is so utterly original, perfectly constructed but at the same time emotional."
However, both before and after his long absorption in mechanical music, Nancarrow wrote for human performers. The Prelude and Blues and the Three 2-part Studies that Herbert Henck plays here are amongst Nancarrow's earliest published works. They indicate, in their formidable challenge to performers, the direction that his subsequent "impossible music" would take. Enormous rhythmic demands are placed upon the performer who must also have an understanding of "jazz" dynamics, barrelhouse syncopation and Stravinskyian/Bartokian linearity. In the 1930s, interpreters were not equal to the challenge. Henck is one of very few pianists able to negotiate the material today, and he brings to it sensibilities that have been honed by his own work as an improviser as well a rigorous commitment to the interpretation of contemporary music.
George Antheil was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1900. A childhood of the century, he was a modernist by temperament. Combative and not given to false modesty, he was convinced, by the age of 20, that his achievements would eclipse those of his contemporaries. He was able, at least in his young years, to transmit this conviction to others, and early supporters included Virgil Thomson (who hailed Antheil as "the first composer of our generation"), Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce and Ezra Pound (who wrote a book about him, "Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony"). Pound, on several occasions, and with his usual flair for hyperbole, insisted that George Antheil was a superior musician to Stravinsky.
By all accounts a riveting performer of his own works, the tiny Antheil (he was barely five foot tall) was possessed of enormous energy, and his practise sessions - up to 20 hours at a stretch, and with fish bowls at each side of the piano stool into which to plunge swollen and bloody hands - were legendary.
For the Paris-based Pound, Antheil's compositions swept away the "hysterical mush" of French impressionism. The young American "demanded short hard bits of rhythm hammered down, worn down so that they were indestructible and unbendable". Against "atmosphere" and for strong lines and unsentimental, sculpted form, he was, the poet-critic claimed, the harbinger of a new movement in music.
Herbert Henck: "Again and again, Antheil felt drawn to machines, and several of his works revolve around this modern, future-oriented experience. 'Music and machines' may have been as firm a component of the 20s as serial techniques, Neo-Classicism, politicised, propagandistic music or the youth movement, but Antheil was the composer with the most radical approach, the one who surpassed all the rest."
New York critics felt differently when Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique" was premiered in Carnegie Hall. It was an ambitious presentation, complete with real airplane propellor, ten pianos, a siren and a large wind-machine which, positioned unfortunately, blew hats off ladies' heads. An elderly critic on the balcony tied his white handkerchief to his walking stick and waved it in a gesture of surrender. Where Antheil's performances in France had often provoked riots, New York responded with laughter and jeers.
In Europe, however, he continued to enjoy the support of great artists. Antheil collaborated with Yeats and Joyce and Cocteau, and wrote a detective novel which TS Eliot accepted for Faber & Faber. Had World War II not intervened he might never have returned to live in his homeland.
Opportunities for performance of Antheil's work evaporated in the post-war period. His prgamatic embracing of Hollywood in the 1940s estranged old allies. Virgil Thomson sneered that "the Bad Boy of Music" had "grown up to be a good boy". Those who were close to Antheil in this period, such as novelist/journalist/screenwriter Ben Hecht, had another tale to tell:
"Music poured out of Antheil sixteen hours a day. He did nothing but write music and play it on the piano, which he made sound like a calliope in a circus parade. Driving an automobile, flying the Atlantic, watching a ballgame or drinking himself pie-eyed, George Antheil kept on writing music, carrying it in his head until he could get to paper and ink pot."In 1963, four years after Antheil's death, the astute Hecht noted that "there is no Antheil boom as yet. But there's one tuning up. It will take a few more years for Antheil to win the laurels due him. This is because the Antheil fame was a bit spotty when he died. The Art World was miffed at Georgie. He had deserted to the movies. The rule is - you cater to the masses or you kowtow to the elite; you can't have it both ways. But the rule is a fickle one, as are most of the edicts of snobbery. The fact that Antheil made a fair living writing movie music will be forgiven him soon."