Slonimsky Regales With Tunes, Tales : Multitalented Musicologist, 94, Emphasizes His Playful Side at UC Irvine Appearance

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Nicolas Slonimsky, a singular figure in 20th-Century music, regaled a UC Irvine audience Thursday night with his piano playing, his singing and tales from his remarkable career.

The 94-year-old musicologist, who was born in Czarist Russia to a family of intellectuals and came to the United States in 1923, has distinguished himself as a pianist, composer, author and conductor who in the ‘30s became an early advocate of Charles Ives, Edgar Varese and Henry Cowell. Of that, he pronounced himself “very proud.”

In recent years he has worked primarily as a lexicographer, compiling such music reference works as the seventh edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. He published his autobiography, “Perfect Pitch,” in 1988. Slonimsky wanted to call it “Failed Wunderkind: A Rueful Autopsy,” but the title was nixed by his publisher.

Dressed in a black suit, bright-red sweater, white shirt and pink, salmon-shaped tie, Slonimsky emphasized his playful side in his musical selections Thursday. He performed two of the first songs he composed in the United States, “The Pepsodent Song” and “The Castoria Song"--dramatic Russian-flavored numbers with lyrics taken directly from ‘20s magazine ads. “Mothers, relieve your constipated child” is a line from “The Castoria Song.”


Slonimsky also used the piano to illustrate some of his work in devising new musical scales, work that continues to be influential in jazz and other circles. “I decided to reconstruct all scales, a sort of perestroika, " he explained. Also, he said, “I wanted to annoy people"--especially his teachers.

Progressive rocker Frank Zappa, familiar with Slonimsky’s work with scales, called him in 1981, and several days later, Slonimsky found himself performing one of his own compositions at a Zappa concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It’s a tale the iconoclastic Russian delighted in telling.

“It’s an unnatural friendship, but it is a friendship,” Slonimsky said. Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit, who with her dad scored a novelty hit called “Valley Girl” several years ago, even taught Slonimsky the basics of Valley talk. “I spoke five or six languages before I met her,” Slonimsky said in his vestigial Russian accent, proceeding to reel off several favorite Valley phrases, including “totally awesome.” He also announced that he had named one of his beloved cats Grody to the Max.

Irreverent to the end, Slonimsky ended his performance by playing a snippet of the overture to Wagner’s “Tannhauser” on the piano--with a hairbrush.

Some anxious moments followed the appearance: Paramedics had to be summoned when Slonimsky suddenly became ill. Posing for photographs about 30 minutes after his presentation in the university’s Fine Arts Gallery, he slumped in his chair, grew pale and appeared short of breath.

He was moved quickly to a bench, where he lay quietly until the paramedics arrived. His vital signs were pronounced normal, and he had recovered enough to get worried onlookers laughing with his one-liners. (Paramedic: “Have you had the flu recently?” Slonimsky: “Yes, I did have a terrible flu--in 1918.”).

Slonimsky agreed to be taken to nearby Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian for further examination but later changed his mind and was driven to his home in Los Angeles. Reached at his home Friday, Slonimsky said he was feeling fine. “It turned out to be a gas attack--a poison gas attack,” he quipped.