When it comes to 100-year-old hyphenates of cultural import who call Los Angeles home, Nicolas Slonimsky may well have a corner on the market. The musicologist-author-conductor-composer-provocateur-watchdog-cat lover-and-walking encyclopedia turned 100 on Wednesday and was feted with a birthday party at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
While Slonimsky’s frail health of late prevented him from leaving his home in West Los Angeles, the Ahmanson Auditorium was filled with his presence by proxy.
It’s safe to say that everyone in the audience was well-aware of Slonimsky’s unique contributions to music. But a burning question on the street might be: Who or what, exactly, is Nicolas Slonimsky?
If not exactly a household name, Slonimsky has played a critical role in spreading the gospel of and attending to the details of music. And the scope of his influence has extended beyond the classical world.
Although the self-deprecating Slonimsky would say that he backed into musicology by default, he has produced an unparalleled body of published works. The classic “Lexicon of Critical Invective” is an amusing anthology of scathing critiques of music that later gained international notoriety. The exhaustively researched and often cleverly written “Music Since 1900" and “Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians” (now in its eighth edition) give scholarly research a good name. His “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns” is a practical tome whose devotees have included John Coltrane and Frank Zappa, whom Slonimsky befriended.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Slonimsky came to the United States in 1923 and began his musical career here by drawing on his considerable piano skills. He has been an ardent champion of 20th-Century music, conducting premieres of important works by Charles Ives and Edgard Varese. His stubborn penchant for presenting new music doomed his conducting career from the outset--a demise he traces to a disastrous, aborted stint at the Hollywood Bowl in 1933.
After decades spent in Boston, he returned here in the mid-'60s, after the death of his wife, art critic Dorothy Adlow.
Betty Freeman, the new-music patron, photographer and confidante, organized the MOCA celebration and opened the show with a welcome. “My message to him is, ‘Good gracious, I can’t believe you’re 100, and I think it’s one of your famous biographical fabrications,’ ” she teased.
Pierre Boulez, in the midst of his visit here with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, stopped by to offer his own toast.
“Erik Satie told this story: When I was young, people told me, ‘You will see when you are 50.’ Satie was over 50 at the time and he said, ‘I became 50, and I have not seen anything.’ With Nicolas, he’s so fresh and so full of naivete, I expect him to say, ‘I am 100 and I still have seen nothing.’ ”
At Slonimsky’s home, his daughter, Electra, was directing the traffic of well-wishers paying respects. To an inquiry of “How are you?,” he replied emphatically, “Well, I exist.”
“The birthday was terrific. Everybody came--my daughter, my granddaughter, various descendants, just wonderful people around. And I got a special telegram from the White House. It said that the Library of Congress was glad to remember me for the several years that I worked with them. At one time, I was very connected to the libraries.
“There was also mention of the fact that I contributed so much to the Library of Congress. I donated a number of works and manuscripts to the Library of Congress. So there was a connection there.”
Slonimsky has often used the term “quaquaversal,” meaning “every which way.” Does the word define his life in music? “It defines something or other. The word actually exists, but I promoted it.”
At the MOCA program, a group of college students, directed by Ann Gresham, performed several of Slonimsky’s musical settings with text taken from ads in the Saturday Evening Post.
There were also readings from his book “Perfect Pitch” (which he had wanted to call “Failed Wunderkind: A Rueful Autopsy”). Noted film composer David Raksin reprised his musical party favor, titled simply “Nicolas Slonimsky” and set to the tune of Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm.” Performed at Slonimsky’s 90th and 95th birthday celebrations, Raksin’s romp will now, presumably, go back on the shelf until the 105th birthday celebration.
The evening’s musical apogee came at the end with William Kraft’s new piece dubbed, with fitting extravagance, “Birthday Greetings to Nicolas for the First One Hundred Years of Posterity: Heptatonic Phantasmagorical Configurations After Fata Morgana.”
Sopranos Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Lucy Shelton did the honors in this seriocomic opus, with its musical materials lifted out of Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns” and its text from Slonimsky’s own entry on himself in the “Baker’s Dictionary of Musicians.” Mad, merry tonal--and atonal--convolutions eventually dovetailed into a rousing chorus of the conventional “Happy Birthday” by all in the house.
It was a characteristic Slonimsky-esque moment--sophisticated manners, giddy humor and an ever-popular ditty woven into a happy quaquaversal convergence.