One man’s revival of George Antheil works

Times Staff Writer

In his absorbing new book on music in Paris from 1917 to 1929, “The Harlequin Years,” Roger Nichols doesn’t mention George Antheil until four pages from the end. And then it is only to dismiss the sensationally noisy premiere of the composer’s “Ballet mecanique.”

“Few Parisian listeners were naive enough to confuse size with quality,” he writes of this notorious score, which includes a motorized airplane propeller as a percussion instrument.

However, among the few noise-happy naifs who admired Antheil in Paris were Pound, Joyce, Yeats, Picasso, Hemingway, Cocteau, Leger, Stein. It was harder, but not impossible, to find sympathetic fellow musicians. Copland and Satie were, at the very least, interested.

But the fact remains that Antheil, who was born in New Jersey in 1900 and, after his bad-boy expatriate days, wound up as a moderately successful film composer in Hollywood, has always been best known as a fascinating character. Musical champions have been few, but every now and then someone takes up the cause with missionary zeal. The latest is Guy Livingston, a young American pianist living in Paris. He has lately unearthed some unpublished Antheil piano pieces (most of Antheil’s music remains unpublished), recorded them on a CD titled “The Lost Sonatas” and put together a one-man Antheil show. Monday night it reached the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


There were some in the Bing Theater audience who knew Antheil, and they hung around after the concert to talk about him. They had waited a long time to hear his work performed at the Monday Evening Concerts, which ignored him not only during his lifetime (he died in 1959) but long afterward. There was no respect at this famed new music series for a composer who had turned his back on the avant-garde to constantly reinvent himself in neo-Classical and neo-Romantic guises.

Many in the music world at the time were also suspicious of so avid a self-promoter, busy pursuing his interests in endocrinology and various inventions and writing magazine columns. One episode in Livingston’s show tells of Hedy Lamarr, smitten by Antheil’s endocrinological Esquire column, making an appointment to see the composer about her breasts. On the way out of his office, she wrote her phone number in lipstick on his car window.

Antheil’s music can be as wildly inconsistent, and as wild, as everything else about this curious composer. It is never great and often, in its incessant percussiveness, proves extremely grating. But Livingston, a pianist with an impressive manic side of his own as well as a striking technique, is a persuasive proponent. He is especially good at making the fiendish “Sonata Sauvage” -- premiered in 1923 at the same concert with “Ballet mecanique” -- seem good Futuristic fun.

The more conventional later sonatas from Antheil’s Hollywood years -- Livingston played the Fifth (1950) and excerpts from the Third (1947) -- are hardly shocking, but now and again the composer returns to his diabolical roots, and Livingston made these works come to life. Still, the late sonatas have been called second-rate Prokofiev, and that is a charge hard to refute.


Bringing Antheil himself to life was more problematic for Livingston.

With a few props -- an upright piano for the composer’s Paris studio, a desk for his Hollywood one -- and special effects, Livingston enacted scenes from Antheil’s biography with a charismatic awkwardness and enthusiasm. Perhaps that is what Pound and others saw in the man.

But the hourlong production, directed by Caroline Nastro, didn’t include enough material to really flesh out so fascinating a character. Technically, it wasn’t polished. At a big moment, when Livingston set the scene for the “Ballet mecanique” premiere in Paris -- the player pianos here, the airplane propeller there, all the clangorous percussion in the middle -- the sound system (which was weak all night) failed completely and we heard nothing.

For an example of the Hollywood music, Livingston screened the opening of “The Pride and the Passion,” which was directed by Stanley Kramer and starred Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra. Antheil’s likable score has a Spanish character that provides just the right atmosphere for a Napoleonic-era film about defeated Spain. Antheil may have loved to walk on the wild side, but, as this conventional but effective film music demonstrated, the wildness was, in the end, mostly on the surface.