Antheil II: Naked City, 1923

George AntheilSonatas for Violin and Piano (Azica, 2011)

As I was saying

Years after encountering “Ballet Mécanique,” I’ve finally taken the step into exploring some of Antheil’s other music.

And I’ve found something cool: He presaged John Zorn’s radio-jumping idea by a few decades.

I don’t know if Zorn ever heard Antheil, and Zorn’s Naked City certainly put a more extreme and electrifying spin on the idea. But it’s fun to imagine Antheil’s effect on audiences, because while artists like Stravinsky were creating strange and unsettling music, Antheil went downright loony.

I’m talking specifically about the 1923 Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano. In some ways, the 8.5-minute piece is even more subversive than “Ballet Mécanique.” You walk into “Ballet Mécanique” knowing you’re going to witness something large and crazy, but an violin sonata is an innocuous-seeming place.

The sonata presents one jazzy angle after another, sometimes interspersed with more classically “classical” moments.  He’s genre-hops, too, abruptly cutting off an “oriental” theme at one point, and ending the piece with a quiet Arabian motif. It’s a kind of “frequency hopping” — like switching stations on a radio. Except radio hadn’t yet become a household mass medium.

There are no patterns and no recurring themes. There is no sense of direction or evolution, just one event after another in a stream of consciousness that never lets you settle in and get comfortable. Sometimes the piano plays a perfectly straight pop line, while the violin sings something in another key entirely. Sometimes, you get a fistful of low piano notes next to a screeching double-stop on the violin.

Mario Piccinini’s liner notes quote Antheil about upending the average listener by abandoning the normal A-B-A musical form: “Consequentially, this formula: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA makes him uneasy: it throws him into the air.” Yes, it does.

The music is smart-alecky, but that also makes it deeply expressive and creates space for showmanship. Antheil apparently gave the musicians instructions such as “sour,” “sweet,” or “giggled.  One umbrella instruction of “sarcastic” might have sufficed. Mark Fewer (violin) and John Novacek (piano) do sound like they’re having fun playing it.

Sonata No. 1 is less jarring but hardly conventional.  It’s peppered with some Naked City moments (a sudden country hoedown that quickly vanishes, for instance), and the first movement includes lots of passages where the piano or violin hammers away at one note or one strident chord — a mechanical, dehumanized moment that presages the “Ballet Mécanique.” But you do get a sense of thematic construction.

Sonata No. 1 has its friendly moments, to be sure, but there’s an overall sternness. And yet it’s delivered with that same smirk as Sonata No. 2. One passage has the violin caught in highly dramatic throes while the pianist plays the lowest and highest registers at the same time.

The fifth movement closes the sonata some impressive fast playing — Fewer on violin, particularly, has to spit out fast, accurate mumbles with a feathery bow touch. Then, at one dramatic point, Antheil delivers one false ending after another. Classical music does that — you should see Hugh Fink, a violin-playing standup comedian, do his bit about it — but Antheil outright toys with you, nearly ending the piece again and again and again and again. And again. And. Again. I like to think he was playing for laughs.

This whole act didn’t last much longer for Antheil, though.

“Ballet Mécanique” got a disastrous reception in New York, possibly caused by the massive overhype that preceded the premiere, author Richard Rhodes surmises in Hedy’s Folly. Antheil was crushed, and maybe because of that — or maybe because of the years he spent on movie soundtracks — his later works took a more conventional voice.

His “New Second Violin Sonata,” here titled “Sonata No. 4 (2),” retains touches of Antheil’s sarcasm and even some allusions to popular music. But overall, the 1948 piece is more “serious classical,” full of modern-sounding harmonies. Cadences and moods stick around for a while, and the quiet parts have a delicacy that was rarer in Antheil’s earlier works. “Sonata No. 4 (2)” is a lot less radical, and for that reason, I want to think of it as a lesser achievement — but the truth is, it’s more listenable (if less fun) than Sonata No. 2.

Elsewhere among recent Antheil releases is a CD of his complete string quartet works, performed by the Bay Area-based Del Sol String Quartet. It’s got the same dichotomy of early and later pieces, and while it’s hard for a string quartet to sound as absurd as a piano can, I’d expect the earlier pieces to have the same kind of adventure to them.