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A Life Scored for 100 Balloons Exploding Fortissimo : PERFECT PITCH A Life Story by Nicolas Slonimsky (Oxford University Press: $25; 258 pp., illustrated)

March 27, 1988|Martin Bernheimer | Bernheimer, Times music critic, deplored Nicolas Slonimsky's impenetrable program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic 20 years ago and, repentant, has been wagging his tail to the master's voice ever since

It is good, on the eve of his 94th birthday, at last to have a book, a whole book, by Nicolas Slonimsky and about Nicolas Slonimsky.

Until now, the best reference on this wondrous, multitalented, complex, obfuscatory enfant terrible was a lengthy entry in every musician's favorite lexicographic bible, "Baker's Biographical Dictionary."

It was here that a grateful world first learned, for instance, that the celebrated Russian-American pianist-conductor-composer-musicologist-historian-raconteur had been "a failed Wunderkind ."

The infamous entry went on to tell us that, "possessed by inordinate ambition, aggravated by the endemic intellectuality of his family," our hero "became determined (at an early age) to excel beyond common decency."

He did, of course, just that.

Baker's recounts Slonimsky's initial studies, his post-revolutionary departure from Russia, his being hired "as secretary and piano-pounder to (the conductor) Serge Koussevitzky" and, subsequently, his being "fired for insubordination." There are copious citations of his pioneering efforts on behalf of Charles Ives, Edgar Varese and Henry Cowell; of the concerts he conducted in Paris, Berlin and Budapest; of his early-'30s encounters with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, "which created such consternation that his conducting career came to a jarring halt."

Exit the concert hall, enter the classroom.

"He taught variegated musical subjects at the University of California, Los Angeles; was irretrievably retired after a triennial service (1964-67), ostensibly owing to irreversible obsolescence and recessive infantiloquy; but, disdaining the inexorable statistics of the actuarial tables, continued to agitate and even gave long-winded lecture-recitals in institutions of dubious learning." As a child, incidentally, Slonimsky wrote his own future biography, and in it, he had predicted the year of his death: 1967.

He dabbled, we are told, in composition but "his only decent work is 'My Toy Balloon' (1942), a set of variations on a Brazilian song which includes in the score 100 colored balloons to be exploded fortississimo at the climax."

There is more, so much more. "Beset by a chronic itch for novelty, he coined the term 'pandiatonicism' (1937), which, mirabile dictu , took root." He also contributed "a learned paper, 'Sex and the Music Librarian,' valuable for its painstaking research; the paper was delivered by proxy, to tumultuous cachinnations, at a symposium of the Music Library Assn., at Chapel Hill, N.C., Feb. 2, 1968."

Who wrote this maddeningly indulgent, mildly mocking entry anyhow? The answer is obvious: "In his quest for trivial but not readily accessible information, he blundered into the muddy fields of musical lexicography."

That puts it all too mildly. Slonimsky has been many impish things, but he probably will be best remembered for his poetic filing of prosaic facts, not to mention his virtuosically quizzical manipulation of our language. He is tireless and thorough. His gargantuan work lends new meaning to the concept of the probing mind.

He added a provocative addendum, by the way, to his own biographical entry: "In 1978 he mobilized his powers of retrospection in preparing an autobiography, 'Failed Wunderkind,' subtitled 'Rueful Autopsy' (in the sense of self-observation, not dissection of the body)."

It has taken a decade for this retrospective exercise to find its way into print. It may be significant that, in the process, the work has lost both its intended title and its piquant subtitle. Ironically, "Perfect Pitch" and "A Life Story" may be the the only bland phrases in the new book. They certainly represent the only symptoms of that most dreaded of literary afflictions, the cliche.

Slonimsky manages to fuse--but not confuse--cleverness and brilliance. He juggles self-importance and self-mockery with poignant bravado. He certainly knows how to drop names while telling a whale of a story.

He writes with some nostalgia of the new beginnings as an emigre in Boston, with some bitterness of those who treated him less than nobly (most notably Koussevitzky), with bemusement of those who did not appreciate his avant-garde sympathies ("The word spread that I was a dangerous musical revolutionary who inflicted hideous noise on concert-goers expecting to hear beautiful music").

He offers impassioned justification for the somewhat unorthodox name he imposed upon his daughter--Electra--and, with undisguised glee recounts a characteristic exercise in domestic Pavloviana. The exercise was intended, we are assured, to broaden the child's aesthetic horizons.

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