From "Perfect Pitch: A Life Story," by Nicolas Slonimsky, to be published this month by Oxford University Press Inc.
I MET QUITE A number of composers who were frankly flaky, or furfuraceous, to use a more elegant term. Flaky composers spawn in California, and, being myself a California transplant, I had no trouble to infiltrate their company. I also contributed some pieces to their magazine of musical nonsense called Source. One of my flaky friends, Ken Friedman, puzzled me when he said he was writing an oratorio dedicated to Laszlo Toth.
"Who the hell is Laszlo Toth?" I asked. Friedman gave me a look of incredulity.
"Why, Laszlo Toth," he said, "is the artist who resculptured the Pieta!" Indeed, Toth was the name of the demented Hungarian who hacked Michelangelo's masterpiece. When Friedman told me that the finale of his Third Symphony was the Los Angeles earthquake of 1971, I became interested in his orchestration. "You do not understand," he said, with undisguised disdain. "The earthquake was the finale of my work!"
Charles Amirkhanian is the inventor of a new musical form which he calls text-sound. In one of these works he "canonized" me, in a manner of speaking, by making a canon out of a fragment from one of my lectures in San Francisco; in the recording I sound like a demented dervish, whirling around verbally and periodically returning to the original vocable. The result is imbecilic, but for that very reason the record achieved a certain currency in the musical underground and was even reviewed in the New York Times.
Much more embarrassing was a recording Amirkhanian surreptitiously made of my rather loose dinner talk at the home of Mrs. George Antheil, widow of the composer. I was in a talkative mood (my normal state), saying outrageous things about mutual friends and acquaintances, with a generous admixture of assorted sexual gossip. I was horrified to learn that Amirkhanian aired the tape over his Berkeley radio station, KPFA, under the beguiling title, "Nicolas Slonimsky Eats Dinner." It traversed several courses, from soup to nuts, punctuated by my uninhibited comments. I was told the program was repeated by popular demand, but I never dared to tune in.
The Grand Vizier of all California composers is undoubtedly John Cage. Can it be that John Cage is really 75 years old? Not so long ago he was an object of derision but has since attained the status of a guru. The 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes him as a "composer whose work and revolutionary ideas profoundly influenced mid-20th-Century music." Pravda has offered an ingenious theory for the rise of John Cage: His music demoralizes the listeners by its neurotic drive and by doing so depresses the proletarian urge to rise en masse against capitalism and imperialism. It is for this reason that Wall Street supports Cage financially. When I reported this bit of sociological analysis to Henry Cowell, who was one of Cage's mentors, he remarked in his well-modulated Irish voice, "This is strange. If John is financed by Wall Street, why did he borrow three dollars from me last night?"
I enjoyed my sporadic encounters with La Monte Young. When I was in New York, he invited me to dinner, warning me that the hour might be unusual since his biological time did not coincide with the diurnal rotation of the Earth, his normal circadian period being 25 hours. I observed aloud that Russian astronomers estimated the period of rotation of the planet Venus around its axis as 25 hours (I spoke without authority, as it seemed to me the axial rotation of Venus was much longer). A pregnant pause ensued. "Tell me more," he said.
Musical women leave nothing to be desired in the wilderness of their imagination. My favorite avant-garde composeress is Annea Lockwood, born in New Zealand and educated in England, where she gave lectures on anti-music at an anti-university. In the Bakuninian belief that the art of destruction is as creative as that of construction, she devoted her energies to destroying pianos. She once drowned a piano in a private lake owned by a Texas millionaire. Her example inspired a group of enthusiasts, who dropped an upright piano to destruction from a rented helicopter.
To test her theory that composers advance in their idiom after death, Annea Lockwood summoned Beethoven's spirit at a seance. He played for her his posthumous Piano sonata No. 33, composed circa 1890, which amazed her by its modernity. She recorded it on tape, but, when I asked to hear it, she demurred, explaining that she had given her word to Beethoven not to play it for anyone else.
Copyright 1988 by Nicolas Slonimsky. Reprinted with permission of Oxford University Press Inc.