Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995)

History Making Performances, Conducted by Nicolas Slonimksy
(Tracks 1-4)

1. Edgard Varese - Ionisation
2. Charles Ives - Barn Dance
3. Charles Ives - In The Night
4. Carl Ruggles - Lilacs

Nicolas Slonimsky at 76 (February 27, 1971), Part 1
Nicolas Slonimsky at 76 (February 27, 1971), Part 2

A lively and engaging interview with the dean of musicological lexicography who visited KPFA studios and talked with Robert Commanday (S.F. Chronicle music critic) and Charles Amirkhanian of KPFA. Especially important discussions about Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives by the first conductor ever to champion Ives, Varese, Cowell, and Riegger (in the early 30's). Composer Lowell Cross was also present. Includes piano performances by Slonimsky.

Nicolas Slonimsky (April 26, 1979), Part 1
Nicolas Slonimsky (April 26, 1979), Part 2

A live guest appearance on KPFA by Los Angeles music lexicographer and former conductor Nicolas Slonimsky. He talks with KPFA's Charles Amirkhanian about his family roots, superannuation, Varese, Ives, semism, pandiatonicism, and the extreme avant-garde in music.

Tracks 1-4
Nicolas Slonimsky: History Making Performances

Ives, Varse, Ruggles, -- only yesterday, it seems, they were dismissed as fantasists of the artistically unacceptable, intransigent compilers of ear-splitting dissonances. Forty years ago, I conducted in Europe a series of concerts of modern American music in programs that included first performances of works by Charles Ives , Edgar Varese, Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger, Carlos Chavez, Carl Ruggles and others. Critical reactions were mixed. Some welcomed the discovery of a new musical world; others expressed surprise that Americans could compose at all. Back in the United States, the venerable Philip Hale published a scathing editorial entitled 'Mr. Slonimsky in Paris.' 'Nicolas Slonimsky, indefatigable in furthering the cause of the extreme radical composers," the article read, "has brought out in Paris orchestral compositions by Americans who are looked upon by our conservatives as wild-eyed anarchists, restless experimenters, or followers of Europeans whose position in the musical world is not yet determined, men who show ingenuity chiefly by their rhythmic inventions and orchestral tricks." Ives reacted to this kind of criticism with characteristic homely humor. "It's funny how many men," he wrote to a friend, "when they see another man put the breechin' under a horse's tail, wrong or right, think that he must be influenced by someone in Siberia or Neurasthenia. No one man invented the barber's itch." And I cannot abstain from quoting the last sentence of the letter: "But one thing about the concerts that everyone felt was that Slonimsky was a great conductor." (Ives was unreasonably partial in his judgment of his friends.)

After the passage of forty years, the names of Ives and Varese stand out among the great innovators of modern music and their influence on young composers is immense. Ives conquers by the grandeur of his American vision; his works bear titles relevant to America: Three Places in New England, Lincoln the Great Commoner, Washington's Birthday, Fourth of July. The four movements of his Concord Sonata for piano are named after the great American writers Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau. In the music of Ives one finds confirmation of the oft repeated maxim that universal greatness is achieved by the expressive portrayal of the native scene. But his last unfinished work Ives called Universe Symphony!

Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1874, and died in New York, shortly before his 80th birthday in 1954. Because of a crippling diabetes, he had to stop composing when he was barely fifty. When he wrote letters himself, his handwriting was seismic. He published his works at his own expense and distributed them gratis. Even after the creation of his American masterpieces, he was still such an obscure figure in the music world, that Henry Cowell could caption an article he wrote in Aesthete of August, 1928, Four Little Known American Composers: Chavez, Ives, Slonimsky, Weiss!

Ives was a rare individualist, philosophically close to his beloved Transcendentalists. He lived the life of a happy recluse, with his wife, providentially named Harmony, and an adopted daughter. He was active in insurance business, and often said that the contacts he had with people in his occupation enhanced his philosophy of life and enriched his musical perspectives. He seldom went to concerts; he never read daily newspapers; he owned no phonograph or radio. He never heard a note of music by Schoenberg or Stravinsky; yet in his own scores he anticipated ultra--modern techniques, including polytonality, atonality and serialism. On the margin of one of his manuscripts he warned his copyist not to make corrections on his own: "The wrong notes are right!" But the Ives scores did not consist exclusively of wrong notes. He did not disdain simplicity; he composed in a universal idiom, extending from the triadic harmonies of American hymnody to the most complex edifices of modern sound.

It is no longer a secret that Ives financed my European concerts, and that he paid most of the printing bills for Henry Cowell's New Music Quarterly. He also provided funds for New Music Recordings, for which I conducted the Barn Dance from Washington's Birthday. This was, incidentally, the first appearance of any work of yes on discs. The music is descriptive of a winter scene in New England around 1880, when Ives was a child. A poet in words as much as in tones, Ives writes: "A winter holiday means action! And down through swamp hollow and over the hill road they go afoot or in the sleighs through a drifting snow to the barn dance at the Center. The village band of fiddles, fife and horn keep up an unending 'breakdown medley' and the young folks salute their partners and balance corners till midnight. As the party breaks up, the sentimental songs of those days are sung, half in fun, half seriously -- and with the inevitable 'adieu to the ladies,' the 'social' gives way to the grey bleakness of the February night."

In the music of this Barn Dance one hears snatches from familiar tunes -- The Sailor's Hornpipe, The Camptown Races, Home Sweet Home, The Campbells are Coming, For He's A Jolly Good Fellow (with an lvesian atonal twist in the melody), and Good Night Ladies ("Adieu to the Ladies").

Ives wrote several instrumental suites, which he preferred to call "sets." One such set includes a piece entitled In The Night, written in 1906. The pickup orchestra which I conducted for its recordings was an ensemble of the Pan American Association of Composers, a group founded by Edgar Varese and Carlos Salzedo in 1928.

Edgar Varese (his baptismal name was Edgard, but most of his works were published without the final d in his prenom) proceeds from assumptions totally different from Ives. Born in 1883 in Paris, Varese studied engineering. When he came to the United States in early maturity (he died in New York in 1965) his esthetic goals were clearly formulated. To him music was "son organise," with its formal development determined solely by balances of sonorities, both successive and synchronized. His scores bear scientific titles: Integrales, Hyperprism,Arcana, lonisation, Density 21.5. His symphonic tableau Amriques is not geographic in its conception; rather it is a symbol of the age of discovery.

lonisation (the French spelling is in Varese's original score) is the first work ever written entirely for pitchless instruments of percussion (drums), friction (guiro), concussion (maracas) and sibilation (sirens). Varse completed the score in Paris on November 13, 1931. I conducted its first performance in New York on March 6, 1933, and the work is dedicated to me. I am proud of Varese's inscription in the score: "Au premier lonisateur -- son ami-Edgard Varese." I recorded it for Columbia in 1934. Varese was still in Paris when I conducted the first performance, but he returned to New York for the recording session.

The occasion was dramatic. Regular percussion players recruited from the New York Philharmonic and other symphonic organizations could not even remotely cope with the intricate rhythms, such as rapid quintuple groups with a tricky rest in the middle. To save the situation, friendly composers volunteered to pinch-hit. As a result, I had a stellar ensemble of galactic splendor. Carlos Salzedo handled the thematically important part of the Chinese blocks. Paul Creston was at the anvils. Wallingford Riegger rubbed the guiro. Henry Cowell pounded the tone-clusters. William Schuman, then a youngster, pulled the cord of the lion's roar. Varese himself manned the two sirens obtained from the New York City Fire Department. And Roy Harris was in the recording booth, supervising the acoustics.

Ionization is a process in which a gas molecule, under the influence of an external catalyst, liberates an electron, and assumes a positive charge. The free electron travels until it is captured by another molecule, which then assumes a negative charge. To an imaginative scientific mind the vision of colliding molecular, atomic, and subatomic particles must have been inspiring. Examined from this standpoint, Varese's score appears to convey the rhythmic radiation in a remarkably realistic manner.

An element of sonata form is discernible in the score of lonisation. After an elegiac introduction, in which the two sirens form a misty background for the soft strokes of cymbals, gongs and tamtams, the tambour militaire enters with an astutely articulated main subject. The tempo never changes, but rhythmic patterns grow in mutual complexity; the second subject is sounded by the Chinese blocks. A tremendous climax is reached, with non--metallic sonorities in the foreground. Then abruptly the scene changes (perhaps, the liberated electron has found an amenable molecule to join) and the metal instruments assume command. It is the time for recapitulation; the tambour militaire sounds the original theme, and the Chinese blocks follow with their motive. The drumbeat rises to fortississimo, leading to a sonorous coda, in which tubular chimes and the tone--clusters on the piano create a quasi--orchestral impression. lonisation ends as softly as it began.

Carl Ruggles celebrated his 95th birthday in March 1971. His total production is modest in quantity: a symphonic poem, Sun-Treader; a instrumental triptych Men and Mountains; some pieces for small ensembles; songs. He retired from musical turmoil at an early middle age, devoting himself to painting. Even when he composes he visualizes music. The walls in his Vermont studio are covered with manuscript paper in which the contrapuntal, lines are traced in different colors. He sits in the middle of the room in a swivel chair, surveying his score in a 360 degree panoramic view. When dissatisfied, he is apt to raise mighty and blasphemous oaths, and some of this verbal savagery finds its reflection in the craggy idiom of his music. When I conducted the world premiere of Sun-Treader in Paris, a viola player added on the top of his part, the words "il" and "la musique," so as to form the phrase, "Il viola la musique."

Lilacs is the middle movement of Men and Mountains, composed in 1924. It is a gentle, lyrical piece, filled with emotional tension underneath its calm surface. There is an abundance in Lilacs of major sevenths and augmented fourths, these mainstays of atonality.

These first recordings of Ives, Varese and Ruggles acquire a particular significance in the light of the strong reaction at the time against aggressively dissident music. Ives wrote me poignantly: "You ferreted out a nonentity." (Ives -- a nonentity!).

The impossible has been done. Varese, Ives and their comrades-in-arms have reached the summit in the esteem of their posterity. It seems, retrospectively, that Varese's l'impossible was inevitable.

-- Nicolas Slonimsky

Nicholas Slonimsky - Objets Trouvés/Castoria/And This Is What Her Doctor Told Her

It is very difficult to find recordings of ANYTHING by Nicholas Slonimsky (1894-1995), so this is a real treat. Back in the 80s, Keyboard magazine would routinely offer soundpages with their magazine. Usually they were pretty forgettable stuff, but not so for the November '88 issue. Somebody on the Keyboard staff had the inspiration to find Nicholas Slonimsky and set him down in front of a microphone. The result was a classic.

Slonimsky was a bona-fide musical genius with a warped sense of humor. He edited the monumental "Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians", stuffing it full of his wit. He also compiled a "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns", an exhaustive compilation of literally thousands of different scales and permutations of them. He put together the hilarious "Lexicon of Musical Invective", a random collection of bad reviews of recognized classics, wrote learned papers such as "Sex and the Music Librarian", performed the right hand part of Chopins' black-key etude by rolling an orange over the keyboard, spoke only Latin to his daughter for the first five years of her life (would have gone on longer had she not come home from kindergarten one day complaining "Daddy, none of the other kids speak Latin at home!"), performed with Frank Zappa, was instrumental in discovering Charles Ives, as a conductor premiered many new works by contemporary composers, and, was one of the first composers of jingles.

For more info on Slonimsky, check out,

The first selection, Titled "Objets Trouvés in a Dodecaphonic Environment" is a collection of "found objects" surrounded by permutations of his so-called "Grandmother Chord", a Slonimsky invention that contains all 12 notes and 11 different symmetrically invertible intervals. In order, the found objects are (1) An imperial Austrian March called "The Double Eagle", (2) a popular German song from 1910 with the memorable lyrics "Zeppelin, what happened to your air balloon? It did not function. Therefore, let us take an automobile - it does not cost much, and goes straight to the goal.", and (3) An old fashioned Russian waltz circa 1903. The second and third selections are from his song cycle of Advertising songs. In 1924, Slonimsky, mostly to amuse his friends at the Eastman School of Music, set to music the text of several Saturday Evening Post advertisements. The result was a bizarre combination of Russian seriousness and dada whimsy.

Easily the best is the first of the two recordings, "Children Cry for Castoria". The fact that Nicholas was in his 90s when this was recorded brings a particular charm to his quavering voice as it belts out such lines as "Opens up the BOW-ELS!" In the second one, "And this is what her doctor told her", Slonimsky borrows a theme from Rachmaninoff's famous "Prelude in c# minor."

Apparently, the complete cycle of songs, however many there are, became somewhat famous for a time. Pepsodent threatened to sue him if he did not stop performing their toothpaste ad, so he changed the name to "Plurodent" and continued to perform the piece. Slonimsky actually tried to sell these to different companies but nobody bit. Too bad.

- Philip DeWalt

TT-4:24 / 5MB / 160kbps 44.1khz
from Keyboard Magazine Flexidisc


Nicholas Slonimsky in UbuWeb Film
Edgar Varèse in UbuWeb Sound
Charles Ives in UbuWeb Sound
Edgar Varèse in UbuWeb Film