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Saturday morning quote #16: Slonimsky

September 3, 2011

Nicolas SlominskyToday’s quotes are collected from the scribblings of important 20th century composer, ambidextrous conductor, champion of new music, cataloger of musical oddments, and commentator on the strangeness of the English language, Nicholas Slonimsky. Born in St. Petersburg 27 April 1894, died December 25 1995, Slonimsky lived a very full 101 years.

If Slonimsky had written nothing else, his masterful setting of the deeply cerebral text Children Cry for Castoria (1925) certainly earned him a place among the great songwriters.  But before going further, we offer an introduction to Slonimsky’s amusing descriptive style as he relates his frustration with learning the English language:

Even before learning the most elementary words, I already knew European jokes about English; the worst was that ‘ghoti’ was pronounced ‘fish’ (‘gh’ as in cough, ‘o’ as in women, ‘ti’ as in nation).  The most intractable sound of all was the diphthong ‘th’…I knew that in order to articulate this sound I had to stick my tongue between my teeth.  What civilized nation would accept a language which requires sticking out your tongue every time you use the definite article?

Slonimsky’s autobiography, Perfect Pitch: A Life Story (1988), is an amusing chronicle of a man with a seemingly uncontrollable sense of the absurd.  Initially titled Failed Wunderkind: Rueful Autopsy, the story details Slonimsky’s affinity for strange new music and the people who composed and performed it.  He also writes about figures peripherally associated with music in his adopted country, including the founder of the Eastman School of Music:

George Eastman was a perfect prototype of an American philanthropist, as American millionaires are portrayed in European fiction.  He gave generously to causes, even those which he could not quite appreciate…He admittedly had no knowledge of music, and could well emulate President Ulysses S. Grant in his famous, if possibly apocryphal pronouncement, ‘I know only two tunes: one is Yankee Doodle, and the other isn’t.’

Lest we consider Slonimsky a mere innovator without an appreciation of what came before, we must acknowledge that he was responsible for editing the completely revised Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. (1992).  And the Lexicon of Musical Invective (1952) is an exhaustive collection of commentary on the reception of new musical works at the time when they were premiered.

I discovered Slonimsky through what is probably his most important work, his Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns (1947), a book that influenced musicians from John Coltrane to Frank Zappa.  It was because of his appreciation for the Thesaurus that Zappa contacted Slonimsky in 1981 and quite spontaneously invited him to join his band for a concert at the Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica, California.  The octogenarian Slonimsky was characteristically game for the experience, and his recollection of the event describes the friendly colliding of two very different worlds.

The hall began to fill rapidly.  Zappa’s bodyguard gave me earplugs, for, when Zappa’s band went into action, the decibels were extremely high.  Zappa sang and danced while conducting with a professional verve that astounded me.  A soprano soloist came out and sang a ballad about being a hooker, using a variety of obscenities.  Then came my turn.  Balancing a cigarette between his lips, Zappa introduced me to the audience as ‘our national treasure’.  I pulled out the ear plugs, and sat down at the electric piano.  With demonic energy Zappa launched into my piece.  To my surprise I sensed a growing consanguinity with my youthful audience as I played.  My fortissimo ending brought out screams and whistles the like of which I had never imagined possible.  Dancing Zappa, wild audience, and befuddled me – I felt like an intruder in a mad scene from Alice in Wonderland.  I had entered my Age of Absurdity.

You can hear a clip of Slonimsky describing the event here.

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