Robert Lockwood and ‘The disturbing charm of the new’

An SND founder’s new book on an infamous incident in Paris

The Paris of the 1920s was a city of the rich where one could also afford to be poor. The old order of kings and empires, disintegrated in the destruction and disillusionment of the Great War. Paris, a magnet for the artists, the dreamers, the Lost Generation, desperate to create a new vision and reflection of humanity. A city of originals. Hemingway boxed, Fitzgerald kept time. Gershwin, Cole Porter, Calder, Brancusi, Joyce. Gertrude Stein, inviting “everybody who was anybody.” Picasso sought new dimensions. Magritte offered a minds-eye view. Dali and Buñuel sliced your eyes.

And then there was George Antheil.

On June 19, 1926, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the American composer staged a concert that attracted the in crowd, sparked a riot in the theater and on the streets outside, and became the stuff of legend.

“I like the audacity of Anheil,” says Robert Lockwood, a founding member of SND and its first president. Lockwood, a Maine-based painter whose work is shown in several museums and private collections, recently wrote and illustrated a 40-page book, George Antheil Gives a Concert … “I am fascinated by people who break rules and think in new ways, whether in music, fine arts, design, literature or architecture.”

The book is available for $19.99 from Piscataqua Press, or on Amazon. It’s a joy, as much sketchbook in Lockwood’s signature style (many thanks to Mr. Lockwood for sharing his work here) as chronology of the Antheil’s antics.

George Antheil, the avant-garde composer
George Antheil, the avant-garde composer

Antheil was a self-described ‘bad boy’ composer who arrived in Paris in 1923. He was fascinated by the mechanical, and his great work, the unsettling Ballet Mecanique (Ballet of the Machines), called for 16 player pianos, three xylophones, four bass drums, a tam-tam, two grand pianos, seven bells, a fire siren and three airplane propellers, a radical composition that in his words was “the first piece of music that has been composed OUT OF and FOR machines, ON EARTH.” At the official Paris premiere on that summer night in 1926, T.S. Eliot, Man Ray, Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound, James Joyce were among those finding their seats in the packed theatre. Silence fell. Notes were struck.

What ensued … well, you really should get the book.

Here’s Lockwood on:

The Inspiration

“I was familiar with the work of Paul Lerhman, who performed the Ballet Mecanique at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.. Richard Rhodes wrote about Antheil and the concert in his book “Hedy’s Folly.” What led to my interest in writing the book was when I read Bravig Imbs account of the concert. His images of the event jumped off the page. I immediately saw the possibilities for the book. I saw the tone, story line, visual style, structure, and design as a total composition. Then came the hard part. Doing it.”

The sculptor Constantin Brancusi, left, and Pablo Picasso
The sculptor Constantin Brancusi, left, and Pablo Picasso
James Joyce published Ulysses a year before attending Antheil's concert
James Joyce published Ulysses a year before attending Antheil’s concert

The People

“At graduate school I had an assistantship in art history which gave me a lifetime interest in the those people (artists, writers, musicians) whose work stands between two ages — people like Giotto, Picasso, Hemingway, Shoenberg, Duke Ellington.”

The Composition

“Ballet Mecanique has stunning compositional innovations — techniques like silence, noise, and the use of literal repetition. It anticipates the work of later composers such as Edgar Varese and John Cage. It’s certainly not Gershwin. It’s not Edward Hopper. It’s more Marcel Duchamp. Antheil himself often made comparisons with the visual arts. ‘We of the future find our sense of organization from Picasso rather than Beethoven or Stravinsky for that matter.’ ”

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, opened in 1913, is still in use today
The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, opened in 1913, is still in use today

The Riot

“The French have always been intimately protective of their culture. When Stravinsky first performed the ‘Rite of Spring’ at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913, the avant-garde nature of the music and choreography caused a near-riot.”

The Scene

“And of course there is Paris in the 1920s and the disturbing charm of the new.”

The Writing Process

“It is a fast read. I tried to keep out the parts people would skip.”

About Stephen Komives

Previously served as Executive Director of the Society for News Design, from 2009–2019.

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