interview with Mark Fewer: George Antheil Violin Sonatas

January 6, 2012, 1:21 PM · Composer George Antheil's autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, seems so crazy as to be fiction, but even if he exaggerated, his real life was still pretty unbelievable.

A native of Trenton, N.J., Antheil (1900-1959) was a concert pianist who moved to Europe at age 22. A darling of the Paris salons in the 1920s, his friends included Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso; and his compositions caused riots. (His most famous was Ballet Mécanique, scored for 16 player pianos, 2 regular pianos, 3 xylophones, 7 electric bells, 3 propellers, siren, 4 bass drums, and 1 tam-tam). But it gets more peculiar from there: he went on to write a love-advice column that was nationally syndicated in the U.S.; ran an art gallery for a short time; wrote a book on endocrinology; and wrote a column called "On the Hollywood Front," for the periodical "Modern Music." Perhaps most surprising, in 1941 he and the steamy actress Hedy Lamarr also patented a radio-guided torpedo designed distribute torpedo guidance signal over several frequencies to protect from enemy jamming. Their invention turned out to be an important technological precursor to some of our most prized modern toys -- cell phones, WiFi and GPS.

George Antheil
George Antheil

I wasn't terribly surprised to find a certain open-mindedness in Canadian violinist Mark Fewer, 39, who along with pianist John Novacek, has recently released George Antheil: Sonatas for Violin and Piano. These sonatas, some written in the 1920s and others later, are zany fun: a kaleidoscope of ragtime, jazz, movie music, classical music and 20th century sound. They've rarely been recorded (one work on the album, the 1927 Sonata for Violin Solo, had actually never been recorded until now) -- so this recording is a long-awaited, special treat. (By the way, the liner notes by Mauro Piccinini are worth reading; if you want the CD, here's the link, or you can get it on iTunes.

A classically-trained musician, Mark Fewer was concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony from 2004 to 2008, and in addition to the Antheil recording, he also recently released a recording of a new jazz violin concerto called 'Changing Seasons,' written for him by Phil Dwyer. Mark is Artistic Director of the SweetWater Music Festival and chair of strings at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University.

Mark Fewer

Mark and I spoke several weeks ago over the phone, about his unique path that led him to embrace so many styles of music on the violin, about what appealed to him about the music of Antheil, and about modern violins and bows.

Laurie: Tell me a little bit about your beginnings on the violin, what got you playing the violin in the first place?

Mark: I was born and raised in St. John, Newfoundland, in the easternmost part of Canada. It's the island kind of just off the coast, east of Cape Breton, which has a substantial fiddle music tradition. Newfoundland has its own version of that, which is mostly Irish-based. I started on classical violin when I was six, but you can't really hold a violin there for very long and not play traditional fiddle music! So I did a lot of that as a kid, as well. Before I started violin, I first was playing piano. When I turned about 11, I added alto saxophone, which is something I haven't actually played professionally since I was in my mid-20s. I left home when I was about 15 to study first in Toronto, then overseas, in London, England; and then finally at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. So that's kind of my story.

Laurie: Were you studying piano at the Liszt academy?

Mark: No, I studied violin, but I studied actually with a pianist, Ferenc Rados, whom I hold in very high regard as a teacher of music in general -- a force of nature.

Laurie: Why did you study with a pianist?

Mark: I was on a recital tour of Hungary, and the pianist suggested we play for her teacher. So we went and played.

This guy, who's kind of a tall version of Yoda, sat there and listened to us play Schubert, and the lesson was spectacular. I was about 20 or 21, and at that time, and he was everything I was looking for, in terms of musical inspiration. So I asked him if I could come back and have more lessons with him, and that's what I ended up doing. I never really graduated from the Liszt Academy with a degree or a diploma, I just went back to him to study for a while. I used London still as a center of operations, going back and forth to Budapest to see Rados.

Laurie: What do you think a pianist was able to give you that was different from what a violinist could?

Mark: I'll be really honest… I think that we tend to be pretty insular, in the classical violin world. I believe strongly that we should be able to see external sources as being valid for our musical education.

People often ask me, in interviews, who my favorite musicians are. By the time I reach a violinist on that list, I'm at number five or six. So I don't see the instrument as a dividing line, between one source of really great musical inspiration and another.

Certainly when you're younger and you don't know what you're doing yet, you need guidance on the instrument, no question. But at that point in my life, I really wanted more musical thought than I wanted violin thought.

Laurie: Tell me about how you came upon these sonatas by George Antheil.

Mark: It was quite by chance. It would have been in the late 1990s, and I was playing a late-night recital in Ottawa, for the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. A violinist named Stephen Sitarski -- he's currently the concertmaster of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony -- was at the recital, where I played a Martinu Jazz Sonata, which is another great work for piano and violin. He came to me afterwards and said, "Oh, man, I just loved this concert, but if you like that repertoire, you would really dig this guy named George Antheil!" I'd never heard of Antheil up until this point. So I went out and I searched for a record of Antheil's music -- this was back in the days when you actually go to a record store, there was no such thing as 'online.' So I went to a record store and the first thing I found was a really fantastic recording of these sonatas by violinist Vera Beths and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, who is the director of a lot of modern music in Amsterdam, and a wonderful pianist as well. He made this really great record with Vera that blew me out of the park, I thought 'I just can't believe I'm hearing anything like this, this is incredible.'

After finding this album, I just became hell-bent on playing this stuff. The difficulty was finding a pianist who would be willing to put in the time. The piano parts are brutal. The only one that isn't brutal, in terms of chops, would be No. 2, the short one with drums at the end. But you still need someone who has the theatrical ability to be able to pull it off on that one.

Laurie: Do you mean chops on the piano, or on both instruments?

Mark: I'd say on both instruments, for sure. But technically, even if you're not Jascha Heifetz, you could get away with No. 2, if you've got the theatrics. But No. 1 and No. 4 -- you really have to have chops, there's no question. And to find a pianist who is willing to put in time to learn something like that, well those people are few and far between.

I first had the chance to play this repertoire with Marc-André Hamelin, who is also a big Antheil fan.

Then, when I was at a festival in Colorado one summer, I met John Novacek. John and I hit it off, and it turned out that we both had similar taste in music; particularly, we both liked to improvise, in kind of straight-ahead jazz style. We started doing a lot of work together, and when I presented him the idea of doing Antheil, he said, 'I'd love to do that!'

We started playing these a lot, and as we played them more and more, it became obvious that we needed sit down and record them. A lot of times people will make a record and then bring (the music) out on the road to tour, but we kind of did it the opposite way. So I'm delighted to be able to say that, before we actually got into the studio, we had performed these sonatas a lot.

When we played these sonatas as a set in New York at Le Poisson Rouge, there was someone from the Antheil estate in the audience. Afterwards, I got a call, asking if I would be interested in looking at the score for an 'unfinished' violin sonata and possibly recording it; they'd heard I was going to be making a record of Antheil Sonatas. I didn't even know it existed; it was something that the estate had held in their hands, waited until they could find somebody to play it.

Laurie: What an honor!

Mark: Absolutely. So they sent me the music -- it's all handwritten and unfinished. It's not to the same level of difficulty as the other sonatas; it's a very different style of Antheil's world. It's much more rhapsodic, and it's trying to do things that he'd never tried to do before. It was a challenge for me to get my hands around that one, but I'm delighted to have had the chance to lay it down. That's the only one I've never really played in public before we recorded.

Laurie: I am a violinist myself, and I have to say, this music does sound hard to play! It made me wonder how much it was really played, right after it was composed. I mean, did Olga Rudge really play this? In living with these pieces so long, did you ever find any evidence that people had recorded it way back then?

Mark: Not really. People who are really big Antheil supporters have flooded me with a lot of information about his life, and one thing that seems clear is that he had relationships with a few violinists in North America, most notably, the concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony (Werner Gebauer). He wrote his violin concerto for him. I went to look at the violin concerto in the Library of Congress, to see if it would be something I could resurrect. Nobody's recorded it; nobody's really played it since it was premiered (in 1946). But yeah, I've not gotten a lot of information about a lot of different violinists from way back when tackling his music. It's only very recently that his name has become connected to the violin, I think.

Laurie: It's just incredibly modern, in style, it's almost Internet-age type of short-attention-span stuff.

Mark: Absolutely, its time is now. I agree completely.

Laurie: I was going to ask you what the first one would be, if a person were going to study these sonatas, and it sounds like No. 2?

Mark: Yes, No. 2 would be the best one to get your feet wet. If you can get through No. 2 and understand what you have to do as a performer, as opposed to trying to be a perfect classical violinist, then you're probably in a better position to start really investigating No. 1 or No. 4. I've heard performances of No. 1 and No. 4 -- mostly by students, in the last 5-6 years -- and they're incredibly dry and they just miss the point.

Laurie: Tell me what the point is.

Mark: I feel like if you're going to play Antheil's music, you have to have complete respect for him, which also means having complete respect for the fact that he was a showman. He was a shameless self-promoter, no question. I think there's no problem with that, whatsoever. In fact, if ever there was an age in our world where we are all shameless self-promoters, now is it, with everybody having their own Facebook page and web page and Twitter account. We're all doing it. He would have fit right in, in 2011!

Laurie: I'd love to see what his Facebook page would have looked like! (both laugh)

Mark: I'm sure if it existed, half of it would not be about music!

Laurie: Okay, more on the point of Antheil's music...

Mark: I think, if you're going to play his music, you have to be willing to look through and past the notes. You have to look really adventurously, you have to look to it as theatre in action. It is performance art, on one level. Maybe not every movement to the same degree, but a lot of it is performance art.

I've gone to audiences who have been ready to turn themselves off when we start playing Antheil's music -- because they don't know his name, they think it's going to be modern…They're the first people to stand up at the end, thinking it's the greatest thing they've heard.

A lot of people will try to understand Antheil's music is through classic interpretive methods. I don't mean that in a negative way. But I think that the way you would have to interpret it would be through theatric methods, first.

Laurie: In the program notes, I was reading that Antheil wrote some pretty interesting directions in the music itself. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Mark: It's him trying to be as descriptive as possible, in a way that other composers have not. For example, there are things in there like, "up to the minute," or "giggle." Or "sad," and a few minutes later, "sadder." Those are things you don't usually see. I think he's trying to be as smart as he can with his choice of words. Like it goes from being "blown up" to "church-like" within two measures. And then another thing would say, "riddled." What the hell does that mean? (both laugh) Who can figure that out? Again, you have to be willing to play the pantomime or the actor to a lot of his stuff. I think that's where a lot of those words come from -- his theatrics.

It may be through his connection to people like (the poet) Ezra Pound, that he had a need to describe his scores in emoticons, if you like --words that were more artsy-fartsy, or more literature-based, or stage play-based, than they would be musically-based.

Laurie: He seems to me almost synesthetic, the kind of person who hears colors and sees sounds. He did so many different things: he wrote, he did scientific discovery…

Mark: …endocrinology, all of that. He was also a covert operative for the Paris police for a while. He had all these extra lives. He wrote a love advice column for one of the Los Angeles newspapers . All these things about him just seem kind of nonsensical.

Laurie: It seems like he had six lives in one!

Mark: Absolutely! (laughing)

Laurie: I was rather curious about this cover art, I sort of love the saw! (laughing)

Antheil Cover

Mark: We were given that from Mauro Piccinini, who wrote the liner notes. He has access to all the paperwork and many of the drawings from the Antheil estate, and so when we were putting this whole project together, he sent me a large pile, with sketches by Antheil that had not yet been released to the public. That one caught my eye right away; I thought, this is a perfect idea for some kind of part of the outer shell of this CD. I don't know that there's any others-- I didn't find one with a flute, or a trumpet, or any of those things -- other type of Barbaric ways to play them. But that's where that comes from: his own hand.

Laurie: It makes you wonder what he thought about the violin, I mean: the saw.

Mark: It's possible that he was trying to make it a more expressive rather than Barbaric instrument, with the last piece he wrote for violin, which was the solo violin sonata. But I actually find that some of the things he wrote for violin and piano in those other three sonatas are actually quite beautiful; he uses the violin very well as a vocal voice.

Having said that, that's overshadowed from his capacity to use the instrument as an actor.

Laurie: A percussive instrument, too, it seems.

Mark: Right.

Laurie: Speaking of violins, what kind of violin do you play?

Mark: I have a modern American fiddle from Ann Arbor, made by Feng Jiang. It's an instrument I found through Elmar Oliveira. When I was still playing in the symphony in Vancouver, Elmar came to play the Dvorak with us. I thought he had his Guarneri with him. He came back to my dressing room before the show, and he said, "Hey, you should try this violin." I thought, "Sure, I'll play on your Guarneri any day!" I played it, and he said, "What do you think?"

I said, "Well, it's a great fiddle," and he said, "It's not what you think; it's by a guy from Ann Arbor." So I called Feng right away and told him I would be interested in seeing more of his work. He didn't have anything available immediately -- the one instrument that he had made was already en route to New York City for somebody at Juilliard. But they didn't like the violin because they felt it was too big -- it was a large-size pattern. So he sent it out to me, and I played three notes on it and bought it right away. It's a great fiddle.

He's from the Curtin and Alf schools, he's one of the proteges of Gregg Alf.

Laurie: It's wonderful that there are so many modern instruments that work these days, especially when the Guarneris are $6 million.

Mark: Way out of the reach of all of us.

Laurie: Well it sounds really nice, I was definitely noticing that. And before I forget to ask, what kind of bow do you use?

Mark: For years I've been using a Michael Taylor. His most famous bows were a commemorative set of 24 bows with etchings of starting phrases of every Paganini Caprice on the tip and the frog. They're spectacular. And they're somewhere in Italy now, behind a glass case. Nobody has those, you can't buy them. He never let them go for sale. And actually his bow that I've had for years, it's also spectacular, I've had it since 1994. It's been my primary bow until literally last month. I've just actually purchased another bow that I'm over the moon with, by a youngster, Emmanuel Begin. I picked up a bow of his about a month ago -- I now wish I could go re-record my Brahms Sonatas! It's fantastic! He's here in Quebec. He's using pernambuco, and he's designing them kind of à la Tourte. But there are lots of people trying to do that, and not a lot succeeding. His general level of bow is excellent; this one that I found is like a great Peccatte. And because it's a modern maker, I love that.

Laurie: It's nice to support the modern makers -- who else is going to keep that art alive?

Mark: Absolutely.

Laurie: Is there anything in these Sonatas where you had to use anything other than a bow?

Mark: Well there's a lot of smackin' going on, that's for sure! No, I used the Taylor throughout.


January 12, 2012 at 05:16 AM · I'm listening to Ballet Mécanique right now. Sounds like something Danny Elfman would have written.

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