A Shout-out for George Antheil

Reading, earlier this evening, a piece on the upcoming Hedy Lamarr mini-series focussing on the invention of frequency-hopping spread spectrum, I was struck by the author’s use of the phrase ‘Lamarr and a friend invented…’

Evidently, this “friend” could only be the eminent avant-garde composer, George Antheil, co-holder of US Patent No. 2,292,387 (filed June 10th, 1941).  Yet the author of the piece had decided to bleach him out of the picture.  It’s just one more example of the growing practice of downplaying the male side of equal collaborations between men and women, in the interests of a good story.  No doubt some wag out there has already coined a term for this.  Femsplaining anyone?  X-punging?

Clearly any narrative where the so-called ‘most beautiful woman in the world’ demonstrates the intellect to succeed in military engineering, thereby overturning any number of the prejudices of her time, is compelling.  However, that Lamarr’s and Antheil’s work was a collaboration of equals, is beyond doubt.  It’s clear in Richard Rhodes’s 2011 book; it’s equally clear in Elyse Singer’s 2008 play – the last time that this episode in their lives was dramatised.

The pair of them were two loners trapped in the Hollywood system; she as an actress, he as a composer.  This drew them into friendship.  For their work, carried out in the context of a torpedo guidance system for the US Navy that would be immune to jamming, in anticipation of the US war effort, Antheil brought his machine synchronisation expertise to the table, Lamarr the weapons system knowledge acquired during her first marriage to an Austrian arms dealer.

What is particularly sad about the bleaching out of Antheil, is that in the 1920’s he had been as eminent in his field as Lamarr was in hers come the 1940’s – it’s not even as if he were some insignificant boffin.  The height of Antheil’s notoriety came at the US premier, in 1927, of his Ballet Mécanique, at the Carnegie Hall.  Contemporary reports allude to fist fights and riots.  The Carnegie’s own timeline entry for April 10th 1927 records:-

Composer George Antheil, the self-styled “bad boy of music,” presents the US premiere of his Ballet mécanique on April 10.  Conducted by Eugène Goossens, the performance featured xylophones, electric bells, anvils, airplane propellers, sirens, assorted percussion instruments, player pianos, and regular pianos, including one played by a 26-year-old Aaron Copland.  According to The New York Times, some members of the audience cheered, some hissed, and “one beleaguered man” even tied a white handkerchief to his cane, “hoisted it over his head and waved it from side to side in a token of surrender.”

Moreover, it was the synchronisation engineering challenges which Antheil had addressed during the realisation of this piece, that gave him the grounding needed for the later frequency hopping work with Lamarr.  Of course some of Antheil’s solutions for Ballet Mécanique had been crude and cumbersome and it was only in 1999, thanks to modern technology, that a revival of the work was for the first time performed exactly as the composer intended.

Lamarr and Antheil jointly received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997.  By then, Antheil had been dead for almost forty years.  Lamarr was still around and was able to quite justifiably remark ‘it’s about time.’  It would be nice to imagine that Lamarr’s longevity is the principal reason why hers is the first name to be associated with the work today; certainly I’d be surprised if one in a thousand who are aware of what she achieved, could name her co-author.  Unfortunately I doubt it; I suspect that poor George just keeps getting X-punged in the interests of a good narrative.

Coda: The More You Dig (added 03/Oct/2017)

I’d made a short foray into Antheil’s music two or three years ago, finding nice recordings of the Ballet Mécanique and some of his avant garde piano music from the same period.  Revisiting him since penning the above, it’s pretty clear that my remarks regarding his stature in the musical world are an underestimation.  During his time in Hollywood, he wrote over thirty film scores and by the mid-1940’s, he was a symphonist of considerable repute, lauded in classical music circles as ‘The American Shostokovitch.’

I found also a few snippets of interest to SF&F fans.  In 1955, Antheil wrote the score for John Parker’s landmark horror fantasy movie Dementia, which anticipated the tone and style of David Lynch’s work by several decades.  It’s widely regarded as one of Antheil’s best scores, in significant part due to the eerie, wordless vocals performed by Marni Nixon.  In 1958, a recording of one of Antheil’s late works Two Odes of John Keats (1950) was made, a year before he died, with the composer himself on piano and Vincent Price as the narrator.

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