Perfect Pitch: A Life Story

Nicolas Slonimsky, Author Oxford University Press, USA $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-19-315155-0
Amusingly, Slonimsky looks back on his 93 years as a failed wunderkind, pianist, accompanist, conductor, composer, propagandist for 20th century music and lexicographical dynamo (Music Since 1900, Baker's Dictionary). Brought up as an adherent of Greek Orthodoxy by his wacky mother, who regarded him a genius, this descendant of two distinguished Jewish families discovered early in life that he had perfect pitch, a gift that helped him to become even more proficient in music than he already was in mathematics and languages. These irreverent memoirs, frequently interrupted by letters, reviews, anecdotes and wordplay, take him from late 19th century St. Petersburg, Paris in the 1920s and four decades in Boston, through travels in Latin America and Eastern Europe, and, ultimately, to the past 20 years in Los Angeles. Here are side-splitting stories about Koussevitzky, whom he served as secretary, translator and surrogate orchestra; Stravinsky, who did not have perfect pitch and was a poor proofreader; Charles Ives, who was touchy but generous; composer Henry Cowell, who wrote cheerful letters from San Quentin; Chaliapin, who was beastly to accompanists; and Frank Zappa, with whom the author performed in 1981. Music lovers will swallow most of this wholeand eagerly. But even those with tin-ears will enjoy individual chapters: ""I, Diaskeuast!,'' in which Slonimsky tells how, as a person who derives ``egotistical pleasure from finding errors in other people's books,'' he became the century's outstanding musical lexicographer; ``Fame and Fortune,'' which describes his winning appearances on Mike Wallace's TV quiz show, ``The Big Surprise'' and his decision not to go for the $100,000 jackpot although he answered all the questions correctly. Slonimsky taught himself English by memorizing 20 polysyllabic words every day, and pronunciation by practicing sentences he made up, such as ``Cat, caught on the cot, cut my coat.'' He describes his flaky friends as ``furfuraceous'' and regards his principal vice, sloth, as ``pigritude.'' He cites the vowelless Czech tongue-twisting, jawbreaking sentence ``Strcprst skrz krk'' (put your finger on your throat) as the title of a choral work by composer Krsto Zyzik, whom he invented and considered including in one of his reference books. Still fit, though fat, this international treasure, concluding his ``rueful autopsy,'' looks forward to 1994, when he'll be 100. Readers should stick around for the fun. Photos. (March)
Reviewed on: 03/01/1988
Release date: 03/01/1988
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-0-19-506243-4
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