George Antheil is infamous as a “bad boy” composer. Is his Ballet mécanique music? Should we bring ear plugs?
Ballet mécanique is most definitely music. It is not a “noise” piece, although it presages that genre, along with many other genres, in its use of cacophony, silence, sound effects, and a huge amount of repetition. You can hear many musical influences within the piece: ragtime, Stravinsky, the Italian Futurists, jazz, and there’s even a snippet of Rimsky-Korsakov. So at the time it took the definition of “music” in new directions, but within a context that was recognizable, and today is fairly common.
When we did the premiere in Lowell in 1999 we gave out earplugs, but they turned out to be unnecessary, since the hall was fairly dead, and we were conservative in deciding how hard to push the Disklavier player pianos. Jordan Hall is much brighter acoustically, and we now know more about how loud the pianos can go without suffering some sort of damage, so even though we are only using eight Disklaviers, it’s going to be quite loud. The players will all be wearing earplugs; it might not be a bad idea for the audience to be prepared as well.
Antheil’s score calls for some unusual “instruments” such as airplane propellers and weird bells. Can you tell our readers how you solved these problems?
Antheil used electric fans with sticks or leather straps stuck in them — the “baseball card in a bicycle wheel” effect — at his performances, and some modern performances have used similar devices. But they are very hard to set up, and we don’t have much time in the hall. So we will be using digital samples of small airplane engines that were made in 1999 for the premiere. The bells are a collection of seven different-sized electric bells that I gathered over the years, which are triggered according to the score using MIDI-controlled relays. The siren is a real siren, which varies in pitch and volume according to the amount of voltage applied to it.
How does your version of the score differ from those circulating previously?
Antheil wrote two versions of Ballet mécanique. Before the revival of this version, the one that most people had heard of was written in 1952. It is for a fairly conventional percussion orchestra, with the notable addition of two airplane propellers, and it uses four pianos but no player pianos. It’s performed often and has been recorded about a half-dozen times. But Antheil’s first version, which is the one we’re playing, was written in 1924 and is a totally different piece. It has four player-piano parts, each to be played on four instruments, for a total of 16, and the parts are much more complicated and raucous than the human-played parts in the later version. It also has three airplane propellers and a siren. It is much longer and more drawn out than the later version, with a huge amount of relentless, driving repetition and a blocky structure that is not at all audience-friendly. It also includes 20 silences towards the end, each one getting longer than the one before it, which can really drive audiences nuts — and this was almost 30 years before John Cage’s 4’33”. The 1952 Ballet mécanique is a great piece, but it doesn’t have the scope, the power, or the sheer audacity of the early version.
Before 1999, the 1924 version had been played only with a single player piano, since technology to synchronize multiple player pianos didn’t actually exist. Antheil performed the piece a few times in Paris and once in New York. It wasn’t heard again until Maurice Peress conducted a performance in 1989, and never since then. But I just found out a group is performing it with a single player piano at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, on November 22. I would love to hear that performance, but unfortunately I can’t get away.
Will the Leger silent film be shown at the performance?
No. Coordinating the music with the Léger/Murphy film requires that the score be edited, since the film is much shorter than the original score. We will not be doing that; but we will be performing the score in its entirety.
Will there be any unusual stage business?
I will be using some interesting modern technology to control the siren, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
Has working with BMOP’s Gil Rose been interesting?
Gil and I first worked together when we presented Ballet mécanique in Symphony Hall in 2001 as part of the Cyberarts Festival. He is a joy to work with: calm, prepared, thoroughly professional, and with a great attitude towards the music, the composers, and the players. I admire him tremendously for his abilities to learn incredibly complicated new material quickly and to get such great readings out of his players. Since we first collaborated, he has asked me to come in as a technical consultant on a number of BMOP and Opera Boston performances when he is using synthesizers or electronic instruments, and I’m always happy to help. We’ve been talking for a few years about doing Ballet mécanique again, so I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to do so. I’m also very happy that he has joined the faculty at Tufts, where I teach. He’s a great asset to our program and has really raised the bar there in terms of performance in a very short time.
Are there DVD’s of your Ballet mécanique project?
With director Ron Frank, I produced a documentary film on Antheil and the Ballet mécanique called “Bad Boy Made Good,” which came out on DVD in 2006. The film is 72 minutes long, and comes with an “extras” disc which includes a video of the 1999 Lowell premiere performance as well as the film “Ballet mécanique” by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger (for which Antheil wrote the score, but which was never performed with it until recently for a number of reasons), and also extended interviews with Antheil scholars and friends. It’s available at Amazon.com and also at badboymadegood.com. On November 7, at 5:15 pm, the Museum of Fine Arts will do a screening of the film, and I’ll be there to answer questions. [Ed: the interview was conducted before the MFA filming.]
Your webpages are quite interesting. Where should our readers start?
I always like to quote Lewis Carroll: “Begin at the beginning, continue until you come to the end, and then stop,” except on the Web there really is no end. So readers should just take in as much as they feel like. They might want to check the “Frequently Asked Questions” page first, then read the short essays on Antheil, the Ballet mécanique, and the Schirmer project, then check out the pictures and videos of the various performances. They shouldn’t miss the video of the robotic installation I helped build for the National Gallery of Art, which plays the piece without any human beings. It’s enormous fun.
Can you tell us about the other pieces on BMOP’s program?
Varèse’s Ionisation is a real percussion classic, one of the very first pieces written for percussion ensemble. It was premiered in 1933. It uses 35 instruments and requires 13 players. It starts out as pure rhythm, but not at all dance-like; it’s very jagged, but easy to follow. It uses a great variety of non-pitched colors, including many sounds that we’ve never heard before, my favorite of which is the “lion’s roar,” which you get by pulling a heavy rope through the drain hole in a bathtub — really! As the piece comes to an end, tone clusters are introduced, and it takes on a kind of Webern-ish atonality, but with a lot of emotionality behind the notes. It has a wonderful dynamic ebb and flow and is very exciting to play and to listen to.
La Koro Sutro by Lou Harrison was composed in 1973 and combines his love of Eastern religions; the text comes from Buddhist scripture-languages — the translation is in Esperanto — and just intonation, where the intervals are purer than what we normally hear in Western music’s tempered intonation.
The score calls for non-pitched percussion, like bell tree, bass drums, gongs, and triangles; a reed organ; chorus; and an “American gamelan,” which is a set of bell-like instruments made out of things like steel pipes and cut-off compressed-air tanks. Harrison built his own gamelan for the first performances, and BMOP had a gamelan custom-built for this performance, following Harrison’s written instructions. I’ve been a fan of Harrison’s music since I was in high school, but I didn’t know about this piece until now. It’s utterly gorgeous.
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