Almost 90 years ago, composer George Antheil conceptualized a piece of art so forward-thinking that available technology could not yet execute it. With their restoration of his revolutionary Ballet mécanique, the Blair Percussion group VORTEX finally realizes Antheil's challenging initial vision, more than 50 years after his death.
Antheil, an American, intended mécanique to accompany a film by French painter Fernand Léger and American filmmaker Dudley Murphy. While this original collaboration didn't work — Léger and Murphy's silent abstract film was released in Vienna the same year — this new restoration marries the two.
Antheil, who earned the moniker "the bad boy of music" and ran in the same Parisian ex-pat circles as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce, composed mécanique entirely from his head, as his Paris apartment was too small to house a piano. The piece quickly earned notoriety for its piercing volume and unusual rhythmic sequences.
"There are 640 time signature changes in this score," explains VORTEX artistic director Michael Holland, who brought the idea of performing mécanique to Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music. "And these are not trifles. These are like, 11/32 time, 5/32, 17/16 — things like this are very bizarre, and when they're slammed together at a breakneck speed, it would be Herculean to think of synchronizing this film manually."
Synchronizing the score to a film wasn't the only problem. Antheil envisioned that multiple robotic or player pianos — his score called for up to 16 — would perform the 28-minute piece. But the player pianos of the 1920s were limited in their capabilities, running on a paper roll that wasn't precise enough for this kind of synchronization.
Thematically, mécanique explored a stark new reality of the post-World War I era — the horrors of war and a grim uncertainty about the future. In his notes, Antheil advised that the piece was "scored for countless numbers of player pianos. All percussive. Like machines. All efficiency. No LOVE. Written without sympathy. Written cold as an army operates. Revolutionary as nothing has been revolutionary." He meant this as a cautionary tale, a warning against overly mechanistic philosophy. Holland likens it to the aural equivalent of Cubism in visual art.
"Slamming things together ... there are moments of silence that are like interstellar space, and a cold, steel-like feel," he describes. "[Antheil] was trying to create this massive mechanistic piece; to create a new language, a new form that speaks to the 20th century."
The 1924 Paris premiere of mécanique featured one player piano loaded with all of the information that would have been put on four pianos, creating a monstrous sound. Then in 1927, a promoter persuaded Antheil to stage the piece at Carnegie Hall, with disastrous results.
"The promoter was overly zealous," Holland says. "He was going to turn this into a big event. Bigger than what Antheil wanted."
The laundry list of things that went haywire include a gaudy Jazz Age backdrop that belied the serious message, an industrial fan (intended to replicate the sound of an airplane propeller) that blew the music off the players' stands and an errant siren that wailed long after the final note was played.
"He was ripped apart in the papers," Holland says. "His career never recovered."
Despite prolific output — more than 300 compositions, including chamber music, operas, film scores, piano solos and works for luminaries such as George Balanchine and Martha Graham — and an unlikely collaboration with Hollywood superstar Hedy Lamarr (the two obtained a patent on a jam-proof guidance system for torpedoes) Antheil never was able to erase mécanique's failure from the public's memory.
But the turn of the 21st century brought digital technology that would allow Antheil's multi-machine score to be played as originally intended. In 1998, Paul Lehrman, a composer and music technologist at Tufts University, converted the score to a MIDI sequence file, which would play on a microprocessor-controlled piano. Lehrman also edited the 28-minute mécanique down to 16 minutes to accompany Leger and Murphy's film. Although Antheil, who died in 1959, was not around to see it, mécanique was reborn.
For VORTEX's performance, which is the finale of a program that includes works by John Cage and Felix Mendelssohn, eight Yamaha Disklaviers — robotic pianos — will play alongside 11 percussionists and two pianists. The airplane and siren sounds are digital samples, so the likelihood of a Carnegie Hall-level catastrophe is slim. In addition to serving as the Southeastern premiere of the restored mécanique, VORTEX's performance serves as the sixth screening of the film with the original orchestration in the U.S.
Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music is celebrating with a symposium, an interactive new media art exhibition and — weather permitting — robots on the plaza. The Sunday night concert at Ingram Hall, like the other events, is free and open to the public, though Holland recommends arriving early.
"This will not happen in Nashville again for at least 20 years," Holland says. "There is too much involved in putting it together."
Even so, the effort has yielded something powerful. Holland says Antheil's message is as shocking and relevant today. "I think people will be stunned," he says. "I think they will be blown away by what was happening now, and 90 years ago. In a sense, how little we've progressed."
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