#197, July, 2000. p.44 (lead review)
George Antheil: Ballet mécanique and other works
for Player Pianos, Percussion, and Electronics
Electronic Music Foundation EMF020 CD
American composer George Antheil (1900- 59) is best remembered for a handful of audacious works from the 1920s. However, his shortlived commitment to modernism is nowadays unfairly perceived as superficial by those who claim his "'iconoclastic' pieces sound like squibs" (see The Wire 134). Antheil returned to neoclassicism and went on to develop his own post-Copland Americana as well as producing Hollywood scores for the likes of directors Fritz Lang and Nicholas Ray.
The Antheil piece that set fists flying during its premiere in 2Os Paris, where he had relocated, was Ballet mcanique, a post-Futurist response to "the simultaneous beauty and danger" of the Industrial Age. Originally a soundtrack to Fernand Léger's film of the same name, it soon took on a life of its own, launching the young Antheil's international career on a wave of notoriety.
Due to problems synchronising player pianos, the 1924 original was deemed unplayable, so a couple of scaled down alternatives were created by the composer. Thanks, though, to digital technology (read all about it in the excellent sleevenotes) and Paul Lehrman's dedicated team, it finally received its first performance proper in November 1999 by The University Of Massachusetts Lowell Percussion Ensemble, armed with three xylophones, four bass drums, tamtam, two pianos, siren, seven bells, three airplane propellers and 16 player pianos. And a squib it most certainly is not.
Shorter works by John Cage and Lou Harrison, Richard Grayson, Amadeo Roldàn and Felix Mendelssohn were also performed that night and are included on the disc, but it's Antheil's work that you'll be returning to. If Holst's Mars was the bringer of war, then Ballet Mécanique sounds like war itself. It's a 30-minute, brutalist behemoth bristling with dense polyrhythms (the score includes more than 600 changes of time signature), demented gamelan, wailing siren and exhilarating industrial noise. The rapid swirls of player piano anticipate Nancarrow's Studies, while the strident repetition looks forward to American minimalism. In the buildup to the coda there's even an unexpected use of silence.
This is Antheil's centenary year, so now is a fine time to reappraise his music. Start with this awesome blast from the past.
-- CHRIS BLACKFORD
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