About the film Ballet mécanique

Ballet Mécanique is one of 155 films in an amazing new 19-hour, seven-DVD boxed set called UNSEEN CINEMA. Order your copy here.

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Antheil's musical masterpiece Ballet mécanique was originally supposed to be a soundtrack to a film of the same name by the French Dadaist painter Fernand Léger and cinematographer Dudley Murphy. It is difficult to say who had the idea first: Antheil claims that in the fall of 1923 he announced he was beginning the piece, and was looking for an appropriate film "accompaniment," but other sources say that the filmmakers were the ones who approached Antheil. (Meanwhile, neither of them can claim the title was original: a Dadaist sculpture of the same name, featured in 391 magazine, predates them both!)

It's equally unclear what went wrong, but it's apparent that Antheil and the filmmakers did not communicate very well with each other, and the piece that the composer came up with ended up being almost twice as long as the film. Also, there was no mechanism available at the time for synchronizing a film projector and a player piano (or in this case, a phalanx of player pianos), and so it's doubtful the concept could have worked even if the artists had been coordinating their efforts better. (Perhaps if Pleyel's invention for synchronizing multiple player pianos had actually come to fruition, it could have been used for this purpose as well.)

The film had its premiere in Vienna, in 1924, without Antheil's score, even though it made reference to "synchronisme musicale de Georges [sic] Antheil." Since then, the film and the music have almost always been presented separately, with a few notable exceptions:

But until very recently, Antheil's original fully-orchestrated version of the music has never been heard with the film. This is now no longer the case.

In 1975, Lillian Kiesler, widow of the Austrian artist Frederick Kiesler, found in a closet in her "weekend" house in New York, a 35mm print of Léger's Ballet mécanique. She brought it to the attention of Jonas Mekas, the noted filmmaker and founder of Anthology Film Archives, a non-profit organization devoted to film history, who determined that the print—which contained hundreds of splices—was quite likely the original print that was shown, under her husband's direction, at the film's premiere in 1924.

Archivist Bruce Posner, working with Anthology Film Archives and Deutsches Filmmuseum, Frankfurt, has now made safety copies of this print (which is different—and longer—than all of the many other prints of the Ballet mécanique in existence), and it is being presented as a featured part of an unprecedented program of over 160 films called Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941. The 19-part program will be shown in some two dozen museums around the world between now and 2005.

Posner had heard about the Lowell concert and contacted me to see if I would be interested in helping to do what Antheil and Léger were never able to: create a marriage of the film with a fully-orchestrated recording of the music.

Posner supplied me with a timecoded VHS dub of the film, which was made at 20 frames per second, a projection rate that he determined looked correct (the 24-frames-per-second standard we know today had not yet been developed in 1924). I used a multitrack recording we had made in Lowell of the 16 player pianos and bells, at a tempo of 133 beats per minute (33% faster than the actual performance), and overlaid onto it MIDI tracks of the bass drum, gong, and xylophone parts—which would be completely unplayable by human beings at that tempo. Working with a MIDI- and audio-sequencing program and the score, I was able to edit the music relatively seamlessly so that it is not only the same length as the film (approximately 16 minutes), but many of the transitions in the music also coincide quite closely with those in the film. Everyone who has seen it agrees it is an astonishing synergy.

The world premiere of the finished film with music took place on May 5, 2001, at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, as part of the Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio Marathon Concert, which in turn was part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival. The film was shown twice, at 1 pm and 7 pm. Pulitzer Price-winning critic Lloyd Schwartz, of the Boston Phoenix, was the first reviewer to see the film, and he pronounced it "brilliant." Read the full review…

The first performance of the film with a live, synchronized full ensemble performing Antheil's score, took place on November 13, 2002, at the Percussive Arts Society's International Conference in Columbus, Ohio. The performance was repeated on February 17, 2003, at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

The first professional performance took place on March 12, 2004, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, by the London Sinfonietta conducted by Jurjen Hempel, who then played it at four other venues in England, and the following year (May, 2005) in Spain, Italy, Holland, Belgium, and the UK.

It was also performed by Ensemble X at the Light In Winter Festival, in Ithaca, New York, in January, 2005. The conductor was soon-to-be Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Steve Stucky.

Want to know more?
Read this article on the marriage of the music and the film from the September, 2002 issue of the English magazine Sound On Sound. (If you get the international edition of this magazine, it appeared in the November issue!) And take a look at this article from the Internet newsletter Discover Paris

And now you can have your own copy of this incredible film!
Anthology Film Archives and Image Entertainment have put together an amazing seven-disc, 19-hour compilation of 155 films from the Unseen Cinema exhibition into a boxed set, which will go on sale October 18, 2005. You can learn all about it, see the contents, read reviews, hear an interview with curator Bruce Posner, view stills and clips, and order your copy at a significant pre-release discount HERE.

For the Unseen Cinema touring schedule, click here.
For the complete program of exhibited films, click here.

Watch this site or Unseen Cinema's site for updates to the schedule.
You can also contact Anthology Film Archives directly:
32 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10003, Phone: (212) 505-5181 Fax: (212) 477-2714

The Unseen Cinema Exhibition Catalog, 160 pages with 30 pages of illustrations, soft-bound, is also available from Unseen-Cinema.com.
Publisher: Anthology Film Archives ISBN: 0-9628181-7-8

Copyright © 2005 by Paul D. Lehrman. All rights reserved