The Canadian Premiere of the Ballet Mécanique
Victoria, British Columbia • March 18, 2001

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The Canadian premiere of the original version of the Ballet mécanique took place in Farquhar Auditorium at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.

The UVic Percussion Ensemble, conducted by instructor (and principal timpanist for the Victoria Symphony) Bill Linwood, presented a program that also included works by Cage, Varèse, and Takemitsu.

The pianola parts were handled by four Yamaha Clavinovas, courtesy of Yamaha Canada.


Review from the

Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Antheil's flight of musical fancy given triumphant revival at UVic

By Deryk Barker


The British comic genius Spike Milligan, creator of The Goon Show, once wanted a sound effect of a sockful of custard striking a wall. He asked the lady at the BBC canteen to make him a custard, which she did with great care, thinking that Milligan probably had a stomach complaint. When she finally handed him the fruits of her labours, he proceeded to remove one of his socks, fill it with custard, swing it around his head and strike it against the wall. Unfortunately a sockful of custard hitting a wall didn't sound like a sockful of custard hitting a wall. So there was Milligan, his sock full of custard and no sound effect to show for it.

What, if anything, you may be asking, has this to do with the Canadian premiere of the original version of George Antheil's Ballet mecanique? IN A WORD: airplane propellers. Actually, of course, that is two words -- and my British-educated fingers desperately wanted to type ``aeroplane'' anyway.

But Antheil included parts for three of the beasts in the Ballet mecanique; presumably he intended them to sound like planes flying through the auditorium, but using the real thing could easily prove hazardous to the health of performers and audience alike: the whole point of the propeller, after all, is not to make a noise but to pull a great weight at high speed. And even digitally-sampled propellers somehow failed to sound like the real thing.

This miscalculation by the composer apart, Sunday's performance of the 1924 version of Antheil's notorious score was surely everything the composer could have wished for: gloriously noisy (although by the standards of rock concerts, not actually that loud), violent, brutal and unbelievably complex in places; yet there were also passages of wit, charm and even beauty. There were moments in the player-piano parts that seemed to anticipate Conlon Nancarrow's ``Boogie-Woogie Suite'' of some two decades later; there were others where it sounded as if a piano roll of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring had become stuck.

Bill Linwood directed (perhaps co-ordinated would be le mot juste) a spectacular performance, which gripped the audience throughout its entire 30-minute span (no small feat). Even the human-playable parts looked to be of enormous difficulty and complexity: at times the hands of the percussionists were moving so fast they became blurs; and the four bass drummers provided a balletic aspect to the score I imagine few had anticipated: playing in unison, they also had to step up and turn their pages (at considerably more than arm's length) in unison, no easy task even at a less exacting tempo.

Although the Antheil was undoubtedly the ``main event,'' the opening half of the program demonstrated the tremendous range of music for percussion ensemble. Varèse's Ionisation, written in 1931, still sounds intensely modern, although the fire sirens could perhaps have made a bit more of an impact. John Cage's rarely-heard Second Construction was also a delight; rhythmically vital, it clearly pointed the way to the prepared piano studies of a decade or so later. Takemitu's Rain Tree was all gentle, shimmering, shifting textures; at times so quiet it sounded as if the music was coming from outside the hall. A perfect opener, considering the all-out assault on the sense that was to come. •

©2001 Times-Colonist Co. Used with permission.

Next stop, Symphony Hall, Boston, May 3.

Now you can hear the Ballet mécanique!

Copyright © 2003 by Paul D. Lehrman. All rights reserved