What the heck is the Ballet mécanique?

The Ballet mécanique is an amazing piece of music written in 1924 by George Antheil, a young American composer living in Paris. More on Antheil… It calls for a percussion orchestra of three xylophones, four bass drums, and a tam-tam (gong), two "live" pianists, seven or so electric bells, a siren, three airplane propellors, and 16 synchronized player pianos. It was never performed that way during Antheil's lifetime, and in fact it was never performed in its full orchestration until 1999. More on the Ballet Mécanique…

Is there a ballet that goes with the music?

No, although there have been some dances created for the music in recent years, such as the 2002 production by Doug Varone and Dancers.

But more significantly, there's a film, by French artist Fernand Léger and American cinematographer Dudley Murphy, for which Antheil's music was supposed to be the soundtrack. Unfortunately the filmmakers and Antheil didn't consult with each other very much while they were working, and so when they put the music and film together for the first time, they didn't fit at all. So now they are considered separate works.

Can't there be a way now, using modern digital technology, to make the music and the film work together?

Funny you should ask! On May 5, 2001, a newly-discovered and restored print of the film, owned by Anthology Film Archives of New York, had its first showing at Brandeis University, near Boston, accompanied by the original music written for the film by George Antheil, edited, programmed, arranged and recorded by Paul Lehrman, using a combination of live recordings and MIDI samplers. The film subsequently went on tour to 100 museums and film festivals around the world as part of "Unseen Cinema," a huge festival of early avant-garde films. The first venue was in June, 2001, in Moscow, followed by the Whitney Museum in New York City where there was a gala premiere on September 7, 2001. And on November 13, 2002, an ambitious group from the Peabody Conservatory performed the music live while the film was shown—in perfect synchronization! It happened at the Percussive Arts Society International Conference in Columbus, Ohio.

Can I get a copy of this film?

Yes! In October 2005, "Unseen Cinema" —including Ballet mécanique—was released as a 7-disc DVD box set by Image Entertainment. You can order a copy of the collection at a discount here, or from Amazon .com and other online stores. The film is also part of the deluxe 2-disc DVD of "Bad Boy Made Good," the documentary film about George Antheil and the Ballet mécanique, available here.

Why wasn't the piece performed until recently?

It was played in 1989, using a single mechanical player piano—which was the version performed in Paris and New York by Antheil in 1927—by Maurice Peress at New York's Carnegie Hall. And through the '90s, the German Ensemble Moderne performed it with two custom-modified computer-controlled player pianos. But until very recently, the technology to synchronize 16 player pianos together simply didn't exist. But now, Yamaha and QRS make player pianos that talk MIDI, the standard computer protocol for musical instruments. By hooking up 16 MIDI-compatible player pianos to a central sequencer, like an ordinary desktop or laptop computer, you can get them all to play in perfect synchronization.

Are these real player pianos, or just digital simulations of them?

They are real player pianos, with strings, hammers, soundboard, keys that go up and down, etc. You can play them like a regular piano, or you can let the computer play them.

Who thought of doing it this way?

Bill Holab, who in the 1990s was publications director at G. Schirmer, gets the credit. When Schirmer bought the rights to Antheil's catalogue in the early part of that decade, Holab came across the original Antheil manuscript, and being very knowledgable about computers and music, came up with the idea of making it happen with modern player pianos like Yamaha Disklaviers. He contacted Paul Lehrman, and also Michael Bates, who is head of music marketing for Yamaha. More on the Schirmer project…

What did Paul Lehrman do?

His original job was to take Antheil's original score, all 1240 measures of it, with about 630 time-signature changes and something like 200,000 notes, and translate it into a giant MIDI file that could be played from a standard sequencer.

Why on Earth would he do such a crazy thing?

Because Schirmer hired him to, in order to create a publishable version of the score that any group with the right resources could perform. Holab knew about Lehrman since Schirmer's parent company, Music Sales Corporation, publishes a best-selling book Lehrman co-wrote with Tim Tully, MIDI For the Professional. But another major reason Lehrman did it was because he thought it was a way, way cool project.

How long did it take?

The sequencing part took about two months. But it turned out to be a lot bigger project than just making the sequence. There were samples to record and edit, bells to build, and documentation to write.

How do you play an airplane propellor?

In Antheil's time, this was most likely done by sticking a leather strap into a rotating fan: this concept was used in the performances in Essen, Germany, in August, 2002, and also at the National Gallery of Art installation in 2006. Today, you can also use digital samples of real airplanes, which can be played by the same computer that's playing the pianos. Real airplane engine samples were recorded for Schirmer by Tim Tully and edited by Lehrman.

How about the siren and bells?

You can also do this with samples, or use a real siren (hand-cranked or electric) and real electric bells. Lehrman put together bell and siren samples for Schirmer, but also he and engineer Coleman Rogers designed a box containing seven different electric bells that can be played with a MIDI keyboard or sequencer.

How do the percussionists and live pianists stay synchronized with the pianos?

Lehrman created a "click track" that is part of the same sequence that's playing the pianos, but only the conductor hears it, through an earpiece. It allows him or her to keep the ensemble together. With all of those time signature changes in the piece, the click track is incredibly complicated.

Why was the premiere in Massachusetts?

At the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where Lehrman was teaching at the time he started the project, there is a terrific percussion ensemble, headed by Jeff Fischer. Jeff agreed to do the piece, and worked on it with his students for four months. Yamaha loaned 16 of their player pianos, known as Disklaviers, to the university for the performance. The premiere took place in the university's auditorium on November 18, 1999. It was Webcast live on wgbh.org, and two days later the concert was recorded for CD. More about the premiere…

Did the concert get a lot of attention?

Tons! WGBH-TV did a piece on it for their evening magazine show, and Brazilian television did a piece their weekly news magazine about the USA, "America, America". There was a feature article in Wired magazine, and write-ups in newspapers from Sacramento to London. And Lehrman and Fischer were interviewed for NPR's Morning Edition and the Canadian Broadcasting Company's As It Happens.

Is the CD available?

Of course! It's in the classical or avant-garde sections of better record stores, as well as on Amazon.com, cdemusic.org, and other online sources, or you can order it right here.

What other performances have there been?

By now there have been over 25 using live performers.
• The American Composers Orchestra, conducted by Dennis Russel Davies, did the piece at Carnegie Hall on April 2, 2000. More…
• Then the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, did the piece at Davies Hall on June 11, 2000. More…
• Another performance was done by the Hermes Ensemble in Antwerp, Belgium, in August 2000, and they have done two more since then.
• The Canadian premiere was at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, on March 18, 2001. More…
• A performance at Symphony Hall in Boston, by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, was on May 3, 2001. More…
• There was a performance in Maastricht, Holland, on May 5, 2002, and then two spectacular performances in Essen, Germany, again conducted by Dennis Russel Davies, on August 17, 2002. More…
• There were two performances (with the Léger/Murphy film!) by the Peabody Percussion Ensemble in Columbus, Ohio, in November 2002 and in Baltimore in February, 2003 (More…)
• The Société de musique contemporaine du Québec did a performance in Montreal in March, 2003 (More…)
• In March 2004, the London Sinfonietta took the piece on a five-city tour of England (More…) and in May 2005, they took it to Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Holland.
• In January 2005, it was the closing event of the Light In Winter festival in Ithaca, New York. (More…)
• In 2009 there were performances by FulcrumPoint New Music Project in Chicago, and again by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
• And the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, mounted a huge automated installation which played the Ballet mécanique twice daily from March through May, 2006. (More…) The automated orchestra has since been installed in Miami Beach and New York City.

Did Paul Lehrman produce all those concerts?

Only the one in Lowell. But he was there helping out in New York, San Francisco, Columbus, Montreal, Boston, London, Ithaca, Wahington, and Miami, where the producers brought him in to be a technical consultant for the piece. He had a lot of help from technical assistants: in New York, MIDI expert Miles Green; in San Francisco, Tim Tully, who also recorded the airplane samples for the project, and was Lehrman's co-writer on the MIDI book that got Schirmer's attention; in Boston, Wayne Cochrane, a former student of Paul's from Lowell who was very involved in the premiere; and in Montreal another former student (from Tufts), Todd Nocera. The London and Ithaca groups provided their own very competent technicians. In Washington, Miami, and New York, the robots were designed and built by Eric Singer of the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, and he and Lehrman worked with those institutions' great technical staffs.

Are there any future performances scheduled?

None to announce at this time, but stay tuned! The piece has tremendous appeal, and ensembles and museums are constantly getting in touch with us.

Can I get my local percussion ensemble to play this piece?

Sure! The materials all belong to Schirmer, and if you want to play the piece they'll rent you a score, the percussion and piano parts, and a CD-ROM with all the sequences and samples, as well as detailed instructions written by Lehrman on how to make it all work. (Those instructions are on line, and you can read them right here.) You don't even need 16 player pianos—you can do it with as few as four, and they can be digital pianos or even MIDI piano modules. Also, the score itself is now available for sale.

How can I learn more?

Read the rest of this site by clicking on the links to the left—start with the Introduction to get the full tour. Also read some of the articles Lehrman wrote for Wired, Mix, Piano Today, Electronic Musician, and (a detailed three-parter) Sound On Sound magazines. And read Antheil's incredibly entertaining autobiography, Bad Boy of Music. A very informative interview with Paul by Minnesota Public Radio is online. Plus, there's a new documentary film, called "Bad Boy Made Good," produced by Lehrman and directed by Ron Frank, that's playing on selected PBS stations, as well as at schools, conferences, and film festivals, and is available for sale on DVD. Details on the film (along with a slide show and trailer) are here.

How can I contact Paul Lehrman?

Easy: send e-mail to paul@antheil.org.

Thanks for asking!

updated 10/28/2009

Copyright © 2003-2009 by Paul D. Lehrman. All rights reserved