From The Medford (Mass.) Transcript, November 18, 1999

Man, machine and music

A not-very-accurate picture of Paul

Lehrman orchestrates concert of 75-year-old musical score

By Nell Escobar Coakley, staff writer

"I actually knew about this piece when I was a teenager," says Medford resident Paul Lehrman of George Antheil's milestone work, Ballet Mecanique. "I knew there were other versions, but I didn't know about the original. That's why when a publisher in New York called Schirmer said they had this 75-year-old piece that had never been done before, and asked me to help make it a reality, I jumped for joy."

An adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell in the Sound Recording Technology program for the past 12 years, Lehrman says he became intrigued by Schirmer's idea to create the unusual musical and sound effects the piece required using Musical Instrument Digitial Interface (MIDI) technology.

However, Lehrman took the idea one step further and contacted Jeffrey Fischer, head of the percussion department at UMass Lowell's Music Department, about possibly performing the original piece. Fischer, he says, was enthusiastic.

Over the past 18 months, Lehrman and Fischer have been rehearsing UMass Lowell's percussion students for the Nov. 18 sold out performance of Antheil's masterpiece. Lehrman adds just getting the equipment needed to put on the show has been difficult, but well worth the effort.

"There are still a lot of details to work out, but that should be taken care of this week," Lehrman says, adding his part of the show has been to handle the technological and logistical aspects of the concert, as well as publicity and tickets.

Born in New York City, the middle child of Nathaniel and Emily Lehrman, the Brooks Street resident admits he's always been fascinated with music. At the tender age of 4, Lehrman was already playing and taking recorder lessons. At 5 years old, he was playing the piano.

Lehrman, who is married to storyteller Sharon Kennedy, grew up in the small Long Island suburb of Roslyn, where he graduated from high school in 1970. He later attended five semesters at Columbia University, where he studied electronic music composition.

It was from the State University of New York at Purchase that Lehrman graduated in 1975, however. His degree was in orchestral performance as a bassoon player.

"I really enjoyed playing the a bassoon," Lehrman says. "But it was very tough to make a living at it."

These days, Lehrman says he's working on obtaining a master's degree from Lesley College in Cambridge, where he's taking an independent study in musical performance technology. He graduates this coming spring.

While Lehrman says he has no current plans to pursue a doctorate, he's still quite busy with his teaching and other side projects. Lehrman says he is currently scoring two movies for the History Channel, one a documentary on the stock market crash of 1929 and the other on German POWs in the United States during World War II. He also writes a monthly column for Mix magazine, a trade journal for the professional audio and recording industry, and is editorial director of the magazine's Web site.

Additionally, Lehrman says when he has time, he enjoys playing tennis with Medford resident Wallace Kountze, biking in the Middlesex Fells, gardening, walking around his West Medford neighborhood and cooking.

"I'm very much into Southeast Asian cooking right now," he says with a laugh. "It must be from being in Lowell so much."

Paul, were you always attracted to music?

Yeah. I've been playing music since I was 4 years old.

Is your family artistic?

My father is a very good amatueur musician. He's a physician who is retired and he now plays the violin with various orchestras. My older brother Leonard is a composer and my younger sister Betty is also a performer. She's a storyteller.

So, you could say your artistic talents run in the family...

I guess I have an artistic need to get up in front of people.

What about your mother?

She's a librarian. My mother, Emily, has two master's degrees, one in Russian literature and the other in library sciences. She was a wonderful female role model because she's very intelligent and was involved in education in one way or another since we were kids. She taught Russian and is a native who came to this country when she was 12 years old. And she actually speaks English better than anyone I know. I credit a lot of my language and writing ability to her.

Is that why you became a teacher?

Well, I became a teacher because I was always interested in helping others understand things. It is important to impart knowledge to the next generation. That shows in my writing because most of my writing tends to be on the explaination side of things, how things work.

What was your first job after college?

I taught music. I would go to kids' houses and give a piano lessons and then I taught in summer camps and did a lot of theater as a musical director. I also worked in radio. That's how I came to Boston. I was offered a job at a radio station.

How did you get to UMASS Lowell?

I was invited to teach there 12 years ago for my expertise in MIDI, which is a communications protocol used by electronic instruments and computers. It allows composers to compose for multiple instruments without needing to actually have them there.

How does MIDI work?

Basically, you have a keyboard, a computer and a rack of synthesizers and each synthesizer has a different sound. You play the piano part and record that – not the actual sound, but the keys you've played–into the computer, and then tell the computer to send that to a synthesizer which plays the piano part. Then you do the same thing with the bass, the drums, the strings, the horn section, the sound effects and so on until you've built up your electronic orchestra the way you want it. MIDI allows all these various things to connect with each other. It's become a crucial part of almost every piece of music you hear today.

That's what you'll be using for the Antheil project?

The original piece was written 75 years ago and it calls for two pianists, one of whom is from Medford, John McDonald, who is a professor at Tufts University. The piece also calls for eight percussionists, seven electronic bells, three airplane propellers, a siren and 16 synchronized player pianos. It couldn't be done back in the 20's because you couldn't synchronize 16 player pianos. Antheil eventually rewrote the piece and got rid of the 16 player pianos.

Then Schirmer called you...

The found the piece and called two people. One was Yamaha, which makes player pianos which can communicate by MIDI, and asked them if they would make 16 of these pianos, which are called Disklaviers, to the first few groups that wanted to perform this piece.. Then they called me and asked me to do all the computer work. I took the written score and all the notes and put it into a computer so that you can hook it up to the Yamaha pianos and make a performance out of it. I was very happy to be called–it was a very cool project to be involved with!

How did the performance by UMass Lowell happen?

Well, I was doing all of this work for Schirmer preparing the materials for them and making digital samples of the airplanes and the fire siren so that people who were performing the piece in the future could use them in their performances. The Lowell performance grew out of that. I looked at the percussion ensemble, and the concert hall, and said, why not do it here?

What are your expectations for tonight (Nov. 18)?

I think it's going to be very exciting. When other versions of the piece were played, back in the '20s, there were riots, but I don't expect any of that. But I do think we're going to have people responding to the piece in very different ways. Even after 75 years, this is not an easy piece to listen to.

This version of the Antheil piece has never been performed before?

Not this version with this number of pianos. This is the original version as he intended.

Do you think using computers to play music perverts the music itself?

It's too late to think like that because it's been going on for the past 20 years. You can't hear a piece of music or see a movie or something on television without it involving computers. To protest that it's not music because machines are involved is just not an arguable point any more. We can't go back to just playing acoustic guitars and flutes because that's not all there is out there. The fact is this piece was originally made to be performed by machines because player pianos are machines. The problem was that at the time there were no machines good enough, but now we have machines that can handle it.

Is this the wave of the future?

No, it's the wave of the present. This is where we're at. You can't be a composer in the commercial music industry, whether it's pop or hip hop or whatever, you just can't do wit without knowledge of [MIDI] technology.

Paul, how do you think Antheil would feel finally seeing his dream realized?

I think he'd be delighted thrilled! He was a real showman and he loved to do outrageous things. That's why he thought of this in the first place. He'd be delighted to see this happening.

©1999 Community Newspapers