The Sacramento Bee
November 14, 1999

Music Review

75 years later . . . Technology finally catches up to Antheil's player-piano vision

By William Glackin
Bee Critic at Large

In 1924 in Paris, a brash young American composer and pianist named George Antheil had a revolutionary idea: to express the mechanistic modernism of his time with a composition called "Ballet Mecanique." The piece would employ, among other sounds, 16 player pianos, each with its own pianist.

He was inspired by a film with that title by the French painter Fernand Leger, and at first planned to coordinate the music with the film. This proved impractical, but the idea of 16 player pianos (playing four parts) proved downright impossible -- at least for the time. Sixteen pianists pumping the pedals of their pianos could not produce perfectly coordinated sounds. After two years, he gave up and reduced the player pianos to one. "Ballet Mecanique" became remembered during his long career only in severely limited form.

But times have changed. The new science of the computer age has made Antheil's impossible dream possible. On Thursday at 5 p.m., "Ballet Mecanique" will be performed in Durgin Concert Hall at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell (also known as UMass Lowell) as originally designed, with 16 player pianos. Only this time the player pianos will be Yamaha Disklaviers coordinated by Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) technology.

The performance will be Webcast -- a new word for a lot of classical music fans -- live on the Internet at It also will be recorded on 24-track digital audio and video and published by Schirmer on a CD-ROM to be supplied, with the printed score, to groups who want to perform the 25-minute piece in the future.

Two such future performances already have been scheduled for April 2 in Carnegie Hall and in June 2000 on the American Mavericks series by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall.

The Lowell performance has been put together by UMass-Lowell professor Paul Lehrman and will include the other elements of the score as well as the player pianos: Two digital pianos played live, seven electric bells, the sounds of a fire engine siren (recorded in Arlington) and airplane propellers (recorded in Palo Alto), as well as the UMass-Lowell Percussion Ensemble playing three xylophones, four drums and tam-tam.

The concert will include a talk by Lehrman about the enormously complicated research that went into the performance; and premieres of player-piano arrangements by Lehrman of a movement from Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony, original player piano works by Conlon Nancarrow and Richard Grayson, and two percussion pieces by Cage/Harrison and Roldan.

The Webcast and subsequent performances seem bound to reawaken public interest in George Antheil (1900-1959). He's an interesting figure, particularly in his younger days, and he remained innovative all his life, although in the 1940s, after settling in Hollywood (which he described as a Mecca for young composers) and becoming a successful writer of scores for films, he began to write more and more in the Romantic style.

Antheil composed 27 movie scores between 1934 and 1957, including two for Cecil B. DeMille films, "The Plainsman" and "The Buccaneer."

Born in Trenton, N.J., Antheil started piano lessons at age 6, began study of theory at 16 and studied composition with Ernest Bloch. Going to Europe in 1921 to pursue a career as a concert pianist, he met Igor Stravinsky in Berlin and was strongly influenced by his style of composition. Settling in Paris in 1923, living in an apartment over Sylvia Beach's famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore, he was "championed and befriended" (according to the New Grove American Dictionary) by such figures on the avant-garde scene as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, Erik Satie and Pablo Picasso.

His performance of his own piano pieces in Paris in 1923 provoked a riotous reception. It included works called "Airplane Sonata," "Mechanisms," "Death of Machines" and "Jazz Sonata." He became the musical spokesman for the "modernist" ideas of the Parisian literary community, which regarded him as a genius. "Ballet Mecanique" was strongly influenced by the propulsive rhythms of Stravinsky's music, particularly "Les Noces (The Wedding)," which the Sacramento Ballet danced to two seasons ago in a new ballet by Ron Cunningham.

Antheil, who also wrote operas in later years, kept revising "Ballet Mecanique" with one player piano. Now, 75 years later, modern technology has finally caught up with him.

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