Antheil's Keyboard Extravaganza
June 11, 00
By Sarah Cahill

Antheil's Ballet Mécanique, Plus More

Sunday's concert was devoted to the music of George Antheil, the self-proclaimed "Bad Boy of Music," whose Ballet Mécanique once caused riots in Paris and New York. Antheil specialist Charles Amirkhanian (also director of Other Minds, the concert's co-presenter), explained the intricate process of assembling this updated Ballet Mécanique, which involved the conversion, by Paul Lehrman, of original pianola parts into MIDI files for 16 mechanical pianos.

The stage was lined with rows and rows of keyboards, a vision straight out of the bizarre Dr. Seuss film The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. Precious stage space was saved by shoving eight uprights up against eight new digital Yamaha Disklaviers, developed only a year ago, which yield a sampled sound of a nine-foot grand, despite their slender 37-inch length.

The pianos were augmented by two onstage pianists and a battery of the symphony's excellent percussionists on xylophones, bass drums, and other noise-making devices, along with samples of doorbells, sirens, and an airplane propeller. The propeller sound sputtered pathetically throughout, working up no more verve than a blender on a setting of low. But the onslaught of dense, dissonant clusters clashing on multiple pianos, in a dynamic range that started at fortissimo and just got louder, was electrifying.

Two of the uprights defaulted near the end. "Overheated solenoids," muttered the man next to me, who turned out to be Yamaha's Michael Bates, who with Lehrman had gotten this project off the ground. "They're kept so active they just get too hot."

Overheated solenoids wasn't a problem with the symphony musicians, who gave a sparkling performance of Antheil's Jazz Symphony, bristling with bits of ragtime, Stravinsky, and solos for banjo, xylophone, and trumpet. We got to hear Antheil not only at his most caustic, but also at his most benign and playful.

(Sarah Cahill is a pianist and a music critic for the Express, and hosts a music show on KPFA (94.1 FM) every Friday from 10 am to noon.)
©2000 Sarah Cahill, all rights reserved