A highly unlikely `Ballet Mécanique' brings in da noise

Mercury News

GEORGE ANTHEIL had mixed feelings about his daredevil composition. ``If the public still thinks of me at all, it probably thinks of me as the composer of this damned `Ballet Mécanique,''' he complained in his 1945 autobiography, ``Bad Boy of Music.''

And how could we not, when considering its outrageous scoring? Sixteen player pianos are required for ``Ballet mécanique,'' along with four xylophones, four bass drums, a tam tam (gong), three airplane propellers, seven electric bells, two standard pianos, and a siren.

Wrenching situation

The player pianos were supposed to be synchronized, but the mechanism planned to accomplish this did not materialize; Paris of 1924 was not Silicon Valley. So Antheil rescored the piece for a single player piano, adding more human pianists and keyboards. It still made a terrific racket, provoking one riot in France in 1926 and making front-page news when it came to Carnegie Hall a year later. The hype and misunderstanding surrounding the single-pianola version's U.S. premiere -- which turned out to be a terrible performance -- spurred Antheil to consider the piece ``my nightmare.''

Antheil's nightmare turned into a fascinating novelty at the San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks Festival -- too late for the composer, who died in 1959, but not for the wildly enthusiastic audience at Davies Hall. On Saturday, Michael Tilson Thomas led a heroic, virtuosic account of the reconstructed original on a program that included Antheil's sassy, eclectic ``Jazz Symphony.'' That 1925 work does not require electronic assistance, though its soloists, Michael Linville, piano, and Mark Inouye, trumpet, were interpretatively electric. For the ``Ballet mécanique,'' two rows of human percussionists queued in front of 16 gleaming state-of-the-art, computer-controlled acoustic player pianos whose innards were exposed to show their hammers' thumping, pumping pulses. Each of the Yamaha Disklaviers was attached to a computer using MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology. To the side of stage at a table of computer equipment sat a pleased and chuckling Paul D. Lehrman, the guy who untangled and reconstructed Antheil's intricacies.


The 16 player pianos function as quartets, each spouting one of four intensely energetic motives in changing time signatures. The composer planned the music to move fast, extremely fast at 152 beats per minute. That is too fast even for these Disklaviers to keep up with, Lehrman told the audience later. On Saturday, Tilson Thomas chose to set the instruments at 115 beats a minute, faster than recent performances in Massachusetts and New York.

One keyboard did fail during this weekend's performance, not that it made much difference to the high-decibel clamor. The rhythmic pulse was periodically punctuated by a raucous, hand-cranked siren -- and a digitally sampled electric bell that sounded like a self-righteous alarm clock. Also performing as digital samples were the airplane propellers, a sort of buzzing ostinato.

Encore can wait

Since it is impossible to conduct player pianos, Tilson Thomas worked from headphones and a click track to keep his human drummers in sync with the chugging keyboards and piercing whistles. The music's ceaseless repetitions put me in mind of Minimalists mad for Stravinsky's ``Le Sacre du Printemps.''

Antheil himself said the music, ``properly played,'' should sound ``streamlined, glistening, cold, often as `musically silent' as interplanetary space, and also often as hot as an electric furnace . . .'' The musical silences were few, but the rest was true and thrilling, though I don't mind waiting a while to hear it again.

©2000 San Jose Mercury News