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MMD > Archives > September 1999 > 1999.09.28 > 04Prev  Next

"Ballet Mecanique"
By Douglas Henderson

Rolls or an Orchestra?  Make the comparison!

Hello MMD readers,  If you possess our 3-roll Set of "Ballet Mecanique"
by George Antheil, an Interpretive Arrangement for the 88-Note player,
this is the time to get out the rolls and revisit the Futuristic/Art
Deco composition.

Our version was originally commissioned by Anders Wahlgren and Swedish
TV-Radio, for a broadcast which combined 2 matched Aeolian players plus
a 1926 Dutch print of the motion picture of the same name, this par-
ticular copy even featuring hand-tinted sections.  Shortly thereafter,
I received the original roll score from the composer's Estate and
subsequently revised-and-copyrighted what I choose to call "a recon-
struction" -- since the many revisions after its Salon days have
blurred any claims to a totally 'authentic' rendition of the music.

Our rolls will transform the ordinary player-piano into a galaxy of
machines which one can easily visualize: aeroplanes, railroad trains,
heavy machinery and other mechanical mechanisms.  This is due to the
crisp and precise nature of the pianolas chords playing in unison,
allowing the beauty of the pianoforte -- alone -- to suggest the
machinery through organized pulsating rhythms and the tone colors
which are the essence of the instrument.  Augmented with the technique
of the player action -- and controlled down to 128th of a note in
striking duration by me, when arranging it from scratch -- each
superimposed "leitmotif" of a machine is clearly recognizable.

Every few years there's another attempt to stage a non-film, orchestral
performance of "Ballet Mecanique" ... and the most recent recording on
my shelf is the Musical Heritage Society CD # 513891L, featuring
Maurice Peress, conductor, and many pianists -- including Ivan Davis,
Randall Hodgkinson, Leslie Amper and other keyboard artists -- plus a
Pianola buried in the ensemble, along with a bevy of percussionists and
xylophonists.  The MHS recording is listed as a "Recreation of the
Carnegie Hall Concert of 1927" -- the conductor being the same one who
produced the MHS reconstruction of Paul Whiteman's 1924 Aeolian Hall
concert which debuted "Rhapsody In Blue" by George Gershwin.  (If you
are a Gershwin fan, the Peress recording is a 'must' for your library!)

Now, in a few more weeks' time, yet another 'original' orchestral per-
formance of "Ballet Mecanique" will be taking place, but you can have a
sneak preview by listening to several electronic pianos at this site,
where a one-minute sample for RealPlayer, QuickTime or MP3 can be
downloaded and played on your computer:

This is where the "David and Goliath" approach can take place. Assum-
ing you already own -- or have heard -- our 1991 music rolls, based on
the 1925 manuscript by the composer (for Pleyel and featuring the
"movie scene numbers" throughout -- for Antheil's 'time space'
concept), now's the time to play them and then audition one of the
orchestral versions.

Mostly, the orchestra presentations -- which relied on visual props
like fake aeroplane propellers, in the old days -- consist of a
"publicity list" of "so many" instruments, and these vary from one
resurrection to another, often being built upon old texts or the sundry
revisions which the composer used after talking pictures replaced
silent films.

Which is better?  You decide!

The modern rolls give the listener precise, crisp rhythms -- varying
staccato -- and sweeping cascades of crystal clear figurations.  George
Antheil called this "a chamber work" (meaning for a Salon, originally)
and also "cold, blue steel" for the tonality, in some of his writings
on the subject.

The multi-musician presentations, judged solely on the music itself,
never seem to achieve that "synchronized" and delineated rhythmic
nature which his score so heavily demands.

On one hand, you have the publicity, the litany of instruments and
often a claim of 'the original version'.  Do you hear machines in the
true sense ... or just collective noise without much driving rhythmic

On the other, the low-tech perforated music rolls of today impart the
structure, the staccato precision and a majesty (within the limits of
a single piano) which must have been what the composer desired when
converting 4 previously written pieces to his 'time space' idea,
wherein motion pictures and music could be "adjusted to fit".

The Synchro-Cine motion picture by Fernand Leger and Dudley Murphy
falls short of the machinery concept which Antheil's music offered.
I'm certain that when he performed his piano solos of "Mechanisms,"
"Death of the Machines," "Sonata Sauvage" and the "Aeroplane Sonata"
in Germany -- prior to coming to Paris and starting the pianola-plus-
film project -- that he used little or no sustaining pedal and got the
most out of the hammers' ability to "pulsate" the defined rhythms.
The player-piano continues in this vein, using our new rolls (not the
Pleyel originals!), but with the chords ranging up to 31-notes in
certain passages.

I stamp the known "scene numbers" on the rolls, so that the Pianolist
can visualize what it must have been like in the capacity of running
a Fotoplayer -- or two standard home instruments -- with this score.
A number appears, and flash! -- aeroplanes are suggested.  Another
stamp approaches, and the 'time space' shifts to the whir of a spinning
machine -- wham! the flying machine returns, and so on.

If this isn't "movie music" I don't know what is!  Anybody who has
performed Picturrolls (by the FilmMusic Co. of Los Angeles) -- designed
for the silent cinema -- will immediately recognize the program music
nature of the composition.  A Pianolist can "play to action" as the
leaders for the old movie rolls instructed.

Again -- diversity is the key to this rolls-versus-orchestral version
comparison.  So far, I've never found many people who've heard the
Pianola rendition and subsequently wanted to give it up for the
orchestral ensemble presentations ... something quite different,

Now's your chance to see if pneumatic mechanical music really "pulls
its weight" on this oft-promoted experimental musical composition.  If
clarity for this unusual 'tone poem' is the ideal, the perforated paper
rolls can stand on their own -- and then some!

Regards from Maine,

Douglas Henderson, Artcraft Music Rolls
PO Box 295, Wiscasset, ME 04578
(207) 882-7420

(Message sent Tue 21 Sep 1999, 01:46:50 GMT, from time zone GMT-0400.)

Key Words in Subject:  Ballet, Mecanique

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