"Ballet Mecanique" Disklavier Concert Review, 11-19-99 (Part 3 of 3)
[ This 3-part article reviews the concert which featured 16
[ Yamaha Disklavier pianos, performed at the University of
[ Massachusetts, Lowell MA, on Thursday, November 18, 1999.
[ Previous MMD articles about this topic may be found at
[ http://mmd.foxtail.com/Archives/KWIC/B/ballet.html -- Robbie
This brings us back to the performance of Ballet Mecanique last night.
The percussionists were good, but they were in front of the 16 little
console Yamaha pianos, all with their front panels removed and trying
to do their best. In the old photos of the live orchestral performan-
ces, one usually sees pianos on stage front, with the 'extras' back
The balance was totally wrong from the audience listening point of
view. Perhaps when transmitted as a broadcast recording it was better,
since the pianos (each miked individually) can be 'turned up louder',
and therefore be able to compete with the accompaniment of the drums,
xylophones and other devices which clearly dominated the sound of the
Also, as expected, the Disklavier limitations meant that only partial
keyboards were being used much of the time, often on doubled pianos.
What had been the full sweep of a staccato chord on perforated rolls
was now only part of the keyboard, and then the staccato wasn't that
pronounced. When you could hear the pianos, together or singly,
everything was pretty much at monotone level, and not very loud at
that. (One musical friend wondered aloud to me if 'overloading' the
circuits might have made someone decide to cut the voltage, and this
led to cocktail lounge playing on the part of the solenoid actions.
That's not my department, of course!)
Both Michael and I noted repeatedly that, on the piano at stage right,
the bass 'cluster chords' for Ballet Mecanique were 'rolled' like a
theatre organist and not struck in unison as a pianist or Pianola would
have done. (I have hand edited-out such 'rolling' effects on my rolls,
when they occur, being the result of a flaw in a perforating run.)
Those keys should 'whap' the bottom bass keys together, not in a series
I have never had the privilege of hearing Dr. Hocker's two synchronized
Ampico pneumatic players, but I would suspect that these would dupli-
cate the 'punch' of the standard Pianola playing the music rolls: old
or new, when compared to the bank of 'weak sister' Disklaviers
tweedling their keys.
Using electromagnets to trigger pneumatics is nothing new, as pianos
attached to Wurlitzer theatre organs prove, and above I mentioned
Aeolian operating reed and pipe organs from a Pianola, using similar
technology. The 1930 Aeolian Concertola and other remote control
players for organs and expression players were designed along similar
Perhaps one of the Hocker 2-Ampico performances will be produced on
audio, since I doubt if I can get to Europe at this time. (Zipping
from Maine to Massachusetts for this concert took enough time and
energy for me!) I would expect that the Hocker versions would have
more panache for the Pianola part of the score, and things would be
striking in unison as well as chords up to 31-notes (or more) could
be handled by these players. Dynamics would be the major upgrade when
returning to pneumatic striking, I'm certain.
The number of pianos doesn't matter here, since they don't add 'volume'
as claimed by Stravinsky and Antheil in the 1920s. The Peress
recording has mostly virtuoso keyboard pianists for its sense of life,
and I heartily recommend it for those who wish to experience his well-
researched recreation of the original orchestral version. One Pianola
-- or two, as in Dr. Hocker's case, or synchronized keyboard pianists
-- can all provide the necessary loud sound and also the crisp staccato
accents for performance contrast.
(On the Peress recording don't expect to hear the Pianola, which gets
drowned out. I'm not certain that any automatic piano can really
compete with keyboard artists and live percussionists, due to the
design nature of players of ANY type, and this has to do with the
strikers resting on the keys, as it were.)
When Ballet Mecanique had ended at Durgin Hall, Michael Potash said,
"I could sum up this performance: 'drab'".
A noted roll collector was there as well, and he told Michael,
"One standard player-piano could have been on that stage, and it would
have been louder and better than those sixteen instruments." (I was
thinking the same thing during the entire Antheil performance, arriving
at concerts with my own piano/trailer setup: see the Artcraft web site
for the Reprotone player picture and text!)
There will be, no doubt, many performances of George Antheil's
experimental work in the future, and all will be different, as that's
what the word 'experimental' means: a work-in-progress which was never
I'm glad that I attended this packed-house concert. It broke no new
ground for me, especially since some of the problems of 'synchronizing
Pianolas' were solved almost 100 years ago, and that French 'patent'
(perhaps somebody's revisionist fantasy) never surfaced in reality.
You'll note that I don't comment on the Nancarrow portions of the
concert. Those who've read my web site, or who know me, soon realize
that I'm no fan of his type of music. Antheil has musical form, drama,
humor and variations in his Ballet Mecanique, at least on rolls, and
that's what I can latch on to.
I did perform Nancarrow for the 15th Season of the Dinosaur Annex Music
Ensemble (which also premiered a Swedish work written for the Pianola
medium, "Linnmania- Marseillase"), and that got the majority of the
applause. My Nancarrow rolls were borrowed from the Lawrences prior to
Dr. Hocker taking over the handling of Nancarrow's music and player
rolls. (See the earlier paragraphs above -- Small world, isn't it!)
I do remember reading the Ampico dynamics on the roll margins and
playing with more 'pizzazz'(adding accents) than the Disklaviers did,
which were sloshing through everything at pretty much one dynamic. The
'Nancarrow concert' which involved me, Michael Potash, Dave Levin and a
Brewster pedal player upright belonging to Peter Neilson, was a
complete success, especially my Swedish number if the clapping counts
Meanwhile, during the 2-hour reception, I was asked to play the
Nancarrow and Malapiero rolls again for an interested party. He turned
out to be Richard Dyer, music critic of The Boston Globe, who said in
his review the next day, "That Nancarrow music can be played in no
other way," so I guess I did justice to the music! (This Pianola
recital and reception took place at the First & Second Church in
Boston, on February 18, 1990.)
There is, of course, room for extreme variety here, Antheil's compo-
sition lending itself to everything from Pianola movie accompaniment
to a full-blown orchestral presentation. As Mr. Lehrman said, in the
future people many never experience 16 pianos playing this work again.
(That's fine with me, if they are solenoid players!) It was okay, but
not exciting when one is steeped in stamping and editing the 1991
player rolls every few weeks: three hours armed with a log book and the
1925 score, to process every two sets by Artcraft.
One last thing here: the original movie, used in the Salon days of
Ballet Mecanique, was 30 minutes long. Censorship and artistic
changes kept the movie in flux, and this is reflected on the score,
where the composer keeps changing numbers for the 'time space'
The audience was told that Antheil had written a 30-minute composition
for a movie that was "too short". (Insert laughter here.) Not true!
Originally, the Synchro-Cine film was three reels long, approximately
a 1/2 hour in length. The 250-foot long perforated roll arrangement
(spread over three rolls, though written for two, and using a Foto-
player) matches the Salon movie of the day. This is why the 'time
space' numbering continues to the end of the score, with various
elements added or scratched-out. Most 'scene numbers' are stamped
on the 1991 edition of the rolls, to assist the Pianolist with each
'block' of the music.
As a final note, I should mention that on November 18th, last night,
the 2nd of 3 Pianola musicales were taking place in Switzerland at
"Piano 99", the piano festival in Lucerne. Talented artists like Radu
Lupu and Andras Schiff will be playing Chopin and Beethoven, but ...
a _brand-new_ Duo-Art console player built by Douglas Heffer (mentioned
above regarding Ballet Mecanique for Swedish TV-Radio!) will be
performing only my Artcraft expression rolls: all hot Ragtime and jazz
titles. Guess what the finale will be for November 18th in Europe?
Mark Lutton's fantastic arrangement (or rather, my impression of his
keyboard playing, perforated) of "Lion Tamer Rag"! Mark was attending
the Antheil concert while 'his music' was wrapping up one of the Swiss
recitals at the same time.
Isn't the mechanical music field "A small world after all"? -- quoting
As a last thought, since Antheil was being linked to modern solenoid
players, when his milieu was movies (a mechanical photographic medium)
and Pianolas, really, I've often thought it strange that he seems to
have ignored the high-tech electronic (and electric) instruments of his
day, or at least, never seems to have written for or mentioned them.
One would expect that George Antheil would have gravitated to the
Theremin (in Europe, first, then here), the Neo-Bechstein piano, the
Storytone, the Hammond Organ, the Novachord, the Solovox and other such
instruments. Maybe, when it's stated that "Antheil would be pleased,
if he were here," he might have been even _more pleased_ when hearing a
single pneumatic Pianola being finally able to realize his pulsating
rhythms and jazzy-but-dissonant musical passages.
There's room for yet another revival, and I'm certainly it will be
coming along soon. Meanwhile, I wish that somebody in the film
restoration field would use the 'time space' on rolls to fashion a
new motion picture, 30 minutes long, which matches the spirit of
Antheil's music. It shouldn't be hard to get clips from old newsreels
and industrial films, splicing together scenes of aeroplanes and steam
shovels. Like my version, it would be a speculative reconstruction --
but anything's fair game when the music is experimental !
Regards from Maine,
Douglas Henderson -- Artcraft Music Rolls
Assuming you were able to get through my impressions of the Lowell MA
Disklavier concert (given on 11-18-99), I'm contributing a short
postscript to this text, something which occurred to me in retrospect
concerning the possibility of a Fotoplayer lurking in the background.
(Yes, I realize that the 'Fotoplayer' per se was a brand name, like
Aeolian's 'Pianola', built in Berkeley CA and eventually being absorbed
into the Robert Morton organ enterprises. Naturally, a Wurlitzer or
Cremona 'Photoplayer' could have been used, or the Hupfeld and other
equivalents employed in Europe prior to the Vitaphone-Movietone sound
film era. I'm using the term generically here. The reference concerns
the twin-roll spoolbox in a player piano, sometimes alone, but usually
with 1 or 2 side chests featuring sound effects, organ pipes and/or
reeds and percussion devices.)
It struck me, after having heard _more_ percussion and electronic
keyboard music than the 16 muted Disklaviers ever provided, that this
work was written ostensibly for a Fotoplayer in the first place: a
dual-roll spoolbox Pianola with added organ and percussion effects.
(The Pleyel score shows where the composer had to move the end of Roll
I to the middle of Roll II, which meant a Roll III was created to
complete the performance!)
There is an amazing similarity between the 'noise-makers' of the live
ensemble to what was built into the old silent movie accompaniment
instruments: door bells, fire sirens, gongs, organ pipes, xylophone-
marimba effects, tympani, etc. Perhaps the later orchestral versions
were 'inspired' by a single Pianolist running the music rolls and
adding manually, in perfect synchronization, the additional optional
Ballet Mecanique is the only composition I could name which draws
freely from the 'movie sound effects' typical of the late 'Teens and
early 'Twenties instruments used with the silent cinema. A single roll
interpreter would insure that synchronization would be perfect: one of
Antheil's lifelong concerns with this composition. The Fotoplayer type
of instrument would be under the control of a single musician, matching
the aspect of the motion picture protector(s) running 3 reels of the
While not documented, so far, this is something to think about, and
another case for the pneumatic Player-Piano being -- from the start --
the _ideal_ vehicle for presenting this amazing musical masterpiece.