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MMD > Archives > December 2005 > 2005.12.25 > 01Prev  Next

"Ballet Mecanique" 1924 Film & Music
By Douglas Henderson

Hello MMD readers,  As one who has floated in and out of the elements
of "Ballet Mecanique" by George Antheil for over a half century, I have
seen many sides of this experimental work.

The late Dale and Sally Lawrence, among the early founders of AMICA,
were involved in a San Francisco production in the 1970s using the
truncated Leger-Murphy film (#1) and pneumatic players, at the Art Deco
Society as I recall.  This was long before the solenoid player versions
of recent times.  They worked hand-in-hand with Charles Amirkhanian of
KPFA/Pacifica Radio who ran the Antheil estate at the time, and they
used their Chickering B Ampico to copyright the music for The Library
of Congress (running the botched 1924 Pleyel music rolls that were
furnished to them for this project).

Long before I got involved with the 1991 reconstruction of the music
(for Anders Wahlgren and Swedish broadcasting plus Douglas Heffer,
my representative in Paris) I already knew about the handwritten scores
viz. the Pleyel one (preferably for a Foto-Player) and the orchestral
revision, written for four keyboard pianos.  (Note: this was not written
for 16 synchronized players as is often claimed today.)

The composer based the music on four compositions played earlier in
Berlin as piano solos: "Sonata Sauvage", "Mechanisms", "The Aeroplane
Sonata" and "Death of the Machines".  The music rolls were performed
in salons with varying motion picture elements, often involving nudity.
When the Pleyel score is examined the rolls have "time space" blocks
(numbered film scenes) and these were changed many times, as evidenced
by the "scratch outs", eliminated musical passages and also scribbled
some lines like "Give George a big chord here!" in one place.

By the time the work was ready for concert hall presentations the film
no longer matched the playing time of the music, which was classically
constructed, strange as that might seem, much as a Beethoven composition
would be.  Variations on impulses and dissonant tone patterns would
return, build and be expanded upon, but only if the work were preserved
in the manner in which it was composed.  The alterations were mostly
done during riffs in the middle of the rolls, making the beginning and
ending of the 3 music rolls, relatively intact.

It's obvious that this was written for a 2-roll Foto-Player, and one
can see the alterations of the score, since the Coda for Roll I appears
in the middle of Roll II.  (Foto-Players with percussion, organ and
sound effects generally used two music rolls.)  The composer evidently
had no idea of the space limitations for the pianola's spoolbox here
and Roll II is already 100 feet in length, straining many instruments,
even today!

When the work went from pianola-plus-film to the concert hall, Antheil
scored it for four pianos (which could be increased, doubling the
material).  I believe this 16-piano hoopla came from the fact that the
Disklavier can't handle 31-note pianola chords, so at the premiere in
Lowell, Massachusetts, partial keyboards were used for the sloppy
staccato effects.  Thus, 16 solenoid players = 4 keyboard pianos.

Kurzweil synthesizers carried the load and lights were pointed at eight
of the players so that the audience could see that the keys were moving.
What I noticed, along with other player owners in that audience, was
that the keys were being "rolled", like ocean waves, and not struck
with vibrant impulses, which would be the domain of the solo pianola
or Foto-Player.

People interested in this subject might want to check out our site on
the Internet which has pictures of my 1991 revision as well as the 1925
botched Pleyel rolls and the patent for synchronizing a motion picture
project to a Player-Piano.  Go to

There was a second movie, described in a recent book about the Murphy
family (Dudley Murphy was the photographer for "Ballet Mecanique").
This film, not found to date, had "goggled steel workers with iron
girders", "French toughs" and heavy machinery, exactly what would fit
the music and tonal patterns of the Antheil composition.

The existing first film (in a variety of forms) was a trick 'party'
film, in my opinion, and conflicted with the intent of the score;
obviously, Murphy felt the same way about it, or a second motion
picture wouldn't have been made, but probably too late, since the
talkies destroyed the whole art of silent film accompaniment at about
the same time.  The book is called "We Were All So Young", and I don't
have the publisher/author in front of me, this being Christmas morning,
but it's in my office; it should be easy for anybody interested in the
topic of the other movie to locate that book, being of recent times.

Hope the above will be of interest to those who want to know more about
this experimental work, something which has been plagued by a lot of
posthumous revisionism, in my opinion.  Antheil was no help, either,
since he took the instrumental "Aeroplane Sonata" visual lengths with
prop airplane propellers for the concert hall versions and, in 1953,
for an LP project, changed to tape loops of a jet plane for those
sequences.  Clearly, the composer was a "moving target", for he
redefined himself and that music throughout his life, so one must read
between the lines for many elements about this unusual composition.

However, if one has seen or operated a Foto-Player ("Photo-Player"
is really a trade name for a Berkeley, California, manufacturer of
the times!), it's obvious that what would be done on such a pneumatic
instrument could be transferred to an orchestra, which is what happened
with the tom-toms, xylophone, sirens, bells and other effects; larger
movie accompaniment instruments also had reed/pipe organs in side
chests, as well.

If I had the time and funding for another "original" version of "Ballet
Mecanique" I'd secure the largest Foto-Player that could be found for
the project, use my 1991 music roll arrangement and then, with practice,
synchronize the music with piano/percussion/sound effects to a third
film made from old French newsreels by Gaumont and Pathé.

It would be a simple process to assemble a montage motion picture to
the sounds suggested by Antheil's music, as perforated rolls.  You can
"see" the airplanes, the mechanical looms, the steam operated machines
and the rest in this music.  It wouldn't be authentic, but it would
parallel what the composer intended, since the more pianos one adds,
the more the dynamic impulses of the music are destroyed.

A solo pianola in some form solves this problem, and it was where the
idea for the music roll and motion picture work began in the first
place.  Also, the newsreel footage would be from the proper time in
history, so the reconstruction would have the appropriate feel of the
Futuristic/Art Deco movement of that period.

Of course, if that second Murphy motion picture were ever found,
that third (modern) movie wouldn't have to be put together, solving

Douglas Henderson - Artcraft Music Rolls
Wiscasset, Maine, USA

(Message sent Sun 25 Dec 2005, 15:49:21 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  1924, Ballet, Film, Mecanique, Music

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