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MMD > Archives > May 1999 > 1999.05.18 > 01Prev  Next

George Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique"
By Douglas Henderson

Hello MMD readers, from our campsite near Skowhegan, Maine, and run-
ning e-mail at 9600 bytes/second today on the analog cellular 'phone.
I have just downloaded another stack of Internet letters, including
several issues of the Mechanical Music Digest, the latest of which
concerned a posting for "Ballet Mecanique" being given in Cologne,
with two Ampico players in the ensemble.

 [ Horst Mohr sent a correction: Dr. Hocker's Ampicos are a J. & C.
 [ Fischer and a Boesendorfer, both MIDI-controlled grand pianos.
 [ -- Robbie

I was highly involved with the reconstruction of this (mostly misunder-
stood) musical work for almost a decade, plus a premiere performance in
Stockholm for Swedish TV-Radio in 1991; the MMD subscribers might want
some more information on the subject of George Antheil's experimental
film and pianola composition as it was originally conceived in 1924.

There is an interesting parallel between the movie "King Kong" (1933)
and the many versions or adaptations of "Ballet Mecanique" (1924) if
one takes the overview.  RKO Radio Pictures, faced with a series of
financial difficulties in the early 1930's, kept bringing back "King
Kong" for new audiences, approximately every 5 years, until the
studio's ultimate demise in the middle 1950's.  Each time the audience
got a slightly different version of "King Kong" because of the need to
satisfy the Hays Office (the powerful motion picture censors of the
day) and also to shorten the epic because the double feature format had
taken over many of the RKO theatre presentations as the years

First to go was the special Max Steiner soundtrack which was to be
played for a seated audience, before the movie began; Don Rand in Maine
has a copy of this original music on blank 16 mm leader with a sound
track, and it has different themes from the photoplay, all created to
heighten the collective anticipation of the film's beginning.  Next,
the scene with the giant tarantula spiders attacking some explorers was
cut out.

Following that, the segments where Fay Wray swam in what appeared to
be nude were scissored out.  Keep in mind that 1933 was also the year
of the Chicago Fair, with the sensation that stripper Sally Rand made
with her fan and bubble dances!  By the time "King Kong" was re-re-re-
released for RKO double features in 1953, the movie was a short and
disjointed relic of what it had originally been.

Similarly, George Antheil changed his musical performances, stated
goals and constantly "redefined" himself, something which isn't
generally apparent until one does a lot of research and learns to
compare conflicting statements and read between the lines.

The fact is, "Ballet Mecanique" was an attempt to outdo Stravinsky's
"Rite of Spring" (also on Pleyel rolls, and also choppily perforated),
and in 1924 there was a high-tech trend to match original avant-garde
music with the silent cinema.

"Ballet Mecanique" -- which recycled four earlier Antheil compositions,
many played in Berlin a bit earlier -- was adapted to the movies by
numbering what the composer called "Time Space" sections, musical
elements which could be repeated until the next scene appeared on the

Like the RKO Studio, Antheil was always in need of money, and so began
his odyssey by involving Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy and Man Ray into
the audio-visual project.  The work was conceived for a solo pianola
(originally a 2-roll Fotoplayer style of instrument) and a small salon
audience with a movie projector.  For the better part of a year the
piece was shown this way, featuring Pleyel rolls which were botched,
poorly perforated and missing notes by the carload.

Later, when the work was to be taken to the concert hall, a single
pianola would not have been powerful enough, but during this transition
to the theatre many parts of the motion picture (featuring nudity) were
cut out, so as time progressed the rolls didn't match the motion
picture any more.

Antheil then demoted the pianola to a sound-effects machine, or
novelty, and expanded the work for visual aeroplane propellers,
live pianists, door bells and all sorts of what I'd call "junk yard"
elements, something like the Art Deco ancestor of Spike Jones'
recordings of a later period.  (Later revisions on his original
manuscript score reveal instructions such as "Give George a big chord
here" - and so forth.)

This is when you begin to see snide remarks by the composer about the
lack of synchronization: the fact that "Ballet Mecanique" was really a
"Chamber Work" (quoting Antheil), and that the multiple pianos
destroyed the rhythms, and so on.

Later, when the Vitaphone destroyed the novelty of film plus pianola,
Antheil announced that "Ballet Mecanique", as a movie and as an
orchestral piece, were two separate projects sharing the name title.
By his 1953 revision, "Ballet Mecanique" now had jet plane tape loops
replacing the aeroplane motor props and the music was cut down to a
measly 13 minutes, compared to the approximate 30 minutes for the
original solo player piano performances in Paris salons.

To add insult to injury, the preface for his last revision stated that
"no player piano remains which could perform the work", so that he
replaced the pianola for even more keyboard pianists.  The fact was
that the poor English written instructions he gave to French Pleyel,
and their flawed overlap perforating of the music, made it difficult
for _any_ pianola to handle the score, right from the start.  Antheil
was an imaginative composer who didn't really understand "how" the
pneumatic player really operated, viz. what its technical limits really

I suspect that Dr. Hocker was using my Artcraft revised rolls for
"Ballet Mecanique", since he has already purchased several sets, and he
was at the Swedish TV-Radio premiere in Stockholm, back in 1991, when
Anders Wahlgren presented a Dutch tinted print of the movie with two
Aeolian players.  Dr. Hocker was there and wrote me the effect was
"spine tingling", this being the solo pianola version.  (I might note
that producer Wahlgren cut the rolls to fit the censored/truncated
existing motion picture, so this probably destroyed some of the
'balance' inherent in the original Antheil composition for the
mechanical piano _only_.)

At any rate, after this performance the Antheil Estate sent me a copy
of the manuscript score the composer gave to the Pleyel organization,
and that's where I confirmed that whole sections were missing on the
original French rolls and/or many portions were cut incorrectly.  They
also provided me with one of the three rolls with the composer's own
penciled-in annotations on them, indicating that he used soft treble
and soft bass pedals (the hammer rail lifts in the  pedal-operated
models of the Marque Ampico) and he also changed the tempo frequently,
among other things.

The Artcraft version of "Ballet Mecanique" was copyrighted and released
to the general public shortly after the Stockholm premiere, and I spend
about 3 hours editing two three-roll sets frequently, with the Pleyel
score as a guide, along with my own logbook notes.  About 2/3 of the
1991 editions of "Ballet Mecanique" are shipped to Europe, where the
Art Deco composition has a hold on the musical public.  (The original
Pleyel rolls and/or recut copies of them have justifiably disappeared
from the live performance scene!)

When you stop to think about it, both "Ballet Mecanique" and "King
Kong" were each revived for a cash flow problem, again and again, each
a slightly different version, and often with major cuts for a variety
of reasons as stated above.  They both reached their chopped-up "low"
point during the same year, 1953, which was the final orchestration of
the Antheil work.  (A friend of mine, who owns a Duo-Art, has an LP
recording of Antheil, shortly before his death in 1959, conducting one
of these 'condensed' (and my opinion, distorted) revisions with an
orchestra and no player- piano at all.)

If the MMD readers wish to read more about my work on this Antheil
project, go to this URL and scroll down to "Ballet Mecanique":  The whole idea of this
audio-visual project began with my French representative, Douglas
Heffer, who custom builds new Duo-Art instruments from time to time.

While Antheil's music has a certain "machine" effect with the
orchestra, the pianos and the pianola(s), to hear it on a single
player-piano, imitating aeroplanes, heavy machinery, steam engines
and the like is an experience not to be missed.  Everything is in
"precision" rhythmically -- and this is what the composition was all
about.  I feel as if I completed an idea which George Antheil had,
but which never got perforated until The Artcraft Studio was given the
immense project on a commission from Swedish TV-Radio..

If MMD readers would like a gratis copy of the "Pianolist's Guide" for
my roll set, giving much previously unpublished information about this
experimental work, send me a prepaid #10 envelope, and I'll gladly
mail back the treatise which covers the rolls, the 'hidden' history of
"Ballet Mecanique" and how to interpret them on a variety of player
instruments.  My address is given below.  A copy of the "Guide" is
packed with each set of rolls, and I'll send copies, upon request,
to those who submit a stamped envelope until 8-1-99.  (After that time,
one can buy the rolls and get the "Guide" packed in with them!)

You haven't really heard "Ballet Mecanique" until the 1991 version is
played on a solo pianola, the medium for which it was originally
designed.  You haven't seen "King Kong" until you hear Don Rand's
curtain-raiser soundtrack and then one of the restored VHS videotape
prints of the original 1933 movie, though I'm told that the spider
sequence has been lost.  (Stepping on the Skull Island natives and
biting off their heads has now been spliced back into the picture,
however, and it's still a shock to experience, even in this age of
"slasher" movies, in my opinion!)

Regards from Maine,

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

(Message sent Tue 18 May 1999, 04:03:32 GMT, from time zone GMT-0400.)

Key Words in Subject:  Antheil's, Ballet, George, Mecanique

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