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MMD > Archives > December 1999 > 1999.12.26 > 01Prev  Next

"Ballet Mecanique" in Book 'Everybody Was So Young'
By Douglas Henderson

Hello MMD Readers,  As those of you who read my critique know (published
in this newsletter immediately after the November 18, 1999 concert in
Lowell MA involving 16 soft-playing Disklavier players, and climaxing
with George Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique") I have been involved with this
subject for many years, and always seek new information on the elusive
topic of the experimental pianola-film composition.

In Amanda Vaill's book on the Murphys, entitled 'Everybody Was So Young'
(Broadway Books, NY, 1998), on page 189, there is a very interesting
reference to this particular work.  I have always claimed that this
music was in flux, being experimental, and also the companion motion
picture film.  (Sarah and Gerald Murphy circulated in the Parisian
salon society of the 1920s, and were part of the scene involving Ernest
Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others
in the music scene, including Sergei Prokofieff, Virgil Thompson, Aaron
Copeland, Igor Stravinsky and George Antheil.)

In this text about the Murphys' period during the 1920s, the author
quotes a discussion with Hemingway in which it was deemed that "ballet
is as dead as the theatre."  Next, there was a proposal to stage a
ballet in which goggled construction workers in overalls and "young
toughs in Apache clothes" dashed about a set composed of girders, cranes
and warehouses.  Then, a new medium was suggested ...

This is when Ferand Leger enters the scene, as a film collaboration
was now being discussed.  The book refers to the fact that Leger
had already made (quote) "a cinematic version of George Antheil's
'Ballet Mecanique' featuring a piano and the usual array of noise-
makers."  The author writes that this took place in 1924 and that
there were many versions, including the film which was "either recut
or shot" as changes were made.  The text implies that a second version
of the "Ballet Mecanique" movie was made sometime during the Spring
of 1927 -- not in the Murphy's Studio, but at another address given
as rue Froidevaux.  The two interesting points are these:

1) One piano -- not 4 or 16 -- appears to be the primary instrument used
with the percussion and sound effects.  This could have been Antheil
at the keyboard of a conventional pianoforte, drawing fragments of his
four earlier piano pieces (mentioned in my previous MMD postings), or a
Pianola with part of the performance on a music roll and other sections
played by hand, or a multiple-roll spoolbox Fotoplayer style of piano,
and a host of other combinations.  What's significant here is that one
piano was carrying the load in the early days of "Ballet Mecanique";

2) The motion picture (and it appears that two versions were made)
was recut and reshot any number of times, since the book refers to
"many versions" of the George Antheil music.

This confirms what I've said for years, that the movie and its matching
music rolls (or the keyboard piano solo - depending upon the situation)
were in flux all the time.

There was no one "end all" version of this particular work.  Each
audio-visual presentation was an experiment in itself, in keeping with
the other talents of the times.

I also found it interesting that the references to a "ballet in a
new medium" involved heavy machinery, industrial locations and working
class people including "young toughs", to quote this author.

Thus, my plea, going back many years, for a new motion picture, made
from old Pathe, Movietone, Gaumont and other newsreels and industrial
films, should be considered when presenting "Ballet Mecanique" as the
musical, visual experience it was originally designed be.

The 1925 Pleyel score, which I used when making the 1991 reconstructed
Pianola version from scratch, courtesy of the Antheil Estate, had the
"time space" (movie scene) numbers moved about to match the ever-
changing motion picture (singular or plural, as the case might be!).
Similarly, George Antheil revised and changed his Salon presentations
during that particular pre-Vitaphone movie era.

One piano, a changing film and score, and "a new medium ballet"
featuring lower class workers and even "toughs" -- this whets the

Knowing how exciting and vibrant my version on a pneumatic player piano
can be, without the movie, I still hope to see the day when old movie
footage can be united with the sounds clearly suggested by the score:
aeroplane motors, steam engines, mechanical looms and the other elements
associated with much of Leger's art work.

This fascinating narrative has been very well researched, but the
"one piano" and "changing score and movie" elements jumped right off
the page when I read them.

Regards from Maine,

Douglas Henderson
Artcraft Music Rolls

(Message sent Mon 27 Dec 1999, 05:02:20 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Ballet, Book, Everybody, Mecanique, So, Was, Young

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