Big Bang: music of Antheil, Varèse, and Harrison
This performance earns a near perfect score for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) It’s not often that we hear George Antheil’s notorious Ballet Mécanique, partly because it is scored for sixteen synchronized player pianos. Back when Antheil wrote it, there was no way these speedy automatons could be synchronized; but now, in the electronic age, they can be. And they were. While this performance featured only eight player pianos, they effectively produced the intense sound Antheil could only dream about. For those who’ve never seen them before in concert, it is a sight to behold these daffy instruments advancing the music with bold raucous energy. The pace of the piece starts fast and the dynamic is stuck at loud, but the tone is only slightly cacophonous. None of this ever lets up. A boisterous siren interrupts at unexpected moments and sometimes sounds off for a shrill thirty seconds.
Long before Béla Viktor, János Bartók exploited the percussive power of the piano, there was George Antheil. Just to underscore his point about pianos, there are two standard ones, adding to the din. Towards the end, an alarm clock and an airplane engine (prerecorded, unfortunately) sounded off. I was surprised that the airplane propeller was so underwhelming; I suspect the sight of a real one in on stage would have significantly added to its effect. Oddly, for a controversial piece, the rhythm in Ballet Mécanique is actually quite measured and logical. The xylophone and piano melodies are satisfying and even resolve in a well-behaved fashion. Still, they do remind me of galloping horses. Late in the piece there is a synchronized sequence between player piano and percussion that commands attention; it is so well performed that one wonders why Antheil didn’t write more pieces like this. His later work took a conservative turn (although his Second Piano Concerto is a marvelous piece that should be in the repertoire). There is a hilarious sputtering finale between alarm clock, player pianos, and airplane with fitful starts and stops. Then the piece has several false endings. Then it suddenly ends with a two second tutti.
With Edgar Varèse’s Ionization, what first grabs the ear is the siren. Then the accompanying percussion. The work features the expansion and variation of rhythmic cells. The title refers to the ionization of molecules, for Varèse claimed, “I was not influenced by composers as much as by natural objects and physical phenomena.” So many types of percussion are involved here: those whose pitch is indefinite and hard to measure, like the bass drum, snare drum, wood blocks, and cymbals; those of palpable musical pitch like the piano and chimes; and finally, those of shifting pitch, like the sirens and the roars of some redoubtable beast(s) in the background. How it must have shocked the Rudy Vallées and Bing Crosby’s of 1931, if they’d ever stooped to listen to music outside the band wagon. But they can’t be blamed for its lack of acceptance back then. It’s still contemporary today. As long as there are clanging buzzing, screeching, and siren-blasting sounds filling city life like smoke, wind and dust, there’ll be Edgar Varèse’s Ionization.
I’ll have to stand outside the crowd here and proclaim that Lou Harrison’s perfectly likeable and often charming Coro Sutra didn’t really belong on this program. Chalk it up to a slight miscalculation in program selection. About the only thing it had in common with Antheil and Varèse was its collection of bizarre instruments like gamelans and sawed-off oxygen tanks; however, these instruments were played so gently they were overshadowed by the hundred choristers singing Harrison’s conservative amalgam of medieval polyphony and oriental vocal music. It’s actually more of a late twentieth century Buddhist countercultural event than a wow-inducing piece of 1930’s arcana. It contrasted rather jarringly with the two truly groundbreaking works. Of course it was nice to hear it, and it was performed quite splendidly by Andrew Clark’s Providence Singers. But it belonged on a different venue, perhaps on a different plane altogether.