George Antheil was quite a character in the music of the first half of the last century. He authored a book, Bad Boy of Music, which is still in print. He was at the noisy premiere riot of The Rite of Spring in Paris and reported that he wasn’t a bit concerned for himself because he had a loaded pistol in his pocket. After moving to Hollywood to escape the Nazi, like so many other composers in Europe, he continued his career writing scores for the movies.
His Ballet Mecanique of 1924 was originally written to accompany a Dadaist film in which Fernand Léger participated. In its public performance he intended to shake things up by creating a work which was more to look at than to hear, which parodied the trend for “industrialized music” and broke many of the rules of what classical music should really be. It is scored for 16 pianolas (a sort of low-budget version of the Welte-Mignon Vorsetzer), two standard pianos, three xylophones, seven electric bells, three propellers, a siren, four bass drums and one tam-tam. That’s why some called it more of a work to be seen than to be heard. It is relentlessly loud and cacophonous, with over 600 time signature changes in it. At the New York premiere the person operating the siren goofed and it wasn’t heard until everyone was leaving and the concert was over, and the work was considered a colossal failure. Antheil was the most famous American musician in Europe at the time.
Due to new technology that now makes Antheil’s original vision possible, a new performance first took place in Germany in 1996, and had 13 more performances. That has been further refined by G. Schirmer, which has published MIDI sequences and samples on a CD-ROM along with the score and parts. Two grand pianos were custom-modified using a MIDI sequence file which was created by running copies of the original rolls made for the Pleyel pianola thru an optical scanner. The many errors in the rolls for the single pianola were reconstructed from Antheil’s written score by Paul Lehrman and Dr. Jürgen Hocker and have been used for most performances since the 1990s. The “bell-box” is also MIDI-controlled and there is a custom click track the conductor hears over headphones to keep everything together.
So what’s it like? Much more accurate than earlier recordings of the work but still a noisy rout. Being in hi-res surround makes it more of a spatial experience; otherwise I probably wouldn’t have wanted to hear it again, frankly. The note booklet is a kick.
A Jazz Symphony is quite a contrast to the ballet. Paul Whiteman had commissioned it in 1925 for his second Experiment in Modern Music concert in Carnegie Hall—the first of which premiered Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It didn’t make it for that concert, but was later performed in Carnegie Hall by the “all-Negro” W.C. Handy Orchestra (Handy got a more experienced conductor to lead it) with Antheil as the piano soloist. It borrows from Rhapsody in Blue—Antheil was known for blatant quoting other well-known music in his works. Stravinsky and Scott Joplin get some notes in this one, and the 13-minute work ends most oddly with a Viennese waltz.
Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project are doing some wild and wonderful things in new and previously un-heard music and this is one of them.