Ballet Mécanique  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ballet Mécanique (1924) was a project by the American composer George Antheil and the filmaker/artist Fernand Léger which premiered in Vienna on September 24 1924. Although the film was intended to use Antheil's score as a soundtrack, the two parts were not brought together until the 1990s. As a composition, Ballet Mécanique is Antheil's best known and most enduring work. It remains famous for its radical style and instrumentation as well as its storied history.

In concert performance, the "ballet" is not a show of human dancers but of mechanical instruments. Among these, player pianos, airplane propellers, and electric bells stand prominently onstage, moving as machines do, and providing the visual side of the ballet. As the bizarre instrumentation may suggest, this was no ordinary piece of music. It was loud and percussive –- a medley of noises, much as the Italian Futurists envisioned new music of the 20th century. To explore a fascinating artifact of modernist music like Ballet Mecanique, it is worth understanding its history and also its musical qualities.

Ballet Mécanique as a score

Ballet Mécanique was originally written to accompany a Dadaist film of the same name, directed by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger with cinematography by Man Ray. Antheil himself was not a Dadaist, though he had many friends and supporters in that community. Unfortunately, the score ended up being 30 minutes long while the film was only 16 minutes long. The film premiered on 24 September 1924 in Vienna presented by Frederick Kiesler, later a world-famous architect. Meanwhile, Antheil's music for Ballet Mécanique became a concert piece, premiered by Antheil himself in Paris in 1926.

In 1927, Antheil arranged the first part of the Ballet for Welte-Mignon. This piano-roll was performed on 16 July 1927 at the "Deutsche Kammermusik Baden-Baden 1927". Unfortunately, these piano rolls are now thought to be lost.

The original orchestration called for 16 player pianos (pianolas) in four parts, 2 regular pianos, 3 xylophones, 7 electric bells, 3 propellers, siren, 4 bass drums, and 1 tam-tam. As it turned out, there was no way to keep so many pianolas synchronized, so early performances used a re-orchestration with 1 pianola and 10 pianos.

In 1953, Antheil wrote a shortened version for four pianos, four xylophones, two electric bells, two propellers, timpani, glockenspiel, and other percussion. The original orchestration was first realized in 1999, when the University of Massachusetts, Lowell Percussion Ensemble performed it using MIDI-controlled Disklaviers.

The score and film were successfully combined in 2000 by Paul Lehrman. It is available in the DVD set Unseen Cinema released in October 2005. The featured film print is the original version, premiered in Vienna on 24 September 1924 by Frederick Kiesler.

A Musical Analysis

The Ballet is hard to surmise from just looking at the score -- one must hear it to get a real sense of its chaos. It moves frighteningly quickly, up to 32nd notes at tempo (quarter = 152). It sounds like an onslaught of confusing chords, punctuated by random rings, wails, or pauses. The meter rarely stays the same for more than three measures, distracting from the larger form of the music and instead highlighting the driving rhythms. However, the piece is definitely structured in a sonata rondo.

The sonata rondo form follows an [AB] [A’C] [A’’B’’] [Coda] pattern, where A is a first theme, B is a second theme, and C is a middle section loosely related to A and B:

A – Theme 1 starts at the beginning of the piece. It is easily identified by the oscillating melody in the xylophones. It moves through rhythmic and intervallic variations until a bridge into the next theme (measure 38 in the original scoring).

B – Theme 2 (m77) features the pianolas, supported by drums. The melody is mostly built from parallel series of consonant chords, sometimes sounding pentatonic but often making no tonal sense at all. Antheil uses pianolas for things that would be difficult for human players (a 7-note chord at m142, for example).

A’ – Xylophones return in triple meter to recall Theme 1 (m187). This is not strictly a repeat of Theme 1 but another variation and development upon it. This section descends into increasing chaos (starting m283) which signals a transition into part C (m328).

C – The xylophones and pianolas play a new tune. They stay in better rhythmic agreement here and give a more ordered feel to this section. The xylophones eventually cut out to make way for a serene pianola passage.

A’’B’’ – The xylophones return (m403) with the theme from the beginning. There are differences from the original AB part, including new bitonal passage (m530) and miniature round (m622) between xylophones and pianolas. The pentatonic melody, hinted in part B, returns (m649) and gets developed in the context of the round.

Coda – A startling change occurs when all instruments cut out except for a lone bell (m1134). This signals the beginning of a very long and thinly textured coda. It alternates between irregular measures of complete silence and pianola with percussion. The measures of silence get longer until the listener begins to wonder whether the piece is already over. Finally, there is a crescendo of pianola, a flurry of percussion and a bang to mark the real ending. The score indicates the last measure of the piece to be ended with the pianos and drums only, but modern performances have the xylophones joining back in and doubling the melody of the pianolas to create a more firm, solid, and recognizable ending.

The Mechanics of the Ballet

The mechanical pianos keep the tempo strictly at (quarter = 152). Interestingly, all longer rests in the pianola part are notated in 8th rests, as if to suggest the exactness of the instrument. At this rate, the 1920’s pianola played 8.5 feet per minute of paper rolls over three rolls. This logistical nightmare was allegedly caused by a manufacturing error on the rolls, which doubled Antheil’s suggested tempo. Antheil chose not to fix the “error.”

Airplane propellers had actually made their stage debut in Antheil’s earlier success, the Airplane Sonata. In the Ballet, perhaps for entertainment value, Antheil decided to aim the propellers to blow into the audience. Based on published critiques, Parisians seemed reasonably amused, while the Americans at Carnegie Hall were quite put off by it.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Ballet Mécanique" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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