Hand out the earplugs, cue the propellers

(Filed: 19/11/1999)

It's taken 73 years to develop the technology to perform George Antheil's bizarre Ballet Mécanique as originally intended. But will it be safe to hear? asks James Langton

FOR the guests who attended the first performance of George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1926, it was an evening they would never forget. While musicians lowered leather straps on poles into fast-revolving fans, one overweight, elderly man opened his umbrella and pretended to struggle against the wind; a protest gesture quickly copied by others.

As the noise threatened to drown the music - no small achievement since it also included blaring air-raid sirens and electric bells - the poet Ezra Pound rose to his feet and denounced the audience with a ringing cry of "Vous êtes tous des imbéciles!"

Afterwards, gangs of militant Surrealists clashed with critics in the streets of Paris in what threatened to become a near riot.

Perhaps it is hardly surprising that the Ballet Mécanique has hardly been performed since, and never in its original form. It is not just the threat of Surrealist boot-boys that challenges promoters. The piece requires no fewer than 16 synchronised pianolas, all on stage at the same time. Purists should also substitute aeroplane propellers for the fans.

This week, however, the half-hour piece will be played for the first time exactly as the conductor intended. Nearly three quarters of a century later, the theatre at the University of Massachusetts will reverberate to Antheil's masterpiece.

This time around, the threat is not from rotund umbrella-wielding ancients but the local health and safety officials. As a precaution, several hundred pairs of earplugs will be handed out before the performance begins. The piece is not known as "the loudest piece of concert music ever recorded" for nothing.

George Antheil's work was originally intended to be the sound-track for a film by the Cubist painter Fernand Léger. He revised it several times for the concert hall, making it more playable. The uncompromising original version has been rescued by Paul Lehrman, a 46-year-old writer, composer and professor of music with an equal passion for electronic music and the unconventional.

Lehrman has harnessed the latest developments in computer technology to overcome the overwhelming obstacles which almost drove Antheil to despair when, at the age of 23, he began writing the work in 1923. "Yes, I'm being paid for this," says Lehrman. "But it is really a labour of love. It brings together everything I have ever done. This is something that has not been possible to perform before."

Antheil was an American from Trenton, New Jersey, who arrived in Paris at a time of extraordinary artistic invention and turmoil. Taking room above the English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, the young pianist rapidly acquired a circle of friends which included the composer Stravinsky, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali and Picasso.

From the first, he wrote music to be played by machines, usually in combination with pianos and percussion. After pioneering aeroplane propellers in an early piece, he wrote triumphantly in an avant-garde magazine that it was: "The first piece of music that has been composed OUT OF and FOR machines, ON EARTH."

But the technicalities of the Ballet Mécanique defeated him. The score, which included 16 pianolas, had to be heavily revised because the difficulties of punching holes in piano rolls so that each would begin playing at exactly the same time proved impossible to overcome. The pianolas were reduced to four for Paris, and then to one.

It was this later version that Antheil took home to America in 1927. By then, the Ballet had received rave reviews in Europe and was eagerly anticipated on the other side of the Atlantic. For the performance at Carnegie Hall, 10 grand pianos were substituted, one played by the composer Aaron Copland. It should have been a triumph. Instead it was a disaster.

To ensure controversy and healthy ticket sales, the American promoters dropped heavy hints of further disturbances in Manhattan, and even hired agents provocateurs. Instead the audience was reduced to peals of laughter.

Much of the machinery went out of control. The fans blew directly into the audience and forced them to hang onto their programmes for dear life. The siren-player failed to realise his instrument needed a minute to warm up and cranked furiously to total silence. At the end, one member of the audience attached a white handkerchief to his cane and waved it in a parody of surrender.

Antheil never recovered from that night, and the horrendous reviews which followed, one of which sneeringly referred to "making a mountain out of an Antheil".

"His one big regret later in life was the way the Carnegie Hall performance was handled," says Lehrman. "It was a debacle. And it completely changed his life. It made it impossible for him to be taken seriously as a composer in America again."

Chastened, the composer returned to Paris where his next work was a more conventional piano concerto. Ironically, the French now derided him for selling out. He moved on to Germany, writing opera to some success. But it was now the early 1930s. Even though he was not Jewish, Antheil found himself on a Nazi blacklist as a "non-Aryan" composer and sensibly decided to go back to the United States.

A curious interlude occurs here. Antheil arrived in Hollywood to work, conservatively, as a film-score composer. In the studios he struck up an improbable friendship with the actress Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr - who still lives as recluse in Florida and last week celebrated her 86th birthday - was then the trophy wife of an Austrian arms manufacturer. With her expertise in the weapons industry and Antheil's knowledge of radio frequencies, the two cooked up a device to guide US Navy torpedoes.

The invention was patented in 1941 and immediately classified top-secret by the American government. Never built, neither Lamarr nor Antheil received a penny. But many years later, their theories became crucial to the development of the mobile phone network.

Antheil died in 1959, having produced a final version of Ballet Mécanique in 1953 - one that is still occasionally performed today. But his original conception seemed lost until a New York music publishing house, J. Schirmer, acquired the publishing rights in the early 1990s.

Lehrman first became aware of Antheil through a music teacher at the age of 15. But it was 30 years later when he received an e-mail from Schirmer asking him to tackle the piece. Eight months have now passed and the Ballet Mécanique is ready to be heard properly for the first time. The University of Massachusetts' performance will include 16 state-of-the-art upright player-pianos from Yamaha. What Lehrman has, and Antheil could never have imagined, is a bank of computer equipment to store the music and play it exactly in sequence.

This is no small task. Antheil's score requires, at times, dozens of notes to be played simultaneously. The tempo is between 120 and 140 beats per minute. From extracts it sounds like an approaching express train. Mere humans must jump out of the way.

Working from a photocopy of Antheil's original score, now kept in the New York Library, Lehrman is ready to reveal the undiluted original. The fans have been replaced with real propellers, recorded at a private airfield in California and stored, like the pianola parts, on MIDI files in Lehrman's computer. The siren is courtesy of the Arlington Fire Brigade. "It worked very well," says Lehrman. "It feels like you are inside the siren."

Such is the interest, that next Thursday's performance is already sold out, with enthusiasts coming from around the world. Schirmer is also making a recording for release on compact disc. Those who lucky enough to have tickets are once again promised an evening they will never forget. "How loud will it be?" says Lehrman. "Much louder than it has ever been heard before."

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