What will the music of the future be? It will be machinery. But silent machinery, dreams, spaces which the heart cannot fill.
When George Antheil was three-years-old, he wanted a piano for his birthday. Instead of a normal-sized one, his parents gifted him a toy version instead. He brought the imposture down to the basement, he said, and smashed it to pieces with a small hatchet.
That violent episode, he recalled years later in a taped interview, was an indication of where his theories of music composition would turn.
With the premiere of his Ballet mecaniqueat the fashionable Theatre de Champs-Elysees on July 19, 1926, the effect was comparable to his demolishing a piano onstage. Parallels were drawn instantly between the performance and the 1913 debut of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which had been met with an equally riotous backlash. However, there was something different about Antheil’s kinetic music. The ballet is a 19-minute glimpse into the latter part of the 20th century. It’s an outrageous stomping titan, with inklings of what the future might sound like: mechanical, sarcastic, hyperactive—simultaneously a warning and a glorifying of technologies to come.
But the audience that night in 1926 wouldn’t even hear the complete version of the work. That event would occur in a Massachusetts auditorium in 1999. Only then was the “mastodon of music”, as one contemporary put it, performed as Antheil intended it. In a slipstream of cause and effect, the Ballet mecanique long predated the technology needed to perform it.
At one of the 8 grand pianos at the premiere was Antheil himself, the man whom Timemagazine would later characterize as “cello-sized”, but the sounds he and the rest of the ensemble were playing could barely be heard above the tumult. Still, you could heard snippets of his frantic machine-age rhythms here and there. It wasn’t until the giant fans whirred on that the performance turned into a fiasco.
In 1920s Paris, with its big artistic spectacles and colossal personalities, Antheil was arguably the foremost enfant terriblein a city teeming with them.
Born in 1900 to the owners of Antheil’s Friendly Shoe Store in Trenton, New Jersey, Antheil studied piano with a protege of Franz Liszt, and then with the composer Ernst Bloch. He practiced at least 16 hours daily, and spent nights curled up with the sheet music of Stravinsky under his pillow, within easy reach.
He came into contact with Dadaism for the first time in New York City, through the artwork of Marcel Duchamp and, most importantly, those by Francis Picabia. His pianistic talent, mixed with unfettered charm and a larger-than-life personality ensured his entrance into important circles. Soon he was cavorting with the likes of Leo Ornstein (he would take Ornstein’s place at a concert and impressed the manager so much that he was offered a touring contract on the spot) and Alfred Stieglitz, along with Margaret Anderson and Joan Heap. Performing regularly on the East Coast, he came to the attention of Mrs. Mary Louise Curtis Bok, then president of the prestigious Philadelphia Settlement Music School.
His repertoire included Debussy and Chopin, along with some of his own short works, like the early Street Sonata, and other ultramodernists. More often than not, his recitals concluded with some kind of riot, which he welcomed and did his utmost to activate. His own music veered into a sort of mechanical Dadaism. Assembly-line repetitions, extreme meter shifts and ostinatos, and other devices that would find total synthesis in his 1921 Airplane Sonata, were already peppering his work. Antheil’s original stuff sounded like it was composed in the form of a blueprint. Critics were harsh, but praised his incredible technique.
Beginning in 1921, Antheil gave concerts across Europe, announcing his presence with Gonzo manifestos praising modern music and his own importance in the creation of a new, industrial sound that would sweep away what he characterized as the cult of Satie, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Ever ready to cause a public stir, he welcomed any kind of bedlam at his performances, and it didn’t matter whether it consisted of angry shouting matches or enthusiastic applause that drowned out the music. Sometimes people threw their chairs at him. On at least one occasion Antheil used a pistol to calm the audience down. His repute was fine-tuned in Europe, says Eric Saltzman in a study of modern music, where Antheil’s “wild-man banging on the piano style” earned him his notoriety.
Antheil stayed in Berlin and in August of 1922, he finally met his idol Stravinsky, and the two became on-again-off-again friends. He also fell in love with Boski Marcus, a woman who’d been involved in the Communist Revolution in Hungary.
He completed three sonatas for violin and piano before a second big move—relocating to Paris with Boski in tow.
“My music,” he said in correspondence with a friend, “Seems to take the color of machinery.”
Antheil brought that elliptical sentiment with him as he networked his way into the nucleus of the French capital’s avant-garde circles. He was not the only American expat-composer in the city: Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions and Virgil Thomson (the Gertrude Stein of tonality) kept company in the same milieu. He and Boski even rented rooms from Sylvia Beach above Shakespeare & Co., a modernist enclave doubling as the small press that had published Ulyssesto worldwide scandal the same year Antheil emigrated from America.
As a composer, his goal was nothing if not ambitious, and would involve, as he put it “a new FOURTH DIMENSION of music”. Exemplified by F.T. Marinetti, that new dimension was the futurist vogue for machine-adoration. Marinetti’s fixation on automated utility and weaponry bordered on the truly psychotic, and in his influential “Futurist Manifesto”, he outlined futurism in near-orgasmic terms. “We want to sing the man at the wheel,” he wrote in Whitmanesque parlance, the aim being a universal philosophy depicting “the beauty of speed”. What the futurists were doing for the visual arts, Antheil set about musicalizing, but without the ideological component espoused by Marinetti’s acolytes.
If the automobile was the idee fixeof the futurists, the player-piano was Antheil’s machine of choice. Player-pianos assumed their modern form in 1905, when music could be notched directly onto piano rolls in binary-like etchings and listened to on repeat using foot pedals. Stravinsky was an early enthusiast, believing that the instrument could replicate and preserve his music more faithfully than a human’s capriciousness.
Antheil’s first works were directly influenced by the technology. Using Mrs. Bok’s money and his newfound friendships with notable modernists, he secured the stage at the Ballet Suedois for the debut of his solo pieces. The focus on factory-like sonics is evident from a cursory look at the program: Airplane Sonata, Death of Machines and Mechanisms. In these brief snapshots of what would become his Ballet mecanique, syncopation stands in for classical development. Echoes of the Great War and mass-production are channeled into music that’s undertaken with Taylorite efficiency. Feral chord-clusters swarm over ragtimey riffs that seem built of cogs and gears. Hints of Scriabin’s arcane sonorities and the vicious progressions of Shostakovich now and then leap out of sounds as inflexible and alienating as waltzing steel.
“The uproar was such,” Boski recounts after the performance, “that nobody could hear much.”
Only a few people were aware that the chaos had been choreographed in advance by the director Marcel L’Herbier, who was shooting a scene for his latest motion picture. Nonetheless, Antheil’s provocative music, driven by his provocative demeanor, was a sensation.
Regardless of anyone’s opinion of him, Aaron Copland was right to claim that “George has Paris by the ear.”
Antheil began composing the Ballet mecaniquein 1923. It was conceived as the soundtrack to a motion picture that was based on Francis Picabia’s 1917 painting “Ballet Mecanique” (it appeared on the cover of his art magazine 391). The silent film was a haphazard collaboration between Ferdinand Leger, the American auteur Dudley Murphy and Man Ray, although Leger’s name would be the one attached to the finished product. Ezra Pound was also connected with the film and was crucial in bringing Antheil onboard.
But his soundtrack turned out to be twice the length of the film and didn’t tally at all with the Dadaist art flickering onscreen. When Ballet Mecaniquepremiered in Vienna in September of 1924, not a snippet of Antheil’s music was included.
Still, it served as the springboard for his musical depiction of a world more and more predicated on technology. Like Leger, who had had a quasi-mystical experience in WWI that led to a conversion to futurism, Antheil was intoxicated about mechanization. Much later he’d claim that the ballet was a warning to his era of the “danger of its own unconscious mechanistic philosophy”. But there’s no denying that his romance with mass-production was a relationship consummated with music.
When he finished his stand-alone ballet at the beginning of 1925, it called for eight pianists playing 4 pianos. That quickly morphed into something more modern and gigantic. Instead of a quartet of pianos, he updated his orchestration to include 16 player-pianos, performed in batches of four groups, with another added as a master keyboard to control those.
Besides the pianolas, the ballet called for 3 xylophones, an electric bells, a siren, 4 unspecified drums, one tam-tam, a couple of traditional pianos and the noise of 2 airplane propellers.
“All percussive,” Antheil noted in a tone as telegraphic as his new work. “Like machines. All efficiency. NO LOVE.”
It’s found art in rhythm, consisting of about 1200 measures of densely-packed synchronized sound. Each quarter note equals an inhumanly fast 152 beats per minute. Additionally, the tempos themselves change dramatically: just in the xylophonic opening, time signatures go from 3/4 to 5/8, back to 3/4, then on to 2/4 before returning to 5/8. From a technical perspective, the piece was so far ahead of its time as to be virtually unplayable without the requisite technology. The ballet wasn’t just a metaphorical dance about machines. It was formachines, and ones that weren’t even close to being invented.
In his autobiography Bad Boy of Music(1945), he writes that it was “a signal of these troubled…times placed in a rocket and shot to Mars.” At first he wanted to call it Message to Mars, but he soon realized that Ballet mecaniquewas the right fit. The title connoted music that was “brutal, contemporary, hard-boiled, symbolic of the super exhaustion, the superathletic, non-sentimental period commencing the Long Armistice.” And the ballet is, despite the influence of Stravinsky and others, like music from another planet.
Despite it’s headlong thrill at automation, the Ballet mecanique is cautionary music, uneasy about the dehumanizing potential of industrialism while screaming its love of all things technological. Antheil’s ballet is a hyperactive piston spinning madly in self-contained frenzy, punctuated with alienating moments of abrupt silence. Simultaneously motionless and bristling with an impassive energy, it sounds like a Vorticist factory landscape, perhaps music that might accompany a Wyndham Lewis painting, or some audio version of a futurist broadside, in “ice blocks of sound”, as Antheil dubbed it. His ballet presented a whole new species of music based on velocity. Like some whirling fulcrum, it’s a white-hot contraption animated by its own inner frictions.
“The vortex is the point of maximum energy,” said Francis Picabia of his “Ballet Mecanique. And that’s also where Antheil’s gearshift dance is poised.
According to Sylvia Beach, the opening of the Ballet mecaniquewas the biggest event in 1920s Paris. Advertised as the next Rite of Spring, it was championed by Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie (his own “Parade” was like a musical soul-mate of the ballet, all Morse code and engines) and especially by Pound, whose promotion of the composer was tireless. Expectations were sky-high, reinforced by the Antheil’s propriety-flouting persona.
First, a truncated version was debuted in front of a large group of Antheil’s closest friends on September 25, 1925, in a posh flat on the rue Rochechouart. The composer himself was absent: as a publicity stunt and impromptu fling, he announced that he was leaving for Africa with a Russian paramour. Attendees watched as a technician from Pleyel’s pumped out the three rolls containing theBallet mecaniqueon a player-piano.
On July 19 of the following year, the public at large finally got to hear what all the hoopla was about. Luminaries of modernism showed up, including T.S. Eliot, the Joyces, Man Ray, Brancusi and the famed dancer Sergei Diaghilev. Mrs. Bok had rented out the theater and enlisted the famed conductor Vladimir Golschmann. Antheil couldn’t marshal the number of player-pianos needed for the event, and in the end replaced them with 8 grand pianos. To mimic the airplane propellers, a leather thong was inserted into an electric fan.
By all accounts, the audience was just biding its time for some minor glitch to necessitate chaos. One man near the front,” the journalist Bravig Imbs relates, “lashed out with his umbrella” when the fans whirred on “and pretended to be struggling against an imaginary gale.” Several others got in on the joke, “until the whole theatre seemed decked out with quite the sprinkling of black mushrooms.” The music that did slip through the hubbub, he goes on, was like “some monstrous abstract beast.” At the height of the chaos, Ezra Pound could be heard loudly complaining that he was surrounded by “imbeciles”.
A third performance was put on in private rooms near the Eiffel Tower, for a more bohemian set. This time, Antheil managed to get his hands on 8 player-pianos, although he still couldn’t get them synched. Golschmann stood on one of them to direct the musicians. Rumors circulated that guests, whipped into a bacchanal by the strange mechanical sounds, swung from chandeliers and drank ludicrous amounts of champagne.
Considering the furor caused by the Ballet mecanique, it’s not surprising that the music’s next stop was America, the land of spectacle. Donald Friede, an adman, brought Antheil to New York City in 1927 to overseer the North American premiere. The ensuing advertising frenzy oversaturated the work’s novelty far above it’s radical designs. Troublemakers bought tickets just to kickstart a riot.
The concert was a debacle. Musicians used to playing Mozart and Dvorak were indignant about the newfangled ballet, and performed insipidly. The siren was late in going off and, worst of all, the fans were aimed squarely into the audience, knocking hats everywhere. One critic afterwards summed up the evening by laying the blame on the marketers, who’d “tried to make a mountain out of an Antheil.”
Antheil was embittered by his ballet’s American premiere, swearing off what he called his “time structured rather than tonal” style. But even before that he was following in Stravinsky’s footsteps toward neoclassicism. He wouldn’t compose anything remotely like Ballet mecanique again. His shift away from the avant-garde to a sort of collage romanticism was as shocking to his defenders as his earlier futurism had been to general audiences.
When his Piano Concerto No. 1 debuted in Paris while he was in NYC, people came to experience the shock-value of his latest groundbreaking work. Instead, they were treated to an angrily virtuosic showpiece. Hectic with wild transitions, the concerto is a pastiche of perverted jazz, proto-Romantic angst and Eastern European folk songs, with entire sections of Stravinsky’s Petruchkaand The Ritetossed in. It’s a pissed-off hodgepodge of noise that sounds like Antheil casting away the influences that were so integral in creating his ballet. Listening to it is like flipping through classical music stations on the radio, careening between savage disharmonies and sentimental tunes.
He returned to America for good in 1936, settling in Los Angeles. His pieces from the period course with jazz. He composed a Jazz Symphonyand a “Jazz Sonata”, as well as more conventional symphonies and concertos that, at times, seem like show-tunes from obscure musicals. He found time to dash off opinion pieces for Esquireand even wrote a study of endocrinology, while working on film scores for Ben Hecht.
In 1940 he was put in touch with bombshell inventor Hedy Lamar, who needed an acoustician to help out on an invention of hers that involved torpedoes and radio signals. They came up with frequency hopping spread spectrum, a technology that scrambled radar frequencies when intercepted by enemy radiomen. It was undoubtedly Antheil who came up with the idea of tabulating between frequencies using a player-piano roll.
But the Ballet mecaniquehad to wait for the future to arrive in the form of a slew of technological innovations in order for the world to intersect with Antheil’s vision. He revised the ballet to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience, but the stomping titan of the original would not be performed until the tail-end of the 20th century. Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) made that possible; with the technology the player-pianos could be synchronized with a sequencer that played back the musical files and the recorded machinery. In 1999, in a Massachusetts concert hall, George Antheil’s original 1926 ballet was finally performed.
Antheil would probably have been tickled, and a little horrified that, due to the complicated interconnectivity of the player-pianos and his elaborate rhythms, the software set the pace of the Ballet mecaniquewhile the conductor followed its lead. Machines had finally taken over the music.