Musical bad boy’s mechanical dreams come true at Blair

chaplin2Danger, Will Robinson! Evil robots are taking over the Blair School of Music.

Actually, the robots in question are fairly benevolent microprocessor-driven player pianos. These automated keyboards won’t be posing any real threats, though they will be playing the work of a bona-fide musical bad boy.

On Sunday evening, a stage full of artificially intelligent pianos will play Ballet mécanique, a jackhammer of a piece written in 1924 by the American composer George Antheil. Blair’s percussion ensemble Vortex will accompany the cyber-pianos. The performance, at Ingram Hall, will serve as a live soundtrack for a delightfully kinetic 1924 silent film by artist Fernand Léger and cinematographer Dudley Murphy. The 16-minute Dadaist film shows a rush of images, including an appropriately mechanical looking illustration of Charlie Chaplin.

“The music and film were originally intended to be performed together,” says Michael Holland, Vortex’s artistic director. “But the composer and filmmakers weren’t able to get the music and film in sync during Antheil’s lifetime. It’s a real treat to be able to see it now.”

AntheilBorn in Trenton, N.J. in 1900, Antheil became one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic musical figures. He began playing piano at age six and studied for a while with a Philadelphia-based pedagogue named Constantin von Sternberg. He also worked briefly with the composer Ernest Bloch.

But for the most part, Antheil appears to have been a largely self-taught musician. He developed a piano style that was percussive and decidedly anti-Romantic.

Similarly, he composed music that celebrated the industrial age – his early works boasted titles such as Airplane Sonata and Sonata Sauvage.

This was the music of a rebel, and Antheil, who looked like a young James Cagney, went out of his way to cultivate the image of a maverick. When he finally penned his autobiography in 1945, he titled it (what else?) “The Bad Boy of Music.”

Like many American composers of his generation, Antheil emigrated to Europe after World War I, eventually settling in Paris. He became friends with the writers James Joyce and Ezra Pound. He also met Igor Stravinsky, who apparently found Antheil’s music to be somewhat underwhelming.

Stravinsky’s opinion seemed to have little impact on Antheil, who intended to duplicate the Russian’s Parisian success. Stravinsky jolted the musical establishment with the 1913 Paris premiere of his Le Sacre du Printemps. In the words of Aaron Copland, Antheil set out to “outsack the Sacre,” and so in 1924 he began working on Ballet mécanique.

It’s not known today what came first – Murphy and Léger’s idea for a film or Antheil’s plan for a mechanical ballet score. What is known is that once conceived, Antheil’s goal was to compose a score of staggering complexity.

His initial plan was for a piece arranged for two pianos, three xylophones, four bass drums, tam tam, siren, electric bells, three airplane propellers and 16 synchronized pianolas – or player pianos – playing four parts.

Of course, the technology needed to synchronize that many pianolas didn’t exist in the mid-1920s. So Antheil simplified the score so that all four pianola parts could be played on a single player piano. The premiere of the piece took place in August 1925 on a single pianola without percussion, siren and airplane sounds. Since the 28-minute score was substantially longer than the 16-minute film, the music was performed alone.

The first performance of Ballet mécanique with player piano, percussion and sound effects took place in June 1926 at the Théàtre Champs-Elysées, the same venue where Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a near-riot 13 years earlier. The performance elicited boos and cheers, exactly the kind of attention the publicity-hungry Antheil craved.

Antheil’s luck ran out the next year, when he presented Ballet mécanique at Carnegie Hall. Everything about the performance was a disaster. Industrial fans – used to create propeller sounds – were pointed at the audience, which sent programs and toupees flying. The American composer and critic Deems Taylor reportedly raised a white handkerchief on the end of his cane as a sign of surrender.

But Ballet mécanique wasn’t taking prisoners. The New York City Fire Department provided the ensemble with a hand-cranked siren. No one bothered to tell the percussionist, however, that the siren needed a minute to warm up. Worse, no one mentioned that the blasted thing wouldn’t play on cue, and that once it built up enough torque, it wouldn’t turn off. The siren’s anguished wail was still sounding after the last disgusted patron left the hall.

“The Carnegie Hall performance was an absolute travesty,” says Holland. “Antheil’s career never recovered.”

Antheil eventually moved to Hollywood, where he enjoyed some success as a film composer. After the Carnegie Hall fiasco, he never composed another mechanical piece. He did, however, revisit Ballet mécanique, rearranging the piece for standard pianos in 1953. That version was played for the rest of the 20th-century, while the original arrangement was forgotten. Antheil died in 1959.

The rebirth of Ballet mécanique happened in the late 1990s, when the executor of Antheil’s estate, composer Charles Amirkhanian, turned over the rights to Antheil’s music to the publisher G. Schirmer. Bill Holab, head of the publishing division, realized that Ballet mécanique could now be played the way Antheil intended, using a computer interfaced with microprocessor-controlled player pianos.

PaulLehrmanHolab asked the composer and music technology expert Paul Lehrman if he’d be interested in converting Antheil’s score into a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file. Lehrman jumped at the chance. “Opportunities like that don’t come along very often,” Lehrman said in a recent phone interview.

scoreUsing both the engraved score and Antheil’s handwritten manuscript, Lehrman painstakingly entered every one of Antheil’s notes into his computer. “There’s a lot of repetition in the score, which allowed me to do some cutting and pasting,” Lehrman says.

When he was done, he surrounded himself with four Kurzweil micropianos and played back the music. “That was an extraordinary thrill,” says Lehrman. “I realized that I was the first person in history to hear this piece the way it was intended to be heard. Not even Antheil got to hear that.”

Lehrman’s historic realization of the original orchestration was premiered on Nov. 18, 1999 at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. In the years since, Lehrman has created several other versions of the piece.

In 2000, he created a version that was synchronized to Léger and Murphy’s film. That edition was too fast for humans to play, so two years later he produced a new (and manageable) score for both player pianos and percussionists. That version, with sampled siren and airplane propeller sounds, will be played along with the film at Blair on Sunday night.

Sunday’s performance will feature 13 Vortex percussionists playing along with eight Yamaha Disklaviers – about $300,000 worth of automated grand pianos, says Holland. The keys and hammers of these pianos all move during the performance, as if played by invisible pianists. “You’re going to see some pretty jaw-dropping robotics,” says Holland.

Photo Credits:

Charlie Chaplin image from Ballet mécanique, filmmakers Léger/Murphy, used by courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.

George Antheil: Photo courtesy of the estate of George Antheil, The Other Minds Archives and

Paul Lehrman: Photo by Evan Kafka.

Ballet mécanique manuscript: Courtesy of George Antheil Estate and Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.


Vortex performs George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique. The program will also feature the music of Henry Cowell and John Cage, among others. The concert is 8 p.m. Sunday, April 7 at Ingram Hall, 2400 Blakemore Ave. A robotics, music and new media art exhibition will be on display in the Ingram Lobby at 7 p.m. Admission is free.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.


  1. CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece misstated the kind of equipment Paul Lehrman used to play back the music. He used four Kurzweil micropianos.