"Ballet Mécanique"

The Experimental PIANOLA+Film composition by George Antheil

Editorial and Review of a 16-Piano recent concert version by L. Douglas Henderson
February 28, 2000

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Preface to The Nov. 1999 concert review

    The following article was written only hours after attending a performance of BALLET MECANIQUE in Lowell, Mass., November of 1999. The review — admittedly biased in favour of the pneumatic Player-Piano (Pianola), since the music was originally composed for an instrument in this medium plus a silent motion picture — was written from the viewpoint of the mechanical piano.

    This is where the work began, as a "machine composition" performed by a musical mechanism. With the aspect of the cinéma, the "ballet" as it were, was totally machine-oriented, from the pneumatics striking piano keys to the surreal images envisioned for the motion picture which was to accompany the Pianola in many Paris Salon settings during the 1924-1926 period.

    The writer has had decades of experiece with both the original (and highly flawed) 1925 French rolls made by the Pleyel Co. plus has spent untold hours reconstructing "the composer's intent" in creating a 1991 version of the music roll performance. This copyrighted edition was commissioned by Swedish TV-Radio and performed in Stockholm, for a broadcast involving 2 Aeolian players and a version of the motion picture bearing the same name. Shortly after that, armed with several Antheil scores — including the Pleyel manuscript, supplied by the composer's Estate — an entirely new and exciting version of BALLET MECANIQUE was released. For the first time a single Pianola could execute the effervescent staccato chords that the composition demanded, and the muddy, overlapping perforations of the original arrangement were truly a thing of the past.

The new BALLET MECANIQUE can be ordered only from ARTCRAFT Music Rolls. (A complete description of the 3-Roll Set can be found on this Web page — Ballet Mécanique - 88-Note Roll Set . This text is also linked to a fascinating Internet page group by Chris Beaumont, one of the composer's two sons.)

    The concert review that follows first appeared in The Mechanical Music Digest, an Internet publication for Player-Pianos and related instruments. We are taking the liberty of re-introducing the concert critique in its original form, as submitted since the Yamaha of America people, maker of the solenoid-operated MIDI player called the Disklavier have just published another totally "revisionist" article on the subject of BALLET MECANIQUE in their Accent Magazine, Vol. 36, 2000 - pages 3 and 4.

    Once again the pneumatic Player-Piano, which could handle this music so effectively is dismissed, with references to "making do with a single pianola" ... and once more we read that George Antheil composed BALLET MECANIQUE for "sixteen synchronized player-pianos" ... a statement which has not been supported by any old photographs, writings by the composer (and his contemporaries) or any other source apart from the realm of contemporary 'hearsay'.

    The Diskalvier players at the Lowell, Mass. concert were barely audible, wimping along with broken chords and partial piano scales. If one knows ANYTHING about serial computers running solenoids, it's that a piece composed for 31-Note staccato chords in unsion is beyond the limit of these instruments ... better suited as background music devices in restaurants and shopping malls. The live percussionists and electronic keyboards "carried the weight" in this overhyped and essentially lackluster concert which mainly sold itself on the strength of 16 "synchronized Diskalviers" performing this work (quote) "for the first time ever!"

    The MIDI instruments were not sycnrhonized, when one could hear them ... and the pneumatic Player-Piano is still the most efficient and sparkling manner in which to perform this work: as a solo instrument — or in concert with a variety of live pianists and added percussion devices.

    A "road show" of this new Disklavier version will be taking place at Carnegie Hall in April 2000 and later in San Francisco CA in June of this year.

    It is hoped that this article, plus a study of the superb Maurice Peress CD recording of BALLET MECANIQUE (Musical Heritage Society: #513891L) along with its well-researched jacket notes, will clear the air of the "smoke and mirrors" surrounding this on-going Disklavier campaign about "what the Pianola can't do".

    The pneumatic player, running the new ARTCRAFT-Antheil Set of rolls, is nothing short of exciting. Watching 16 pathetic solenoid players botching the staccato, rolling the chords and playing in total about as loud as one leaky Pianola is NOT what this Art Deco music was all about.

    Moreover, the composition was "experimental". There was no one way to perform it, instrumentally or in its intended audio-visual fashion with the original motion picture.

    Justification for our article is confirmed when one reads these lines in Accent Magazine:

The original version was never realized ... until now.
The technology of the Yamaha Disklavier has finally made it possible
to synchronize all the instruments needed
to play the musical masterpiece in its original entirety.
This is the first ever performance of George Antheil's
Ballet Mécanique
in its original instrumentation.

You, the reader, might disagree with this writer, but the presence of MIDI-controlled solenoid players, electronic keyboards and other 'extension cord' gadgetry did not exist in the composer's day. He thought in terms of the motion picture projector and the solo Pianola ... with added xylophones, keyboard pianos and sound effects as needed. (Much of attributes were built into the Fotoplayer© instruments of the day, combining multiple rolls in an upright Player-Piano with organ pipes, tympani and the same sound effects featured in many orchestral versions of the work.)

    The Disklavier people cannot support the word "original" with respect to this electronic player + electronic keyboard version. It's just another in a long string of revivals, and from the Player-Piano point of view, not very memorable ... at least in the 16-piano Disklavier version we experienced in Lowell, Mass.

L. Douglas Henderson - ARTCRAFT Music Rolls
Wiscasset, ME 04578 USA
February 28, 2000

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Disklavier "Ballet Mécanique" concert review: 11-19-99

Published originally in the Mechanical Music Digest

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    The Disklavier concert - featuring George Antheil's BALLET MECANIQUE - lived up to my expectations.


    Before commenting on last night's performance, let me mention how this particular composer and his experimental work have been a part of my life - in varying degrees - for almost a Half Century.

    Admittedly, this review of the November 18, 1999 concert at Durgin Hall at the Universal of Massachusetts Lowell, will be a bit biased - and for several reasons. First, I have floated in and out of subjects involving composer Antheil since the early 1950s ... back in the days before Charles Amirkhanian lived on my paper route and I was associating with Dale and Sally Lawrence who were player roll enthusiasts; the couple eventually crossed paths with him in the early 1970s - via KPFA, the Berkeley independent radio station. This meeting led to two things: 1) a presentation of BALLET MECANIQUE in the San Francisco area using the truncated movie and pneumatic Player-Pianos; 2) Mr. Amirkhanian starting 'The Antheil Press' which licensed the old original '25 Pleyel music rolls for concert purposes, as well as other activities concerning the preservation and publishing of the author's scores. It was during his time that the Lawrences made open reel tapes for Charles Amirkhanian to use for his copyrights (via their Ampico player piano) - copies of which they, being lifelong friends, sent to me in Maine - where I moved in the 1960s.

    Nothing much came of the BALLET MECANIQUE subject until collector and film enthusiast Roger Baffer invited me to his home in Woolwich, in the very late 1960s ... where he had planned on using a solenoid player (the 'vorsetzer' version of the Pianocorder) with a print of the 8mm movie film he had. That project was never completed, but he had "sound striped" the motion picture and 'fitted' portions of the '53 LP recording, made under the auspices of the composer - a short 12 minute version with the tapes of jet plane engines.

    At the time I was very disappointed, since movie - while synchronized quite well on the 8mm+magnetic film combination - was a 'tricksy party' film and had little to do with the heavy machinery aspects associated with the art of Léger and the music of Antheil, a bit later on. However, the "time space" concept - developed by Antheil - of having repeating patterns which can be cut or stretched to 'fit' a particular motion picture sequence were obvious ... and with the right kind of movie the audio would complement the visual.

    The Lawrences' involvement in a Pianola+film presentation was mentioned above, so we'll skip up to the late 1980s, when recuts of the ratty and flawed French '25 roll Sets began to be produced for some foreign stage performances. I happened to know the people who did this work - having a lunch in Sedalia, Mo. at a Ragtime Festival at the time - and asked about the rolls. My impression was the the roll duplicator screwed up his face when he heard the title.

    In the late 1980s, my French representative - Douglas Heffer - acquired Rolls I and II, sending Xeroxed copy sheets of them (which I can "read" on my equipment) - and proposed a revival of BALLET MECANIQUE, involving director Anders Wahlgren and Swedish TV-Radio. Originally, they wanted me to recut the original rolls "as is" while I had friends with access to the '53 orchestral score ... and the plan was to use the Lawrences' copyright tapes made for the Antheil Estate, a metronome and the last revision to 'reconstruct' Roll III, which I could have done -- but at very great expense.

    Eventually, an original roll (with George Antheil's pencilled-in annotations was sent to me by the Estate) ... and by that time I had discovered missing notes, wrong striking effects and a host of other factors which made the Pleyel version rather unsatisfactory on any pneumatic player instrument. The main problem was that this roll was created - as was common in the industry - by "laying out the notation" on graph paper, what I choose to call "sheet music transfer". Most old rolls are of this vein, and they have contributed to the stereotype of players being droning, boring instruments ... because the pianoforte is being operated as if an organist were pressing the keys. (My method of cutting - Interpretive Arranging - developed in the 1950s - graduates the perforation lengths down to a 128th of a note [that's five flags on each symbol] ... and this, in turn, lets me control the crispness of staccato playing, something which is totally absent on the typical formula rolls of the past, including the French set of Antheil's music.)

    The Stockholm performance took place on March 2, 1991, using a tinted '26 Dutch print of the movie BALLET MECANIQUE plus my reconstructed roll arrangement, being played with 2 matching Aeolian upright players. [Note: the rolls were cut to 'fit' the truncated movie of today, in order to achieve synchronization.] Dr. Juergen Hocker attended this performance and wrote me shortly thereafter that "your arrangement was electric and spine-tingling".

    During my reconstruction of the composer's original intent, admittedly slanted due to my lifelong obsession with the silent cinema, Fotoplayers (made to accompany the movies) and Pianolas, it soon became clear to me that if the '25 arrangement were REDONE FROM SCRATCH (not "reworked" as stated in last night's program!), I could - by graduating the key depression times - create sound images for the parts of the 4 piano solos upon which this Pianola+film experimental work was based: "Sonata Sauvage," "Mechanisms," "Aeroplane Sonata" and "Death of the Machines". Thus, I perforated while thinking of stamping presses, bottling equipment, old-fashioned airplanes, newsreels of architectural destruction during World War I and also of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS - which also touched, visually, upon some of these themes. The result is a set of rolls which can stand alone ... without added on percussion effects and even the 'party' movie which never really deserved the score, though - originally - could have been performed in tandem with the Pleyel rolls.

    Since then, various friends and roll customers have attended or sent me information regarding additional BALLET MECANIQUE performances, such as Richard Dearborn in the Trenton, NJ area approximately a year ago, while Dr. Hocker went on to control 2 Ampico pneumatic players - via MIDI, I understand - for his European performances. (I believe he has a Boesendorfer Ampico and a J. C. Fischer Ampico grand, though on the Antheil lecture last night it was stated as "2 Boesendorfers" ... perhaps he's upgraded since our last communication!)

    Now, having stated my connections with this unusual music - presented in a variety of forms over the years - I'll return to this critique, commenced a few paragraphs ago ... while the memory of last night's concert is still fresh in my mind.


    Musician Michael Potash (who was involved with my end of the Swedish TV-Radio project of 1991) and I went together to Durgin Hall. Like me he knows "just about every note" of this work in its Pianola form ... and possesses a Franklin Marque Ampico, a pedal 'reproducing' player upright.

    We began the afternoon in Framingham, Mass. by having a live performance of BALLET MECANIQUE: one of the Pleyel rolls which belonged to the composer was run, in part, as 'Brand X' ... and then the ARTCRAFT Roll Set of mine was performed from beginning to end. This gave us an opportunity to absorb the accents marked on my rolls as well as the composer's player roll score), remember some key "time space" sections [which matched the original-length movie] and get into the spirit of a Jazz Age 'moderne' Art Deco composition ... written in the 1920s but realized in perforated form during the months of 1990-1991, when I was commissioned to make the rolls for director Wahlgren.

    The first part of the program showcased Jeffrey Fischer, conductor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell Percussion Ensemble, with piano soloists Juanita Tsu and John McDonald. His talented and energetic, dedicated group opened with a percussion piece which (since I'm obviously no expert on modern compositions beyond my "lifetime" with George Antheil!) something that reminded me of Balinese music, with a tinge of Jamaican rhythms here and there. The first one was quite similar in effect to some Parlophone 78s our neighbors had, recorded in the South Seas in the late 1920s. Summed up, the percussion numbers were interesting and the interplay was fascinating to watch as well as hear. (I somewhat expected this, since the National Public Radio interviewer - covering the pre-concert publicity, a day or so earlier - said that the xylophonists, keyboard pianists and percussionists were more intriguing than the self-playing pianos. Well, nothing beats a human in control ... be it a live musician -- or a Pianolist interpreting rolls for pianos and/or organs).

    Again, I'm no expert on the 3 pieces that Richard Grayson wrote ... a premiere on the Diskalvier instruments. However, it seemed to me on the first hearing that these were a "shade more creative" than the typical MIDI arrangements which rely too much on notation standards, or what I call 'electronic graph paper' (referring to the perforating methods described above). Later, during Intermission, I ran into musician and computer expert Mark Lutton, who was engaged in telling me that the Grayson transcriptions made more use of MIDI than the rest of the program, which pretty much followed the music scores. (Humans read scores but don't play them to the letter, which is what makes for individualistic interpretations in the performing world. Notation is a "code" which the artist interprets. Old Pianola rolls usually just played back the sheet music, which dominated factory arranging in the heyday of the instrument.) I never learned any more about the differences between the Grayson performances and the others, since Mark got interrupted and others came to view my player rolls ... one of which belonged to George Antheil, as stated above.

    The finale from the Mendelssohn 'Italian' symphony represented a lot of work, obviously, since it involved so many electronic player instruments. However, Mark and other musicians I knew, in the audience that night, told me that this was locked too much into notation to suit their fancy. I felt that my Mendelssohn should be frothy, with defined accents ... and that the trills shouldn't come on like machine guns when they were required. (ARTCRAFT Rolls don't have the old player roll "punch+skip+punch" trill pattern; the staccato is graduated and in many cases a slight stepping change in the figuration adds a human element to this ornament. I allow for the finger - as imagined! - to reach the key, pause for a split moment in time, gain momentum and then change in a variety of ways as the subconscious mind tells the artist to head for another key at the end. Magnetic tapes have been used for audio analysis since I first began working with rolls in '52 as a teenager.) Thus, any "Galtin gun trill" is a performance 'no-no' in my book.

    Instead of the dynamic changes (solo notes, wild intensity swings and the like), this complicated arrangement used the pipe organ technique of adding or subtracting pipes, but in this case the plus-minus aspect happened to involve the 16 solenoid players.

    While pianos doubled, tossed the music right and left, and so forth, the astute listener in the audience heard little beyond large chords - in a rather muted M.F. range - and those irritating "barrel organ" trills mentioned above.


     The answer lies in the fact that the more pianos one adds, the more the strings cancel the sound, acoustics being what they are. Igor Stravinsky didn't understand this (and I have a book which details his letters with the Pleyel roll factory during the arranging of rolls in his name). What Igor did, Antheil copied. (Later, Oscar Levant writes A SMATTERING OF IGNORANCE - his best-selling book. Immediately, Antheil follows with THE BAD BOY OF MUSIC, another example of his following a trend. My copy of the Antheil book even opens with a quote from the Levant book, showing the connection there. My copy of the Pleyel score has instructions which say "just like Stravinsky" in one place!)

    The antique musical box people knew, in the early 19th Century, what duplicates of notes could do for the music. Sublime Harmonie cylinder boxes (2 or more combs) up through the Symphonion 'Eroica' 3-disc musical box (6 independent scales, playing together!) all faced this duplicate pitch problem. The solution on musical boxes was to alter the tuning - ever so slightly - so that, say 6 "Middle C" notes and 5 "C#" notes in a trill wouldn't be cancelling each other out. Even today, in our music box shop in Lexington, Mass. [The Merry Music Box], it's typical for a 36-Note Swiss movement to be LOUDER than a 50-note one, and that in turn, is LOUDER than a 72-note or 144-note (dual comb) scale.

    Clearly, more is NOT louder in the field of musical boxes and pianofortes!

    Mark Lutton, mentioned above, had a key seat in Durgin Hall. Being a MIDI expert - also knowing its many limitations - he thought there might be a 500-millisecond 'delay' with that many pianos running on a program. There was a term he used called a "MIDI smear" ... and upon talking with him during Intermission, he detailed the time span between the instruments on each side of the auditorium. Clearly, the Disklaviers - even from where we sat - were not truly synchronized, as claimed in the concert publicity.

    By the time Intermission began, we welcomed the return of the live musicians, since those Disklavier pianos - played extensively by this time - had a "Home Show organist" sound - something like YOU CAN'T BE TRUE DEAR, in what I used to call the 'Ken Griffin' style. I longed for a sfozando 'crash' accents or a solo note in the passages, rising above the texture ... as good music roll performances easily provide.

    We enjoyed the lecture which preceded the premiere of the 16 Disklavier BALLET MECANIQUE performance. It was fairly sketchy on the details of the sundry Antheil versions - and history thereof - but was pretty heavy with the anecdotes about the composer's life ... most being recollections published in '45 or recorded by KPCC-FM in Santa Monica, shortly before his death. "After-the-fact Antheil" is always suspect, in my opinion.

    I, for one, would have liked to know more about this mysterious "Pleyel patent" that was supposed to synchronize Pianolas, which Mr. Lehrman mentioned in his entertaining dialogue - interspersed with slides and audio clips related to the composer.

    While the audience was told that 16 pneumatic mechanical pianos couldn't be synchronized until "now" - with the emergence of the Disklavier, this is not true. (He mentioned several other solenoid player brands, but eliminated the earlier Pianocorder and the Boesendorfer SE - the latter a costly instrument which is the best of the lot, as the giant 93-key 'Imperial' model at M.I.T. can be, when adjusted correctly.)

    It's too bad that the people involved didn't get in touch with me when this business - on much of the pre-concert publicity - stated that "Pianolas can't be synchronized" as an historical fact.

    Aeolian in the late 1890s had some Pianola concerts (then a 58-Note console player attached to a pianoforte keyboard) which were connected by electrical lines to their Orchestrelle player reed organs and their Aeolian Pipe Organs. The Music Box society reprinted - about 25 years ago - an illustrated review of such a concert which took place in their Philadelphia dealership of the time. The photo shows the Pianola with the 2 organs - controlled from it - on either side of the pneumatic player; all 3 shared the same 58-Note scale at that time, incidentally. The 88-Note player roll wasn't standardized until 1909.

    In the early 1900's the Tel-Electric Co. of Pittsfield, Mass. made instruments using brass (later heavy cardboard) music rolls, which - in turn - activated solenoid strikers, just like the computer players of today. Unlike the Disklaviers and their kind, these could play octaves and chords - including LARGE chords - in unison, and they weren't limited by approximately 15 piano keys, before they conked out. (BALLET MECANIQUE was written for Pianola with up to 31-notes playing in unison - clearly out of the range of a single Disklavier, but easy for any good pneumatic player to handle.)

    Later, in the 'Teens, the Flexotone-Electrelle (by the American Piano Co., later makers of the Ampico) published articles in which upright pianos were synchronized at strategic places around a dance hall or ballroom (like Roseland in New York City, perhaps?) ... allowing all the pianos to play together and therefore to be able to provide for synchronized dance music at any place in the room. The Flexotone used standard Pianola rolls, by the way, and a small vacuum to activate the microswitches which sent the musical information to the electro-magnetic strikers.

    In the old days, the solenoid player never really caught on. Why? Boring music was the norm. Everything played pretty much at one dynamic, for the most part, and so they were never really much of any competition to the pneumatic player action industry ... save being used on private yachts (where humidity could be a factor) or in sychronized fashion for dancing purposes, as described above.

    This brings us back to the performance of BALLET MECANIQUE last night. The percussionists were good ... but they were in front of the 16 little console Yamaha pianos, all with their front panels removed and "trying to do their best". In the old photos of the live orchestral performances, one usually sees pianos on stage front - with the 'extras' back behind. Perhaps when transmitted as a broadcast recording, the balance - which was totally wrong from the audience listening point of view - the pianos (each miked individually) can be "turned up louder" ... and therefore be able to compete with the accompaniment of the drums, xylophones and other devices which clearly dominated the sound of the performance.

    Also, as expected, the Disklavier limitations meant that only partial keyboards were being used - often on doubled pianos - much of the time. What had been the full sweep of a staccato chord on perforated rolls was now only part of the keyboard, and then the staccato wasn't that pronounced. When you could hear the pianos, together or singly, everything was pretty much at monotone level, and not very loud at that. (One musical friend wondered aloud to me if "overloading" the circuits might have made someone decide to cut the voltage, and this led to cocktail lounge playing on the part of the solenoid actions. That's not my department, of course!)

    Both Michael and I noted repeatedly, on the piano at stage right, that the "cluster chords" for BALLET MECANIQUE - in the bass - were "rolled" like a theatre organist and not struck in unison as a pianist or Pianola would have done. (I have hand edited-out such "rolling" effects on my rolls, when they occur, being the result of a flaw in a perforating run!) Those keys should 'whap' the bottom bass keys together, not as a series of notes!

    I have never had the privilege of hearing Dr. Hocker's 2 Ampico pneumatic players - synchronized by MIDI - but I would suspect that these would duplicate the "punch" of the standard Pianola playing the music rolls: old or new, when compared to the bank of 'weak sister' Disklaviers tweedling their keys.

    Using electromagnets to trigger pneumatics is nothing new, as pianos attached to Wurlitzer theatre organs prove ... and above I mentioned Aeolian operating reed and pipe organs from a Pianola, using similar technology. The '30 Aeolian Concertola and other remote control players for organs and expression players were designed along similar lines. Perhaps one of the Hocker 2 Ampico performances will be produced on audio, since I doubt if I can get to Europe at this time. (Zipping from Maine to Mass. for this concert took enough time and energy for me!) I would expect that the Hocker versions would have more panache for the Pianola part of the score ... and ... things would be striking in unison as well as chords up to 31-notes (or more) could be handled by these players. Dynamics would be the major upgrade when returning to pneumatic striking, I'm certain.

    The number of pianos - since they don't add "volume" as claimed by Stravinsky and Antheil in the 1920s - doesn't matter here. The Peress recording has mostly virtuoso keyboard pianists for its sense of life, and I heartily recommend it for those who wish to experience his well-researched recreation of the original orchestral version. One Pianola ... two, as in Dr. Hocker's case ... or synchronized keyboard pianists -- these all can provide the necessary loud sound and also the crisp staccato accents for performance contrast. (Don't expect to hear the Pianola, which gets drowned out, on the Peress recording. I'm not certain that any automatic piano can really compete with keyboard artists and live percussionists, due to the design nature of players of ANY type - and this has to do with the strikers resting on the keys, as it were.)

    When BALLET MECANIQUE had ended at Durgin Hall, Michael Potash said, "I could sum up this performance: 'drab'".

    A noted roll collector was there as well, and he told Michael, "One standard player-piano could have been on that stage, and it would have been louder and better than those sixteen instruments." (I was thinking the same thing during the entire Antheil performance, arriving at concerts with my own piano/trailer setup: see the ARTCRAFT Website for the Reprotone player picture and text!)

    There will be, no doubt, many performances of George Antheil's experimental work in the future ... and all will be different, as that's what the word "experimental" means -- a work-in-progress which was never completely finished.

    I'm glad that I attended this packed-house concert. It broke no new ground for me, especially since some of the problems of "synchronizing Pianolas" were solved almost 100 years ago ... and that French 'patent' (perhaps somebody's revisionist fantasy) never surfaced in reality.

    You'll note that I don't comment on the Nancarrow portions of the concert. Those who've read my Website - or who know me - soon realize that I'm no fan of his type of music. Antheil has musical form, drama, humor and variations in his BALLET MECANIQUE - at least on rolls - and that's what I can latch on to. I did perform Nancarrow for the 15th Season of the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble - which also premiered a Swedish work written for the Pianola medium
(LINNMANIA-MARSEILLASE), and that got the majority of the applause. My Nancarrow rolls were borrowed from the Lawrences - see the earlier paragraphs above! - prior to Dr. Hocker taking over the handling of his music and player rolls. [Small world, isn't it?] I do remember reading the Ampico dynamics on the roll margins and playing with more "pizzazz" - adding accents - than the Disklaviers did, which were sloshing through everything at pretty much one dynamic. The "Nancarrow concert" which involved me, Michael Potash, Dave Levin and a Brewster pedal player upright belonging to Peter Neilson was a complete success ... especially my Swedish number if the clapping counts for anything! Meanwhile, during the 2-hour reception, I was asked to play the Nancarrow and Malapiero rolls again for an interested party. He turned out to be Richard Dyer, music critic of The Boston Globe, who said in his review the next day, "That Nancarrow music can be played in no other way," so I guess I did justice to the music! [This Pianola recital/reception took place at the First & Second Church in Boston, on February 18, 1990.]

    There is, of course, room for extreme variety here ... Antheil's composition lending itself to everything from Pianola movie accompaniment to a full-blown orchestral presentation. As Mr. Lehrman said, people in future many never experience 16 pianos playing this work again. (That's fine with me, if they are solenoid players!) It was o.k., but not exciting when one is steeped in stamping and editing the '91 player rolls every few weeks ... three hours armed with a log book and the '25 score to process every 2 Sets by ARTCRAFT.)

    One last thing here, the original movie - used in the Salon days of BALLET MECANIQUE - was 30 minutes long. Censorship and artistic changes kept the movie in flux, and this is reflected on the score, where the composer keeps changing numbers for the "time space" sequences.

    The audience was told that Antheil had written a 30-minute composition for a movie that was "too short". (Insert laughter here.)

    Not true! Originally, the Synchro-Ciné film was 3 reels long, approximately a 1/2 hour in length. The 250 foot long perforated arrangement - spread over 3 rolls, though written for 2 - using a Fotoplayer - matches the Salon movie of the day. This is why the "time space" numbering continues to the end of the score, with various elements added or scratched-out. Most "scene numbers" are stamped on the '91 edition of the rolls, to assist the Pianolist with each 'block' of the music.

    As a final note, I should mention that on the 18th - last night - the 2nd of 3 Pianola musicales were taking place in Switzerland at 'Piano 99' ... the piano festival in Lucerne. Talented artists like Radu Lupu and Andras Schiff will be playing Chopin and Beethoven, but ... a BRAND-NEW Duo-Art console player built by Douglas Heffer (mentioned above regarding BALLET MECANIQUE for Swedish TV-Radio!) will be performing only my ARTCRAFT expression rolls: all hot Ragtime and jazz titles. Guess what the finale will be for November 18th in Europe? Mark Lutton's fantastic arrangement (or rather, my impression of his keyboard playing, perforated) of LION TAMER RAG! Mark was attending the Antheil concert while "his music" was wrapping up one of the Swiss recitals at the same time.

    Isn't the mechanical music field "a small world after all"? - quoting Disney!

    As a last thought, since Antheil was being linked to modern solenoid players, when his milieu was movies (a mechanical photographic medium) and Pianolas, really, I've often thought it strange that he seems to have ignored the high-tech electronic (and electric) instruments of his day ... or at least, never seems to have written for or mentioned them. One would expect that George Antheil would have gravitated to the Theremin (in Europe, first - then here), the Neo-Bechstein piano, the Storytone, the Hammond Organ, the Novachord, the Solovox and other such instruments. Maybe, when it's stated that "Antheil would be pleased, if he were here" he might have been even MORE PLEASED when hearing a single pneumatic Pianola being finally able to realize his pulsating rhythms and jazzy-but-dissonant musical passages.

    There's room for yet another revival, and I'm certainly it will be coming along soon. Meanwhile, I wish that somebody in the film restoration field would use the "time space" on rolls to fashion a new motion picture - 30 minutes long - which matches the spirit of Antheil's music. It shouldn't be hard to get clips from old newsreels and industrial films, splicing together scenes of aeroplanes and steam shovels. Like my version, it would be a speculative reconstruction ... but anything's fair game when the music is experimental!

Regards from Maine,
(signed) Douglas Henderson | ARTCRAFT Music Rolls http://www.wiscasset.net/artcraft/

Postscript: It struck me, after having heard MORE percussion and electronic keyboard music than the 16 muted Disklaviers ever provided, that this work was written ostensibly for a Fotoplayer© in the first place: a dual-roll spoolbox Pianola with added organ and percussion effects. (The Pleyel score shows where the composer had to move the end of Roll I to the middle of Roll II, which meant a Roll III was created to complete the performance!) There is an amazing similarity between the 'noise-makers' of the live ensemble to what was built into the old silent movie accompaniment instruments: door bells, fire sirens, gongs, organ pipes, xylophone-marimba effects, tympani, etc. Perhaps the later orchestral versions were "inspired" by a single Pianolist running the music rolls and adding manually - in perfect synchronization - the additional optional elements. BALLET MECANIQUE is the only composition I could name which draws freely from the "movie sound effects" typical of the late 'Teens and early 'Twenties instruments used with the silent cinema. A single roll interpreter would insure that  synchronization would be perfect - one of Antheil's lifelong concerns with this composition. The Fotoplayer© type of instrument would be under the control of a single musician, matching the aspect of the motion picture projector(s) running 3 reels of the Léger-Murphy film. While not documented, so far, this is something to think about, and another case for the pneumatic Player-Piano being - from the start - the IDEAL vehicle for presenting this amazing musical masterpiece.

Second Ballet Mécanique concert - in New York City - features "Fake Pianos"!

[Return to the first concert review]
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Gabe Della Fave, who lives in New Jersey, took the time, effort and expense to experience the 2nd part of the Disklavier 'road show' ... this time at Carnegie Hall on April 2, 2000. To his amazement there were no pianos, but instead Clavinova-like electronic keyboards, now called "Disklaviers"! These 'new model' Disklaviers are not genuine pianos, but electronic speaker cabinets with keyboards attached. Thus, the audience in New York City heard a set of loudspeakers on the stage, and not the 8 pianos — as most of the audience expected for this performance!

Here's his review, which was also published in the Mechanical Music Digest immediately after the concert:

"Ballet Mecanique" at Carnegie Hall
 by Gabe Della Fave

    What a great pleasure it was to have been in New York City's Carnegie Hall once again!  The architecture is simple and functional (though it is more than 100 years old) and the acoustics of the Hall do in fact sound perfect.

    There was a lecture before the concert, featuring a question and answer session with new composer Jennifer Higdon, Paul Lehrman, and others. People in the audience were speaking at normal volume and I could fully understand all of them even though the Hall is fairly large, with 2,800 seats.  I was sitting in the orchestra and forth tier, since the Hall was only 3/4 full.  I did this in order to listen to the sound in various parts of the Hall.  During the concert, the tone and clarity of the orchestral portions were amazing and wonderful.  I shudder when I think that we nearly lost the Hall in the 1950s to an office building.  Thanks to people such as Isaac Stern, the Hall remains with us today, has been beautifully restored, and is much used in its original form as Classical music concert venue.

    This afternoon I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall.  This event consisted of the American Composers Orchestra performing four works: Jennifer Higdon - Fanfare Ritmico (the New York Premiere of this work); George Antheil - Ballet Mecanique (the work so famous for using player pianos), Aaron Copland - Short Symphony, and Roger Sessions - Symphony No. 3.  This concert is a part of the "20th Century Snapshots" series of concerts occurring over three seasons.  The series seems to consist of several pieces which have "mechanical" and classical or jazz themes, and the period covered is from 1927 through 1931.

     The Higdon work was strong and forceful, with very aggressive percussion and strong but varying rhythms.  The work had a mechanical theme, in that it was about focusing on one clock ticking, and then more clocks, and more, etc., until it was a symphony of our civilization.  The composer said that the recent Y2K "crisis" inspired this work.  Ms. Higdon received several bravoes but no standing ovation.

    Copland's work had absolutely no percussion, except the Steinway concert grand piano which was only lightly used.  The work tried to be aggressive and atonal but was only slightly so.  It was more a case of Aaron Copland's moving music (which I enjoy) given an atonal bent.  An orchestral piece without any percussion was unusual.  This work was very well received.

    The Sessions piece started with music that sounded like Debussy or Ravel with an atonal bent, but quickly descended into something I couldn't understand and didn't care for.  Not much applause after this work, just the polite minimum, although the musicians were outstanding.

    First on the Program, but last for this review, was the first Carnegie Hall "original" performance of George Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique" in 73 years.  This was supposed to be according to his "original intention" with 16 synchronized player pianos.  There weren't 16 player pianos, rather there were only 8 of them, along with 2 spinet pianos, 4 bass drums, 4 xylophones, and various other live percussion instruments.

    The only non-acoustic sound effect appeared to be the airplane propellers -- and the Clavinovas.  All other effects seemed to be played with acoustical instruments, including a tim-tam, siren, and various bells and buzzers.

    The 8 "player pianos" were shiny Yamaha Clavinova grand-style digital MIDI pianos.  I do not consider them to be real pianos, as in acoustical pianos.  Also, these were not pneumatic player pianos (which I think have a far greater depth and range of musical ability).  Still, I tried to keep an open mind.

    I have to say I was disappointed in the musical performance.  I feel that I did not hear 8 synchronized player pianos as was advertised.  I have three main reasons for this opinion.  First, only partial piano scales were used, thereby reducing the number of pianos being used if we consider these as 88-note instruments.  As I result, I expected something louder than what I heard.

    Second, the pianos seemed to be synchronized with each other (and only to a degree), but the individual pianos rolled what should have been staccato chords.  This was a major flaw in the performance and made the work sound very muddy and unclear -- even in Carnegie Hall.  As a result of the "softness" of the  Clavinovas, the live musicians had to play more softly than one would expect in order to not "drown out" the Clavinovas.  This was another major flaw.  The general reaction of  the audience near me was "That was all?" or "I thought it would be louder."

    There were no dynamics among the Clavinovas.  Every section and passage had exactly the same volume of sound, and left one wondering why dynamics were not used.  The live musicians did use dynamics to a degree, but in order to "agree" with the Clavinovas, they "held back." In the middle of the interpretation of the work, I said to myself, "These are not factory noises and this is not the aggressive, driving Ballet Mecanique that I know."

    I was sad to have to say this.  I honestly didn't care for the performance and would give it a bad rating overall.  I am not alone. There was only mild applause after the work, no bravoes, and no standing ovation.

    I have to also say that the musicians did the best they could and they were excellent.  During the orchestral pieces, when there were no Clavinovas on stage, the musicians were truly outstanding and flawlessly played exceedingly difficult works of fine music.

    I can only compare this New York interpretation of Ballet Mecanique to other versions I have heard; particularly the three roll series by Artcraft Music Rolls as played on my own 1925 Super-Simplex Lexington (built at the Hallet, Davis, & Co. factory).  This player piano has a completely rebuilt player action and a brand new piano action. In effect, it is a "new" pneumatic player piano and is one of the more musical designs and better performing versions of this instrument. I use this instrument a great deal and therefore I believe I am fairly familiar with the capabilities of the instrument and pneumatic player pianos in general.

    I have also played this roll series many times on my Pianola, and I can safely say that my humble 88-note player piano does a far better musical job of interpretation than those digital Clavinovas in Carnegie Hall could ever even begin to hope to do.

    In closing, the Ballet Mecanique performance was dull and boring.  It was only interesting in so far as watching how the musicians attempted to "play around" the Clavinovas.  The Higdon and Copland works were interesting and enjoyable.  The Sessions work was rather dull and I could not understand its intention.  The acoustics of Carnegie Hall are indeed perfect and should not be missed.

Gabe Della Fave
South Amboy, New Jersey, USA
http://www.mindspring.com/~gabedellafave/player.htm [NOTE: You can hear part of Roll II, starting with Time Space #40 at this Website, via the RealAudio G2 player!]

We also suggest that you read the following 2 additional articles about BALLET MECANIQUE, at these Websites:

1) Mark Lutton, mention in the text above, wrote an excellent review of the same concert in Lowell, Mass:
[or go to MMD Archives ... Date: November 27, 1999 and access author Mark Lutton]

2) A new book has just been published, entitled Everybody Was So Young, written by Amanda Vaill. Here
one will find an interesting discussion of the BALLET MECANIQUE subject, both as
a motion picture and with a single player piano operated by composer Antheil.
Interested parties are urged to read this text, as it stands in total contrast to the current claims
by the solenoid player promoters of our time:
[or go to MMD Archives ... Date: December 26, 1999 and access author Douglas Henderson]

ARTCRAFT Music Rolls, PO Box 295, Wiscasset, ME 04578 USA Telephone: (207) 882-7420
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