Saturday, March 11, 2006

Antheil Composition Gets All-Robotic Show

Antheil Composition Gets All-Robotic Show

By CARL HARTMAN, Associated Press WriterSat Mar 11, 4:28 AM ET

It's a concert without musicians when 16 baby grand player-pianos accompanied by a variety of drums, bells, xylophones and a siren perform American composer George Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique," or Mechanical Ballet.

This very untraditional concert takes place Saturday not in a traditional performance hall, but at the National Gallery of Art.

The gallery perched the ensemble on a mezzanine outside the entrance to its current exhibit on "Dada," the early 20th century art movement that was a rebellion against tradition. A typical Dada piece is the reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee.

The technology of Antheil's time — Paris in 1925 — could not put together the four piano parts with seven electric bells, four bass drums, three xylophones, two airplane propellors, a Chinese tam-tam and a siren. All are listed in Antheil's score, the gallery said. All will be played mechanically, powered by electric motors.

Antheil's list did not specify the kind of siren, so a red fire siren was chosen for the robotic performance. In place of actual propellors, technicians substituted fans with blades that hit pieces of plastic to make the noise.

Human musicians have played the percussion instruments in previous performances, said composer and scholar Paul D. Lehrman, in charge of the musical arrangements. He is writing a graduate thesis on the history of the music.

"I like it more all the time," Lehrman said.

He has excerpted 10 minutes from the work's original 25 and adapted it to a short film in the unconventional Dada style. It was Antheil's original intention to combine the music and film.

Though Lehrman called the work "noise" and "formless," he said he has caught echoes in "Ballet Mecanique" of earlier composers, especially Igor Stravinsky.

Recalling that Stravinsky's path-breaking "Rite of Spring" had provoked conservative Paris music lovers to riot at its first performance years earlier, Lehrman said a friend of Antheil's, poet Ezra Pound, had acted as his unofficial press agent and started fights on the Champs Elysees so Antheil could have a riot too — and the resultant publicity.

The 10-minute version will be played at the National Gallery twice on weekdays through March 29, and once on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free.

One difficulty in realizing Antheil's dreams, according to Lehrman, is that his instructions seem to call for piano-playing as fast as 152 beats a minute, but even today's technology has only been able to reach 138 beats. Human pianists can only do about 120, he said.

Lehrman, who has been working on the project for eight years, was asked if he would still try to get a faster beat.

"Sure," he said, "if they invent new pianos."

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