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Ballet Mecanique

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During the nineteen twenties, the world was in the midst of change. The world has just recovered from the first Great War, and jazz music was entering its state of childhood. As technology evolved, so did the music of the times. People were searching for a new style of music. What they got was something extremely radical and revolutionary. What spawned out of the romantic period was an era of groundbreaking ideas. The boundaries of what people perceived as music were stretched and pushed to its limits.

People began to create new forms of music. They stretched the style of traditional classical music and turned it on its head. One such composer, who dared to make his mark in this avant-garde style of music, was George Antheil.

George Antheil(1900-1959), was an American composer. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, he was the son of Polish immigrants. He first established a career as a concert pianist, mostly in Europe, but shortly thereafter also attracted notice for his avant-garde compositions. He was influenced strongly by such composers like Stravinsky. Antheil was one of the first modernist musicians. He is considered, in certain realms of discussion, as “the most notorious American Composer of the 1920’s (Whitesitt xvii).” Antheil spent most of his youth around Europe training as a concert pianist. In the mid twenties, he began experimenting with different sounds and mechanisms. He wrote pieces such as the Airplane Sonata, which was a piece experimenting with objects as instruments. This piece, as well as a few of his other sonatas, launched his career into the abstract. In 1924, Antheil compiled a piece of music destined to change the face of classical music, the Ballet Mecanique.

Antheil began to perform his piece to audiences in Paris. Crowds had a very angry reaction to the performance, and riots were not uncommon (Lamb 13). Antheil even mentions that a few of his close friends attended his first show and were displeased. He mentions that “when my second symphony was eventually played in Paris, Ezra and Benoist-Mechin walked out on it (Antheil 141).” Antheil continued his labor with the piece and constantly tweaked it. He tried to create an artistic impression that was yet to be defined in its time. He worked on three or four different versions of the Ballet Mecanique until he was pleased with all the changes he had made (Antheil 140). The piece was originally set for 16 player pianos and a variety of other strange instruments (McKee 62). Due to the complexity of the piece however, Antheil had to modify his work and get rid of a majority of the player pianos.

His most famous work is the Ballet MÐ"©canique. It was intended as a concert piece and not as music for dancers, despite the title. The reason Antheil called it a ballet, was because it was the machines doing the dancing, not people. Antheil’s work began to catch on in France and he became immensely popular for a man in his time. Due to his popularity and rioting of the crowds during his music, Antheil began to be called the “Bad Boy of Music” (McKee). With his star power rising, Antheil decided to play a show in America.

Antheil displayed his piece the Ballet Mecanique to New York City in 1927. The critics were quite riled up after the performance (Columbia Encyclopedia). He played at Carnegie Hall and hoped his symphony would be a tremendous success. The promoters of the show promoted Antheil’s works as riotous and had the ability to stir up the audience. This poor attempt at press doomed the show from the start. Due to the very provocative and overall randomness of the piece, coupled with the botched promotions, the critics went wild on this piece, tearing it limb from limb (Whitesitt 33). They were very harsh on Antheil, which haunted him for the rest of his days.

The piece Ballet Mecanique, was extremely complex and sophisticated in its time. That is one of the reasons it did so bad in New York. The in your face music and the loud banging and buzzers did not please Americans of the times. Americans were not ready for the artistic style and dada approach Antheil took towards his music.

The term Dada is defined as a nihilistic art movement that flourished in Europe early in the 20th century; based on irrationality and negation of the accepted laws of beauty ( Although it is most commonly referred to as a term involving art, some musicians, including Antheil, have grasped the concept wholeheartedly, incorporating it into their music. This style usually presents itself as a rugged, jerky, random, unorthodox style of music. Even with its hodge-podge sounds, the music brings about a beauty and magnifigance to the piece.

You can tell how complex this piece is by the sheer amount of notes on this musical selection. All the notes are jumbled together and are layered on top of each other.

(Whitesitt 109)

Antheil’s approach to writing the Ballet Mecanique was a very new and unique one. Although the Modernist time period is considered to be after 1945, Antheil grasped that concept twenty-five years earlier and applied it to this piece. The Ballet Mecanique symbolizes the harmony of the machines dancing together joyfully, becoming one. Artists of the time period exuded the same style and creativity as Antheil. Antheil compared writing music to creating a piece of art. He wrote of the “filling out of a certain time canvas with musical abstractions and sound material composed and contrasted against one another with the thought of time values rather than tonal values (Leggio xii).”

The whole piece is organized as one big melting pot of notes and sounds. The piece starts off really quick and the piano is going up and down in pitch rapidly. While this is going on, buzzers and other things are sounding off at the same time. It is like an organized chaos of events. It lasts just under twenty minutes, and is jam packed with an eclectic mix of instruments.



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