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Ballet mécanique in Cambridge

On Sun­day last I had the almost unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to attend a per­for­mance of George Antheil’s Bal­let mécanique at the West Road Con­cert Hall in Cam­bridge, part of the Cam­bridge Music Fes­ti­val. The con­cert also marked the 100th anniver­sary year of the pub­li­ca­tion of the Futur­ist Man­i­festo.

My atten­tion was drawn to the event by my friend Paul Lehrman, whom I knew orig­i­nal­ly as a bril­liant jour­nal­ist who used to write for me when I was Edi­tor of Stu­dio Sound back in the 1980s. Since then we’ve done a bunch of stuff togeth­er includ­ing music for KPM Music Library and much more.

Today, Paul is a music pro­fes­sor based at a uni­ver­si­ty in the Boston area, and he has made quite a name for him­self for his real­i­sa­tion of a ver­sion of Antheil’s work which calls (at least in its full ver­sion) for a per­cus­sion orches­tra of three xylo­phones, four bass drums and a tam-tam (gong); two live pianists; sev­en or so elec­tric bells; a siren; three aero­plane pro­pellers; and 16 syn­chro­nized play­er pianos. As you can imag­ine, it’s a flam­boy­ant, con­tro­ver­sial, down­right noisy piece of avant-garde music.

This large-scale ver­sion of the piece, com­posed around 1923, was nev­er per­formed in Antheil’s life­time, appar­ent­ly because the friend of Antheil’s who told him you could sync up 16 play­er pianos was wrong: the tech­nol­o­gy of the time did not allow it. Paul Lehrman, how­ev­er, was com­mis­sioned by music pub­lish­ers G. Schirmer to realise the work for the 16 play­er pianos called for in the orig­i­nal man­u­script, using mod­ern dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy in the form of dig­i­tal play­er pianos, MIDI, and sam­ples for the air­craft propellers.

This he did, and the first per­for­mance took place at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts, Low­ell, exact­ly ten years ago (on 18 Novem­ber, 1999). Since then it’s been per­formed on numer­ous occa­sions around the world. You can read more about it, and about Antheil, at Paul’s site which you can find here at

Rattles, pianos, Pianola and electric bells

Cam­bridge: rat­tles, pianos, Pianola and elec­tric bells

This was not the ver­sion per­formed at West Road on Sun­day, how­ev­er. That was a some­what more restrained ver­sion per­formed on this occa­sion on a sin­gle Pianola plus two live pianists, three xylo­phones, drums and per­cus­sion, rat­tles (per­form­ing the pro­peller parts), two elec­tric door­bells and a hard-cranked siren. Musi­cal­ly, it was a ver­sion first per­formed in 1927 (and not very often there­after). Paul asked me if I could go along and inter­view Paul Jack­son, the con­duc­tor, expe­ri­ence the per­for­mance and find the answers to some ques­tions about this par­tic­u­lar version.

This sound­ed as if it could be enor­mous fun (which indeed it was) so I duly turned up for the event, Music hard and beau­ti­ful as a dia­mond, part of the 2009 Cam­bridge Music Fes­ti­val, con­sist­ing of three works per­formed by Rex Law­son on Pianola, Julio d’E­scriván on iPhone, the Anglia Sin­fo­nia, Anglia Voic­es and MEME, con­duct­ed by Paul Jackson.

Pianola mechanism with roll

Pianola mech­a­nism with roll

The con­cert itself was pre­ced­ed by a 45-minute pre­sen­ta­tion by Law­son and d’E­scriván about the Pianola and the iPhone as an instru­ment respec­tive­ly (d’E­scriván’s piece start­ed the evening). I was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in Law­son’s expo­si­tion on the Pianola.

The Pianola is quite dif­fer­ent from the Repro­duc­ing Piano and is not even tru­ly the stuff of “play­er pianos” in saloons in cow­boy movies, though they all use a “piano roll” to pro­vide the notes. In the case of the Repro­duc­ing Piano, the roll con­tains not only the notes but all the tem­po, expres­sion and oth­er aspects of an actu­al per­for­mance. Thus the big sell­ing point of these sys­tems, there­fore, was to get famous per­form­ers and com­posers to per­form their works, which could then be flaw­less­ly repro­duced at home.

Actuators in position over the Steinway keyboard

Actu­a­tors in posi­tion over the Stein­way keyboard

The Pianola, on the oth­er hand, began life as a “cab­i­net play­er” – a box on cas­tors that you wheel up to a con­ven­tion­al piano (a Stein­way grand in the case of the Sun­day per­for­mance) and lock into place so that its felt-cov­ered actu­a­tors can press the keys. It’s pow­ered by ped­als, which dri­ve the roll and also force air through the holes in the roll to sound the notes. By chang­ing the pres­sure on the ped­als (eg by stamp­ing on them) you can also change the loud­ness of the notes – in oth­er words, give the per­for­mance dynam­ics – that can be applied to dif­fer­ent parts of the range. There’s also a tem­po slid­er – and even tech­nol­o­gy that picks out the top line automatically.

This is all rather impor­tant, because the piano roll for a Pianola con­tains only the notes – the play­er deter­mines the tem­po and expres­sion (in a solo per­for­mance, for exam­ple, includ­ing visu­al cues print­ed or writ­ten on the roll). Thus a Pianola per­for­mance actu­al­ly is a per­for­mance, and not a play­back. Yes, the notes are pro­vid­ed, but the expres­sion is man­u­al­ly applied.

Pianola rolls were not cre­at­ed by play­ing the instru­ment and record­ing what the per­former did, as in the case of the Repro­duc­ing Piano. Instead, they were cre­at­ed sim­ply from the score. Imag­ine a MIDI sequence cre­at­ed in step-time with no veloc­i­ty infor­ma­tion and you get the idea.

Most peo­ple could­n’t be both­ered to learn the sub­tle nuances of Pianola per­for­mance, how­ev­er, and sim­ply ped­alled away, giv­ing the instru­ments a rather life­less, mechan­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion which was entire­ly unde­served. Ulti­mate­ly, mech­a­nisms were built into (usu­al­ly upright) pianos – and hence the play­er pianos in the bars depict­ed in the cow­boy movies aforementioned.

The drum section and Paul Jackson, Conductor

The drum sec­tion and Paul Jack­son, Conductor

Rex Law­son, who per­formed the Pianola part in Sun­day’s con­cert, is a lead­ing expert on the instru­ment, and his pre­sen­ta­tion dis­posed of quite a few myths, espe­cial­ly when it came to the per­for­mance of Bal­let mécanique. The fact that the play­er con­trols the tem­po means that the Pianola can actu­al­ly fol­low a con­duc­tor in the con­ven­tion­al way – the Pianola does not have to set the tem­po and have every oth­er play­er sync to it. In Paul Lehrman’s per­for­mances, in con­trast, the MIDI replay sys­tem that dri­ves the play­er pianos also gen­er­ates a click track that every­one follows.

Sim­i­lar­ly, the fact that you can con­trol the dynam­ics of the Pianola means that the instru­ment does not sim­ply bash out all the notes at full blast. As a result, pri­mar­i­ly, of these two fac­tors, Bal­let mécanique takes on a whole new degree of light and shade. Yes, it’s still a cacoph­o­ny of 20s avant-garde exu­ber­ance, but it takes on a good deal of addi­tion­al subtlety.

Law­son feels that the piece is designed to be played on these Edwar­dian instru­ments rather than mod­ern dig­i­tal sys­tems, and that you need to actu­al­ly per­form the Pianola part – as he puts it, you need to “sweat”. How­ev­er, he is inter­est­ed in get­ting some fel­low Pianola-own­ing friends togeth­er to per­form the work on four Pianolas syn­chro­nised as far as tem­po is concerned.

Law­son thinks the idea of 16 play­er pianos was Antheil show­ing off, that it was prob­a­bly orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed for four live pianists, and that the big prob­lem with per­form­ing it at the time was that there were not near­ly enough play­ers in Paris who knew the sub­tleties of the Pianola and how to use its tem­po and expres­sion capa­bil­i­ties. In his planned 4‑Pianola per­for­mance, he would set the tem­po at his Pianola and the oth­ers would fol­low the tem­po he set by using step­per motors to sync them to his unit. Which sounds like a great idea, though there might be issues due to stretch­ing or slip­page of the rolls: it might need sprock­et­ed piano rolls, which did actu­al­ly exist.

The boxes for the three pianola rolls

The box­es for the three pianola rolls

The Sun­day per­for­mance of the sin­gle-Pianola ver­sion used three piano rolls, and to allow chang­ing them the per­for­mance was split into three movements.

The per­for­mance, for me, shed new light on a fas­ci­nat­ing com­po­si­tion from the 1920s. A rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tion from Paul Lehrman’s, it sug­gests inter­est­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for a Lawson/Lehrman collaboration.

The pro­gramme also includ­ed Grand Pianola Music by John Adams (no Pianolas involved), and Julio d’Escriván’s inge­nious and expres­sive Ayayay! Con­cer­to for iPhone, Pianola and orchestra.