'Ballet Mecanique': Dada's Siren Song

Kindergartners from the District's Seaton Elementary School listen to the automatic concert of
Kindergartners from the District's Seaton Elementary School listen to the automatic concert of "Le Ballet Mecanique" at the National Gallery. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006

Even seen from outside, through a mezzanine window, the 16 pianos placed in a shallow arc against the north wall of the National Gallery of Art's East Building look both comical and ominous. They are the standard-issue black grand pianos, linked with electronic cables to sync them for a performance of George Antheil's raucous bit of musical dada, the 1926 study in organized noise "Le Ballet Mecanique." As you pass by at night, their raised wing-shaped lids look like a cluster of brooding black birds, or perhaps a line of folding-wing World War II fighter planes, arrayed on the deck of a landlocked aircraft carrier.

They are just pianos, but the visual impression of so many big instruments, gathered in one place, is all of a piece with the dada exhibit they're accompanying. These are mechanical objects, being put to a use that strikes one first as ridiculous, then beautiful, and finally profound. When a technician arrives and opens a nondescript gray box next to them, taps a few strokes on a computer keyboard, and all 16 pianos -- plus a small phalanx of robotic xylophones, bass drums, bells, and a siren and gong -- burst into cacophonic glory, it empties every gallery space in the clangorous I.M. Pei building.

This is the best 10 minutes of free fun in Washington, open through March 29 to all comers at 1 and 4 p.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. on weekends. The lunch-hour performance on weekdays has become a popular distraction for the downtown office crowd. And the effect on museum-goers is a balm to anyone who has despaired of the power of new music to make inroads into hostile audiences. Antheil, an American-born composer of German descent who was all too briefly the great hope of avant-garde music, doesn't bring any joy (in the concert hall) to the jaded hearts of traditional classical music lovers; but in an art museum, his music is strangely liberating. It's all smiles as people are jolted out of the silence of the museum's enforced reverie. They gather like zombies with happy undead grins on their art-weary faces.

The music produces an effect not unlike the film it was originally intended to accompany, Fernand Leger's 1924 "Le Ballet Mecanique" (with cinematography by Dudley Murphy and Man Ray). Screened elsewhere in the gallery without music, the film is a 10-minute exercise in rapid-fire imagery, much of it mechanical -- pistons pumping, metal spinning. It also includes repeated images of a woman's smile, her lips painted in classic silent-film style, morphing into a tight, glossy rictus, then relaxing again. The smile is brittle, and when added to images of heavily mascaraed eyes opening and closing, suggests both the mechanization of the body and a new, enforced regimen of looking, seeing, listening and smiling in a busy, frenetic world.

Leger seems to be saying: Open your eyes, watch the madness and love it. Antheil's music, even 80 years after it was first fresh and new, still has that effect on the ears.

In part it's the siren, the ultimate noise machine that demands to be heard as it rises through a huge range of pitches. Or the electronic bells, the kind that used to call students to class or signal the end of a work shift. As with so many other things in dada, the siren has essentially no positive connotations (tornadoes, fires and, for an older generation, air raids), but it is neutered in its new, musical form. It sneers, laughs, mocks, but doesn't frighten; it is oddly reminiscent of someone screaming in a silent film, an impotent gesture.

There was precedent for including these effects in music. In 1913, in a futurist manifesto, the Italian composer (and tinkerer) Luigi Russolo dreamed of a music that would capture "the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub of crowds, the variety of din, from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning mills, printing works, electric power stations and underground railways." In 1917, Erik Satie introduced a ballet, "Parade," that included a siren and a typewriter. Around the same time, Stravinsky (a major influence on Antheil) was working on "The Wedding," which eventually was orchestrated with multiple pianos and has a similar throbbing, pulsing, pounding sound to what one hears in "Le Ballet Mecanique." Edgard Varese would also put a siren in his symphonic scores, and a Russian composer, Aleksandr Mosolov, rich in the spirit of love for the working man, would use orchestral forces to create a roar of mechanical energy he called "The Foundry."

But even with precedents and imitators, Antheil's music stands out. The performances constructed at the National Gallery are a rare opportunity to hear the music, if not in its ideal form, then in the way that Antheil first hoped to realize it. He composed the score independently of Leger and his team, and when both elements were complete, they didn't mesh. Antheil's music was too long, and not synced with the film, which was every bit as tightly structured, rhythmically, as the music. The difficulty of making 16 pianos cohere (along with all the other thumping, clanging and crashing sounds) in the mechanically rat-a-tat style the score demanded was overwhelming, and most people know this piece only in a much later, and more manageable, version Antheil produced in 1952-53 for four pianos and percussion. Computer technology has allowed the resurrection of the original scheme, however, and with it comes new revelations.

First, the visual impact. Sixteen pianos is at least four times as impressive as four pianos. As arrayed at the National Gallery, there is a simple, pleasing, visual repetition to this all-mechanical assemblage of instruments, which suggests a kind of cross-cultural gamelan hit by a neutron bomb. The percussion parts are played robotically on instruments created by a Brooklyn-based team of musicians and engineers known as LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots). Amplification is used to boost some parts, and others (including two solo piano parts meant to be played by actual human beings) are prerecorded and mixed in. The end product is music made entirely mechanically.

Which, for odd and sometimes disturbing reasons, has been a recurrent fantasy of composers for centuries. Thus the second revelation: The absolute absence of human musicians ties this music to a history quite independent of art. The basic mechanical innovation that led to the player piano -- a card with punched holes that allowed bursts of air to control complex mechanical devices -- was essentially the same as the insight that produced the first mechanization of the loom. The player piano may be making noises by Mozart, but there's a darker echo, of Joseph Marie Jacquard's early 19th-century automated weaving machines, which helped propel European society down the dual paths of economic growth and industrial displacement.

When Mosolov wrote "The Foundry," he used humans playing traditional instruments to imitate a factory; it was a full-employment project. Antheil eliminated most of the middlemen. So it's no accident that Antheil's music suggests a happy riot. The sound you hear is progress and misery, giddiness, speed and power, and jobs going to India. Curiously, the same punch-card technology also led to early computers, whence the digitalization that makes this latter-day performance possible.

When Antheil produced his best-known version of the piece, the one most recorded and most likely to be heard in a concert hall, the texture of the music changed radically. It is thinner and more sharply defined and, overall, more musical. You can hear the various parts, the inner lines, the subtleties of texture. It is artsy. The music being made at the National Gallery is a more philosophical object, a speculation on sound and technology rather than a perfect piece of music. Sixteen pianos is a grand and fascinating ambition, but inevitably leads to a mass of undifferentiated sound when they're all playing simultaneously. The ear savors the quiet parts, the occasional iterations of what sounds like the cry or death rattle of a computer, like the noise HAL would make if he knew how to play the piano. While the later version sounds like an extrapolation from Ravel or Debussy, the early, conceptual version is everything that old Russolo dreamed of in his manifesto.

And that too connects it to the dada exhibit. Walk through the galleries and feel the nostalgia. Perhaps mankind has not been so desperately creative, so maniacally interested in skewering the ugliness of the world, at any time since. Antheil's first vision of "Le Ballet Mecanique" was part of that tumult of dangerous energy; his later version was simply music, pretty and domesticated. The full, 16-piano version makes a huge racket, and when it's over the resonant stone space of the National Gallery's atrium reverberates with echoes. And this is what they're saying: Bye-bye, dada.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company