Music history is possessed of a few scores that seem to speak beyond themselves, works that are full of sounds, impulses, and ideas that distill with unrivaled clarity a broader cultural moment and a distant time and place.
George Antheil’s “Ballet Mécanique,” a would-be symphony of percussion and industrial noise, is just such a work. It is a meticulously choreographed assault on the ears, a gleeful racket in which the Machine Age found its most audacious expression. Antheil created the music from the era’s own iconic symbols: airplane propellers, electric bells, a siren, and a phalanx of unmanned player-pianos. It was a succès-de-scandale at its 1926 Paris premiere, then a spectacular flop in its first American performance the following year.
For decades thereafter it became a ghost — read about, but never heard in its original version — prowling at the shadowy edges of musical memory. Then in the 1990s, aided by digital technology, “Ballet Mécanique” thundered back to life. Most recently, it has turned up on a fine new recording by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, one that, this particular week, has been all but boring a hole through the speakers of my home stereo.
A few days of living on intimate terms with such a piece does more than just alarm neighbors and send small children into flights of percussive rapture. It also made me wonder about the strange afterlife of modernist landmarks like this one, their curious hold on the postmodern imagination, their particular breed of charisma that is different from the charisma of any other music I know. Given the whoops and visceral cheering that broke out at the end of BMOP’s 2009 performance of “Ballet Mécanique” in Jordan Hall, I think we might do worse than treat this score as a kind of test case for this larger phenomenon — the unique and enduring pull of the 20th century’s earliest and most daring experiments in sound.
To describe Antheil’s score this way is already to concede that, viewed from today, it is both art and artifact, and this double identity must be where its strange pull begins. In purely temporal terms, the piece was written far more recently than, say, familiar masterworks by Brahms or Beethoven, and yet it oddly feels more distant. This is perhaps because we tell ourselves that the canon of music that dominates our concert halls — essentially monuments from the long 19th century — contains specimens of a “universal music,” capable of addressing all ages. Beethoven’s “Eroica,” each time it is played, is music still speaking to us today, or trying to.
Modernism as a revolution prided itself on the rejection of the past, on finding a clean and perfect break. Yet in so doing, in its lust for newness, it was ironically stamped far more forcefully with the signature of its own particular cultural moment than was the earlier music on which it declared war. That earlier music is still granted claims to a kind of perpetual present. We like to describe Beethoven symphonies with words like “timeless.” But with a work like Antheil’s “Ballet Mécanique,” no such intimations of immortality are sought, and they are not granted. When we return to Antheil’s score or others like it, we are visiting a set of ruins, remnants of a particular dream of the early 20th century: that modern culture could participate in — steer? alter? — the creation of the emerging modern world.
It was a noble dream, and one with many offshoots. In acoustic terms, life in cities had been getting, simply put, louder. The Futurists, to name just one group of artists committed to their own version of this dream, chose to celebrate the rising decibels rather than escape them. In 1913, the Italian artist Luigi Russolo issued a manifesto called “The Art of Noises.” As with the brash confidence present in Antheil’s music, the sheer rhetorical bravado of this and other manifestos of the era becomes an essential part of their charm today. Just listen for a moment to Russolo.
“Life in ancient times was silent,” he begins. “In the nineteenth century, with the invention of machines, Noise was born.” A truly modern age, he goes on to insist, needs music made from the very stuff of modern life. In place of Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” he envisioned a symphony of urban clangor: “the purring of motors . . . the throbbing of valves, the pounding of pistons, the screeching of gears, the clatter of streetcars on their rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of awnings and flags . . . the slamming of doors, the bustle and shuffle of crowds, the multitudinous uproar of railroad stations, forges, mills, printing presses, power stations, and underground railways.”
As what we might call, in today’s parlance, a mission statement for the “Ballet Mécanique,” this is not too shabby. Primarily a painter, Russolo had few means by which to realize his ode to cacophony. But Antheil did. Copland in the 1920s praised the New Jersey-born composer as the most gifted young American writing at the time. Before the “Ballet Mécanique,” Antheil honed his ideas through a series of piano works with titles like “Sonata Sauvage,” “Death of Machines,” and “Airplane Sonata.”
But even a machine-besotted composer like Antheil (1900-59) could not invent technology that did not exist at the time. One of the most symbolically and visually powerful elements of this piece is its use of pianola or player-piano. By the early 20th century, the very hallmark of the bourgeois parlor had become mechanized, and Antheil wanted that in his score. He envisioned a small army of pianolas — 16 to be precise — each pounding out the complex repeating rhythms of his score in perfect synchrony.
That synchronization could not be achieved in the 1920s, but in a testament to the magnetism these modern ruins still hold for us today, our present-day machines — the wafer-thin, digitally purring descendants of Antheil’s own — were pressed into service. The composer and technologist Paul Lehrman created special MIDI sequence files that allowed a linked set of computer-controlled pianos to render Antheil’s original score in the way the composer first envisioned.
That original vision was, again, inseparable from its times, a period when composers were unshackling themselves from the strictures of the past, dreaming up new systems of harmony, new ways of dividing up the octave, new instruments like the theremin, the martenot, the rhythmicon. In Germany, composers were creating operas with foxtrots. Kurt Weill wrote an opera called “The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken.” Musicians were intoxicated by a sense of possibility.
We know of course where this story is heading. By the early 1930s, the protests by brownshirts outside Germany’s opera houses grew louder than the music itself. The stars of interwar European modernism were soon adrift in Depression-era America. Arnold Schoenberg was wading through snow banks in Boston, and Weill was reinventing himself as a Broadway composer. After World War II, modern music took up new rigors and severities, newly sophisticated means of legislating its break with the past. Antheil’s propellers and sirens, now hopelessly passé, were replaced by the elegance and concision of the post-Webernian epigram. Modern music’s adolescence, its stage of giddy possibility, had passed for good.
When an era comes to a close, it opens itself up to another powerful modern force: the sense of nostalgia, the longing for what is irretrievably lost. Perhaps it is this, as much as anything else, that brings us back to stroll through the corridors of music’s early-modern museum, to linger in the presence of works like “Ballet Mécanique,” to appreciate its joyful clangor, its wondrous audacity, and the sheer sincerity behind its surface toughness. We know that somewhere here lie the buried sparks of alternative visions, the insights of an era still capable of imagining new paths through an as-yet-undarkened future. To call works like this one dated is not to say that today’s composers, or we listeners, need them any less as fodder for the imagination, a kind of endlessly usable past, the way Romantic poets once turned to the ruins of ancient Rome.
“Modernism is our antiquity,” as the art historian T.J. Clark has summed it up rather succinctly. “The only one we have.”