Tackling George Antheil's Radical 1924 Percussion Piece in 2017

Oct 30, 2017

George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique is not for dancers, but percussionists. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, the 1924 concert piece was revised in 1953, and continues to challenge performers with its fast pace, syncopated rhythms, and unusual orchestration.

Phillip O’Banion leads the Temple University Percussion Ensemble in a free performance of the 1953 version of Ballet Méchanique on Monday, November 6th at 7:30 pm at Temple Performing Arts Center.

Caricature of George Antheil from 1927.

Radio script:

[Music: Ballet Mécanique]

Susan Lewis: Right from the start, it’s loud and fast, rhythms racing, with multiple pianos, glockenspiel, xylophones, woodblocks, and drums. Of his Ballet Mécanique, which also used player piano and airplane propeller sound, the young composer George Antheil wrote in 1925 “It is made of time and sound ..”

Phillip O’Banion: I think every composer just hopes to explore sound, and try to create something that is somewhat original.

SL: Phillip O’Banion, artistic director of percussion studies at Temple University, says Antheil grew up in the industrial city of Trenton. He studied at Settlement Music School and found a patron in Mary Louise Curtis Bok. In the wake of World War I, Antheil went to Paris, mingling with artists of the time.

PO: He kind of idolized Stravinsky at this point of his life, I think, and he’s just trying to create some kind of stamp, some kind of mark as a composer. And I guess this sort of idea of machinery and mechanism, he saw as his way in...

SL: Ballet Mécanique was performed in Paris, to riots and acclaim.

Antheil with bells and propellor for Ballet Mécanique in 1927

PO: Antheil, with these type of sounds, was trying to evoke perhaps a very different kind of reaction from his audiences… And some of it is quite beautiful, almost “Bartokian” in ways, some sections very mysterious. Certainly fun to explore.

SL: After a ridiculed performance at Carnegie Hall in 1927, Antheil put the work aside. But in 1953, he did a major revision, scaling it back...a bit.