MMD > Archives > November 1999 > 1999.11.27 > 03Prev  Next

"Ballet Mecanique" Disklavier Concert
By Mark Lutton, forwarded

-- non-subscriber, please reply to send and MMD --

Douglas Henderson suggested I send along to you my impressions of the
"Ballet Mechanique" concert.  I don't agree with Doug on everything but
I do have some opinions about the concert.

Post it to the news group if you like.  Thanks.

Mark Lutton

 [ It seems that very few knowledgeable player piano folks attended the
 [ concert, and so I'm especially grateful to receive reviews like this
 [ for MMD.  Thanks for writing, Mark, and thanks to Douglas for his
 [ encouragement.  -- Robbie

"George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique", produced by Paul D. Lehrman, at
Durgin Concert Hall, University of Massachusetts Lowell, November 18,
1999.  With works by Cage/Harrison, Grayson, Roldan, Nancarrow, and

Review by Mark Lutton.

For me, Paul D. Lehrman's "Ballet Mecanique" concert was mostly a
retrospective of the classics.  I knew John Cage and Lou Harrison's
"Double Music" and Almadeo Roldan's "Ritmicas 5 and 6" from an old
recording by Cage, Paul Price and their Manhattan Percussion Ensemble,
and like many percussion students I read through "Double Music" with an
ensemble in college.  (I wonder where students of the future are going
to get brake drums if cars move to 4-wheel disc brakes.)

Contrary to the old stereotype, some of the best and most versatile
musicians in a college can be found in the percussion department.  I
have no doubt that the U. Mass. students could sight-read "Ionisation"
and get a better result than Varese could have achieved after 30
rehearsals.   This is partly due to familiarity with the musical
language.  Almadeo Roldan is all but unknown outside of Cuba (except to
percussionists), but his influence (like that of Varese) can even be
seen everywhere; even in the work of The Flying Karamazov Brothers,
whose show I saw in Boston just two weeks ago.

As when a pianist opens his concert with a Bach partita, the
Cage/Harrison and Roldan pieces established the credentials of the
conductor Jeffrey Fischer and the ensemble without a doubt.

Probably the pieces most familiar to the listeners on the program were
the Nancarrow studies number 40b and 44b.  (The "b" versions consist of
the same music as the "a" versions played on two pianos simultaneously
at different speeds.  The "a" versions were deleted from the program
because of time constraints.)  When Nancarrow made his own recordings of
these pieces using piano rolls on two unsynchronized Ampicos he seemed
to make a virtue of the fact that every performance would come out

He may have just been making the best of the situation.  Dr. Juergen
Hocker, who sequenced the MIDI data used in this concert, makes a good
case that Nancarrow intended the two pianos to synchronize in precise
ways, just as the two voices on one piano do in the famous "Canon X".

The only "new" music on the concert (although not the first
performances) was by Richard Grayson.  In my opinion, "Mr. 528" for six
MIDI-controlled Disklaviers was the most effective piece.  The
Disklavier is ill-adapted as a versatile musical tool and Grayson
obviously understands this.  Marketed as a background-music source for
restaurants and shopping malls, the Disklavier is softly voiced and has
a limited dynamic range.  On hearing the tone of the instrument, one is
reminded of the playing of Claude Debussy who is said to have had a
touch that sounded like the hammers were made of oatmeal.

Grayson exploited the Debussy-like sound masterfully, and also
brilliantly solved a problem that has always plagued electronic- and
computer-music composers:  What can the audience look at?  The three
visible pianos were assigned audio/visual music as chromatic runs up and
down the keyboards gave the impression that several mice were running
back and forth along the hammer rail.

Grayson's "Shoot the Piano Player", a witty solo-Disklavier piece with
synthesized gunshots, would have been more effective (and more in
keeping with the concept) as a piano roll performance on a pneumatic
player piano. "Fantasy on Broadway Boogie Woogie" was another audio-
visual work; scored for computer-controlled electronic synthesizer, it
took as its material the elements of Mondrian's famous painting.

This was fun to watch (we were treated to a view of the sequencers user
interface on the Macintosh) as well as hear, but it also exposed one of
the biggest problems with MIDI: vertical elements which obviously were
meant to be heard as 30-note clusters became audibly upward- or
downward-moving glissandi because MIDI can only play one event at a time
with event separated by about one millisecond.

If "Mr. 528" showed what multiple MIDI-controlled Disklaviers CAN do,
Paul Lehrman's arrangement of the finale of Mendelssohn's "Italian
Symphony" revealed all too clearly what they CAN'T do.  I was sitting in
the center of the auditorium with all the pianos at almost equal
distances from me.  I SHOULD have heard the chords played "together". I
HAVE heard human duo-pianists play more "together" than the Disklaviers.
I also should have heard accents and articulation making the piece
sparkle.  For all I know, the accents may have been there in the MIDI
score, audible in a synthesizer realization.

The MIDI standard leaves it completely up to the manufacturer as to the
mapping of key velocity data to actual key velocity; the relationship
doesn't even have to be linear.  The pianos damped down the accents; I
guess this is an intentional design feature lest the restaurant patrons
get startled and spill their drinks.

So by intermission time I knew exactly what to expect in the Antheil
piece:  A well-rehearsed brilliant percussion ensemble accompanied by a
bank of bland, soft pianos.  Previous productions have put the pianos in
the front and the percussion in the back.  This one was right to put its
best foot forward, so to speak, with the live pianists and percussion-
ists in the spotlight.  (I expect the Internet listeners may have been
unaware of this; there were individual microphones for each Disklavier
and a savvy sound engineer could have brightened them and brought them

I question the decision to use two electronic pianos for the live
pianists.  One concert grand piano (never mind two) would have drowned
out all 16 Disklaviers.  But the stage was too small for two more full-
sized instruments, not to mention the logistics of getting them on and

The performance met my expectations.  A college ensemble always has
more time to rehearse than a professional organization does, and these
students have been living and breathing this piece for months.  Preci-
sion is just as important for the musicians as for the pianos, and
thanks to the Maurice Peress recording, the audience already knows how
the piece is supposed to sound.  I could complain that it was slower
than Peress' version and sacrificed some excitement in that way.  But
that's the only fault I can find.  The brutality, humor and relentless-
ness that were missing from the Disklaviers were made up for by the
mallet players, bass drummers, and of course the doorbells and airplane
engine recordings.

"Ballet Mecanique" must be trying to set the Guinness record for largest
number of World Premieres of a single piece.  Yes, this is the first one
in which there were exactly 16 synchronized automatic pianos, but they
were not capable of Antheil's vision of harsh, brutal, simultaneous tone
clusters.  Using Disklaviers was like performing Saint-Saens' "Organ
Symphony" with a Hammond organ.  Lehrman, the Yoda of MIDI and a quick
student of player pianos, worked long and hard on the sequences and is
to be commended for getting the results as well as he did.  (I don't
know if Dr. Hocker's MIDI files were available but they probably would
not have been suitable, having been optimized for pneumatic pianos.)

If you think of "Ballet Mecanique" as nothing more than a player-piano
piece, you were disappointed, but that's your problem.  We will never
see a World Premiere with 16 pneumatic player pianos, and there is still
opportunity for World Premiers with more or fewer pianos, real live (but
silent) airplane propellers and a real live hand-cranked siren.  But the
concert made effective use of the resources and the ovation at the end
was deserved.

-- Mark Lutton

(Message sent Sun 28 Nov 1999, 03:41:53 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Ballet, Concert, Disklavier, Mecanique