Washington D.C.: Sanctioned Racketeering

Washington D.C.: Sanctioned Racketeering

Gail Wein
Gail Wein
Photo by Chad Evans Wyatt

“I didn’t ask people to turn off their cell phones. It wouldn’t matter anyway,” Paul Lehrman told me right after the first public performance of Ballet Mécanique at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Lehrman was responsible for the modern realization of George Antheil’s 1924 extravaganza for 16 synchronized player pianos and a percussion orchestra: three xylophones, four bass drums, tam-tam, seven electric bells, a siren, and three airplane propellors. This is a piece that doesn’t require customary concert hall etiquette—it drowns out most ordinary intrusions. In fact, some more prepared attendees sported earplugs, and at least one had her fingers in her ears.

Antheil’s original score differed only slightly from the installation at the NGA; it called for two live pianists in addition to the 16 synchronized player pianos. Although the composer had imagined that there would be a device that could sync up the player pianos, it did not in fact exist, and the lack of technology prevented the work from being realized in his lifetime. Antheil did perform a modified version in 1927 with just one player piano and multiple human performers, reportedly to riots in Paris and indifference in New York (oh, those jaded New Yorkers!). And he ultimately rescored it again in 1952, leaving out the player pianos entirely, which is the version most commonly presented.

Eric Singer and Paul Lehrman
Eric Singer and Paul Lehrman
Photo by Gail Wein

Antheil scholar and MIDI expert Paul Lehrman mounted the modern-day premiere of Ballet Mecanique in 1999. When the NGA decided they wanted a musical component to accompany their major retrospective on Dada, Lehrman was the logical go-to guy.

The NGA wanted to have Ballet Mécanique performed daily (through May 14), so, partly as a matter of practicality, this performance is an all-mechanical rendition of the piece. No doubt, Antheil and his Dada cohorts would have appreciated that. The player pianos are controlled via MIDI, and the rest of the instruments are played by robots. Eric Singer, of the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, or LEMUR, was engaged for the project, and he had just a few weeks to build the robots. Although the equipment is robotic in design, these machines don’t really resemble R2D2. The mechanisms are essentially sophisticated Rube Goldberg contraptions that automatically, for instance, strike a xylophone with a hammer.

Listen to an excerpt from
Ballet Mécanique at the National Gallery of Art

Audience reaction at the preview performance on Saturday was overwhelmingly positive. But that’s no surprise. After all, these folks knew they were about to head into an art exhibit where one of the main attractions is a urinal hung on a door jamb.

A ten-minute excerpt of George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique is performed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. weekdays at 1 and 4 p.m., and weekends at 1 p.m. through March 29, 2006. Admission is free.

Ballet Mécanique
Photos by Gail Wein


Gail Wein is associate producer for National Public Radio’s Performance Today. As a print journalist, Gail reviews concerts for The Washington Post and contributed classical music news and reviews to the now-defunct andante.com. Gail’s diverse career path includes stints as a computer programmer, actuary, and general manager of the contemporary chamber ensemble Voices of Change.

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