Reel Sounds: Unsynched Rhythms – George Antheil’s Le Ballet mécanique

Le Ballet mécanique

George Antheil, the pistol-wielding, self-styled ‘bad boy’ of the European branch of the Roaring Twenties avant-garde composed Le Ballet mécanique in 1924. Scored for eight pianos, eight xylophones, pianola, two electric doorbells and an aeroplane propeller, it was scratched out in the context of post-WWI technological and sensorial momentum. When art either looked askance or fluttered its eyelashes coquettishly at the pyschotropic dimensions of the world. A world perceived from a multiplicity of angles, far away and at high speed. Mechanised warfare, aviation, railways, automobiles, skyscrapers, telephones, super mass production, jazz, radio, cinema, futurism, cubism, dada, surrealism, Duchamp and all manner of post-traumatic stress disorder freak-outs. Antheil would have adored the Heathrow Express.

Antheil’s score was originally commissioned to accompany Fernand Léger’s film of the same title, shot by Man Ray, but it was twice as long and could never be synchronised with it. The only commonality the two works have is, seemingly, their title. Léger’s film flickers like an ashen moth in a lethargic strobe light. Antheil’s score has the quality of a combustion engine with brass fittings and a modicum of grease.

In 2000, technological advances allowed Paul Lehrman to combine an edited version of the original score with the film. This version appears on the DVD box-set Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941 released by Image Entertainment in October 2005.

A bombastic, belligerent, percussive work, vulgar in its way, formed from a lattice of insistency. Xylophone and the hi-frequency linear vibrations of doorbells evoke a mirage of movement that lances through the dense mahogany clusters and churnings of mass piano vamps. Vamps that chase linear rhythms like Keystone Kops in pursuit of a villain.

As a quaint anthropomorphic fantasy of mechanic frenzy, an homage to the resilience and persistence and oppression of advanced capitalist production, it is indeed quite witty. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place accompanying a Keaton catastrophe or, as mentioned, a Keystone caper. In terms of composition and arrangement, if you’re looking for comparisons, Antheil’s piece is closer to Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian than Varèse, Russolo, Cowell, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg or any other important modernist composer. It’s rather weak tea to Léger’s biscuit too, best not to dunk.

Richard Thomas