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Robots and Bad Boys

So here’s a press release that jumped out at me recently about a work to be performed on June 7 by “8 synchronized Yamaha Disklavier player pianos plus an automated ensemble of 2 xylophones, 4 bass drums, tamtam, siren, 7 bells and 3 airplane propellers.”

Think you know what it is? If you’re thinking this is a composition perhaps written last week or earlier this year, you’re in the wrong century entirely. It’s Ballet Mécanique, George Antheil’s most famous work, a film-with-music written in 1924. For this weekend’s performance at the 3LD Art & Technology Center on Greenwich Street in Manhattan, an automated orchestra created by the Brooklyn-based League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR) will perform the score, to a screening of the restored Fernand Léger film. Somewhere along the way—perhaps when a strip of leather from one of the airplane propellers reportedly flew into the audience at the 1926 performance in Paris—Antheil became known as the “bad boy of music,” which is how he is invariably described and is the title of his famous 1945 autobiography.

The June 7 event is being curated by Charles Amirkhanian, the head of San Francisco’s Other Minds, who is music executor of Antheil’s estate; Paul Lehrman, who recorded a CD of Ballet Mécanique in 1999 and maintains a website on the composer,, has been working with the Anthology Film Archives (who restored the original film) to ensure musical and historical accuracy. Antheil made an easier-to-present revision of the work in 1953, which has been more frequently performed, but performances of the work in its more “fully orchestrated” format (I use this term loosely) have been rare. Expect to see the 3LD center crawling with curious onlookers and media.

When you look at modern-day creations such as David Byrne’s new downtown sound installation “Playing the Building,” at the Battery Maritime Building, where things like beams and heating pipes are used to create music, you have to think: Antheil was way, way ahead of his time.

Frequency HoppingIt turns out Antheil was ahead of his time in ways I had never known. Before the performance of Ballet Mécanique there’s also a performance of Elyse Singer’s play Frequency Hopping, about a 1940 invention Antheil worked on with none other than Hedy Lamarr: a secret communication system that has been described as a “model for wireless communication.”

If Antheil were alive today, what might he have written? A work for 5,000 cell phones? 500 laptop computers?

Image: Frequency Hopping 

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.

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