The fourth ever performance of the original version was performed here
in Victoria 5 years ago.
I've appended my review...
What: Ballet mecanique [first 'e' in 'mecanique' acute throughout]
Who: UVic Percussion Ensemble
Robert Holliston, Milos Repicky, pianos
Bill Linwood, director
Where: University Centre Auditorium
When: March 18, 2001
By Deryk Barker
Times Colonist staff
The British comic genius Spike Milligan, creator of The Goon
Show, once wanted a sound effect of a sockful of custard striking
a wall. He asked the lady at the BBC canteen to make him a
custard, which she did with great care, thinking that Milligan
probably had a stomach complaint. When she finally handed him
the fruits of her labours, he proceeded to remove one of his
socks, fill it with custard, swing it around his head and strike
it against the wall.
Unfortunately a sockful of custard hitting a wall didn't *sound*
like a sockful of custard hitting a wall. So there was Milligan,
his sock full of custard and no sound effect to show for it.
What, if anything, you may be asking, has this to do with the
Canadian premiere of the original version of George Antheil's
In a word: airplane propellers. Actually, of course, that is
two words - and my British-educated fingers desperately wanted
to type "aeroplane" anyway. But Antheil included parts for three
of the beasts in the Ballet mecanique; presumably he intended
them to sound like planes flying through the auditorium, but
using the real thing could easily prove hazardous to the health
of performers and audience alike: the whole point of the propeller,
after all, is not to make a noise but to pull a great weight at
high speed. And even digitally-sampled propellers somehow failed
to sound like the real thing.
This miscalculation by the composer apart, Sunday's performance
of the 1924 version of Antheil's notorious score was surely
everything the composer could have wished for: gloriously noisy
(although by the standards of rock concerts, not actually that
loud), violent, brutal and unbelievably complex in places; yet
there were also passages of wit, charm and even beauty. There
were moments in the player-piano parts which seemed to anticipate
Conlon Nancarrow's "Boogie-Woogie Suite" of some two decades
later; there were other were it sounded as if a piano roll of
Stravinsky's Rite of Spring had become stuck.
Bill Linwood directed (perhaps co-ordinated would be le mot
juste) a spectacular performance, which gripped the audience
throughout its entire 30-minute span (no small feat). Even the
human-playable parts looked to be of enormous difficulty and
complexity: at times the hands of the percussionists were moving
so fast they became blurs; and the four bass drummers provided
a balletic aspect to the score I imagine few had anticipated:
playing in unison, they also had to step up and turn their pages
(at considerably more than arm's length) in unison, no easy task
even at a less exacting tempo.
In short, a triumph.
Although the Antheil was undoubtedly the "main event", the
opening half of the programme demonstrated the tremendous range
of music for percussion ensemble. Varese's [first 'e' grave
accent] Ionisation, written in 1931 still sounds intensely modern,
although the fire sirens could perhaps have made a bit more of
John Cage's rarely-heard Second Construction was also a delight;
rhythmically vital, it clearly pointed the way to the prepared
piano studies of a decade or so later.
Takemitu's Rain Tree was all gentle, shimmering, shifting textures;
at times so quiet it sounded as if the music was coming from
outside the hall. A perfect opener, considering the all-out
assault on the sense that was to come.
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