If Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps paved the way for modern rock, then George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique made possible every genre of contemporary music with “noise” or “metal” in its name. This Futurism-inspired 25-minute (with more than 600 time-signature changes) composition was scored for 16 synchronized player pianos, two grand pianos, electronic bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren, and three airplane propellers, but the difficulty of synchronizing the player pianos precluded any proper performance in Antheil’s lifetime — though its 1926 Paris premiere, in revised form, prompted Sacre-like demonstrations.
This documentary written by former Phoenix scribe Paul D. Lehrman and directed by Ron Frank explains how Lehrman used a MIDI sequencer to make possible what Antheil intended. Along the way we learn how Antheil became the “bad boy” of classical music, how he hung out with Ezra Pound and James Joyce and Stravinsky and Ernest Hemingway, how he drifted into obscurity following a disastrous performance of Ballet mécanique in Carnegie Hall, how he subsequently became a Hollywood film composer for the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Nicholas Ray, and even how he teamed up with Hedy Lamarr to devise a torpedo-guidance system that the US Navy passed on (big mistake) before his death, of a heart attack, in 1959.
The only flaw is the poor synchronization (where’s that MIDI?) between image and sound in the interviews. And if you can’t catch the screening, there’s the two-DVD set — which includes a performance of the original score plus the 1925 Fernand Léger–Dwight Murphy film it was meant to accompany — and also a live performance of the original score by BMOP in Jordan Hall November 13.