What’s that racket? 16 player pianos, three xylophones, four bass drums, a tam-tam, a siren, and three “airplane propellors,” all MIDI-controllers, are playing what may have been the most modern piece of music in the 20th Century. It’s “bad boy” composer George Antheil’s 1924 composition Ballet Mechanique. And it’s take 21st-Century technology to realize his fully robotic vision. Eric Singer and the the League of Urban Robots (LEMUR, not to be confused with the unrelated other Lemur) provided the robotics, while the mad musical scientist automated instruments of Gulbransen gave them the player pianos.

You can hear the piece in its entirety, thanks to an installation that plays free daily at Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art. That installation was supposed to end last month as part of the Dada show, but it’s been extended through May 7, including a concert with new music written for the “ensemble.” I know it’s still running, because the other day I got a mysterious cell phone call from my Dad with what sounded like a 15-car automobile accident in progress. Of . . . player pianos.

The installation runs entirely via MIDI, in a fairly conventional setup. A Power Mac G5 running MOTU Digital Performer simply plays a MIDI sequence that plays the instruments. It’s the instruments themselves that are unusual: every single one is played in an entirely automated fashion, though all of them are acoustic. (And, I might add, loud.)

Popular demand has extended the piece, challenging the notion that audiences don’t like avant-garde. After all, one listen to this piece and some of our more contemporary “avant-garde” works sound positively pedestrian.

Especially when the robotic xylophone rebels against its human masters and leads a cyborg metallophone revolution.

Full details of the concert, the installation, the work, the composer, and everything else here:

The Ballet Mechanique Page

Related:
Gulbransen, who made the pianos, have also created self-playing violins and beer bottle organs, as seen previously here on CDM. Eric Singer has been responsible for flaming propane-powered organs, and (with LEMUR) the GuitarBot robotic guitar instrument.

For still more, see tag robotics.

Let me know if you’re able to get to DC.

  • Jim B

    I saw this in action last week – it is indeed a fascinating piece. Having it all synched was fun to watch – seeing 6 pianos playing the same cluster chords in unison was really something. I really can't imagine how it would have sounded "out of sync" – yipes! And when that crazy siren kicks in, all bets are off.

  • http://www.pheezy.com evan cordes

    I read about this great performance @ CDM first. Thanks for the info.

    I was able to see it this past weekend for one its last DC performances. Antheil's spirit was definitely present.

    I took some photos and a bit of video from the beginning of the piece. It's posted online at:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/pheezy/sets/72057594

    Thanks again for the info.

    Ciao,

    Evan

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