George Antheil, the self-proclaimed “bad boy of music,” was likely rockin’ in his grave last Friday night as partygoers wearing earplugs gathered at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami to hear his crazy composition the way it was designed to be heard — a mere 80 years after he first wrote it. The American composer’s 1924 work, the deafening cacophony known as The Ballet Mechanique — a musical piece designed (in its shortened form) for four pianos, four xylophones, two electric bells, two propellers, timpani, glockenspiel, and other percussion — was the main
musical attraction at the design museum’s Art Basel-week party.
Originally, the piece was to have accompanied Fernand Leger’s Dadaist film of the same name, but at the time it was composed, the technology didn’t exist to synchronize so many player pianos (in its long form, it calls for 16 player pianos, playing four parts). It wasn’t until 1999 that engineers at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell , managed to make it work using MIDI-controlled Disklaviers. Although the piece was successful when it first debuted in Paris, it bombed in New York, and caused fist fights in various other places where it was performed. Antheil’s career as a serious
composer never recovered from his Carnegie Hall flop — until 60 years later. This week, the machines had center stage, proving robots can often outperform their human counterparts — but aren’t nearly as good at hoisting a martini.