Antheil, Léger, Murphy, Man Ray: The “Ballet Mécanique”

George Antheil

In his highly readable but self-mythologizing memoir, Bad Boy of Music, Trenton-born composer George Antheil describes his first piano recital in Paris on October 4, 1923:

My piano was wheeled out on the front of the stage before the huge Léger cubist curtain, and I commenced playing. Rioting broke out almost immediately. I remember Man Ray punching somebody in the nose in the front row. Marcel Duchamp was arguing loudly with somebody else in the second row. In a box near by, Eric Satie was shouting, “What precision, what precision!” and applauding. The spotlight was turned on the audience by some wag upstairs. It struck James Joyce full in the face, hurting his sensitive eyes. A big, burly poet got up in one of the boxes and yelled, “You are all pigs!” In the gallery, the police came in and arrested the Surrealists, who liking the music were punching everybody who objected.

Antheil does not report, however, that the “riot” was staged, much like that of the more notorious premiere in Paris a decade before, of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacré du Printemps. Film director Marcel L’Herbier is said to have needed footage of a riot in a concert hall for his then filming movie L’Inhumaine, and may have “directed” the riot of Antheil’s Paris debut.  Although the “City of Light” was always keen to offer welcome embraces for the latest enfant terrible, and although Antheil had come to Paris from Berlin at Stravinsky’s behest in order to take the capital by storm—he may well have fallen prey to a claque of experimental filmmakers who gleaned his well-known outré personality as just a staged photo-op for their own movie.

In any case, Antheil became part of the American émigré avant-garde then occupying Paris. He had met many of them, such as Man Ray, Pound, and Hemingway through the aegis of Sylvia Beach, owner of the Left Bank bookstore Shakespeare and Company. Antheil occupied rooms just above this cultural watering hole.

Antheil’s music was dissonant and mechanistic as evidenced by the titles of several of his previous compositions: Airplane Sonata; Sonata Sauvage; Mechanisms. Playing that evening for the Ballet Suédois before the Léger curtain, it was quite predictable that he would soon collaborate with this painter, much as fellow composers Satie, Poulenc, and Milhaud had with artists of the feverish world of avant-garde theater and cinema. No less a cultural icon than painter/poet Jean Cocteau was soon to become a filmmaker himself.

It is still disputed how it happened, but within the year Antheil was engaged to compose the musical score for an experimental film called Ballet Mecanique. The title scroll that opens the film is a statement by Fernand Léger, a quasi-declaration of authorship. It is true that Léger was the best known of all the artists involved in creating the film. But Léger was not known as a filmmaker—or even as a photographer, although he had designed a set for the L’Herbier film.

Fernand Leger “The Bridge on the Tug.”

But Léger did occupy the artistic, nativist high ground: Man Ray, Murphy and Antheil were all Americans.

Antheil composed the score for Ballet Mécanique, calling for some of the more outrageous “instruments” also designated in his earlier pieces: sirens, airplane propellers, electronic ringer bells, player pianos, and multiple percussion instruments including xylophones and drums. The completed score proved to be 22-25 minutes in length, while the film ran sixteen to seventeen minutes, depending on the projection speed, a variable until locked it in at 24 fps..

Score title page for “Ballet Mécanique.”
Antheil with bells and propeller.

Although Léger is the credited director of the film Ballet Mécanique, it was co-directed and co-photographed by experimental filmmaker Dudley Murphy, who went on to direct Paul Robeson in the film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones. Man Ray, whose then mistress, Alice Prin (known by her legions of fans and lovers as “Kiki of Montparnasse”) is strongly featured in the second half of the film. Man Ray was also a photographer, though he insisted his main contribution was loaning Murphy his camera.

Kiki: “Noir et Blanche,” by Man Ray.

The film was not premiered as expected in Paris, but in Vienna, on September 24, 1924 at the International Exposition for New Theater Technique. Frederick Kiesler, a somewhat shadowy figure in the annals of 20th century cultural history, presented it.

A few years later, Antheil introduced the music for the film in New York City in Carnegie hall in yet another of his notorious concerts: the airplane propellers were aimed right at the audience, providing many with a much-desired incentive to rush for the exits.

The film and the score lived separate existences for more than three-quarters of a century. Antheil did a major re-write  in 1954 which was much softened, less dissonant. It was mainly known in this version until the Musical Heritage recording shown above, restored Antheil's original orchestration.

I watched the film several times while a film student at USC, but always in a silent version. I also knew the infamous score of Antheil, but as a stand-alone composition on LP discs. Though vaguely aware of the link between film and score, a coupled viewing was not then possible. Many critics considered the film to be just another experiment made by a covey of French avant-gardeists in their occasional flirtations with “cinema." But according to a Wikipedia entry:

In November 1975, Lillian Kiesler, Frederick's second wife, found Léger's original spliced 35mm, 16-minute version of the film in the closet of their week-end house near New York City. This version, restored by Anthology Film Archives, has since been included in the documentary film compilation Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941 (released as a seven-disc DVD set by Image Entertainment, October 2005). — Unseen Cinema link

In 2000, Paul Lehrman, a noted composer and music technologist, along with Ron Frank, made a documentary film about Antheil. Lehrman maintains an essential, in-depth site that features the history of the "Ballet Mechanique," was able to combine an edited version of the score using sixteen synchronized player pianos (impossible to execute as originally called for by Antheil’s intentions) with the other percussion parts such as bells. The University of Mass. Lowell Percussion Ensemble performed it and this is the version heard in the Unseen Cinema DVD box set — Ballet Mécanique link

The theme and meaning of the film Ballet Mécanique is very much open to personal interpretation and I won’t attempt an exegesis here. It incorporates images of machinery, especially spinning wheels, with rotating kaleidoscopic fragments and collages of human faces and bodies.

Spinnings discs.
Shot collage of “Ballet Mécanique.”

But such a visual hodge-podge does not make for a reductive argument that humanity itself has become mechanized, adrift in a technological society. In fact, there seems to me to be a simple intoxication with the sheer sensation of movement, almost in homage back to the earliest days of Lumiere Bros. films, when any object approaching the camera transfixed the eye. The film also reflects the dynamism of the Italian Futurist movement, which had real cachet in mid-twenties Paris.

Here is the first part of the film of Ballet Mécanique with score by George Antheil, played by the New Palais Orchestra and Percussion under conductor Marcel Peress.

Part two employs the human body more than does the first half. There are numerous shots here of Kiki, especially of her eyes and lips. There is also a shot of a stout woman carrying a sack on her shoulder as she ascends a flight of stairs. This shot invokes the same image of mechanistic repetition as the rotating camshaft that bookends it. The incantatory, even hallucinatory quality of this rush of a repeated image works to create that dreamlike state so much sought by the Surrealists.

“Woman on Stairs.”

Is the film a Futurist paean to The New Man, a dirge for lost humanity, an inducement to a dream-like state or something else altogether? It seems to me that a certain ambiguity is inherent in the film. The two final scenes reflect this: the Charlot figure teeters, then fragments against the wails of a siren.

“Cubist Charlot.”

Then the film ends with a complete non-sequitur shot of a near Pre-Raphaelite woman in a garden smelling a tree blossom. Victorian revisionism as an antidote—or an arbitrary grace note inserted to confuse the viewer?

Here is part two:

In the spring of 2006, musicologist Paul Lehrman programmed an all-robotic version of Antheil’s score as part of a Dada exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. LEMUR, the League of Electronic Musical Urban Roots, created it. It may yet be the closest realization to Antheil’s vision for the film’s score.

It is an interesting sidebar note that only with 21st century computer technology are we now able to fully realize the creative visions of that first generation of post World War I modernists.

I would like to thank Paul Lehrman for his notes and corrections after this essay was first posted. He also clarified for me some of the details regarding the robotic version from the National Gallery show. I also suggest looking at Lehrman's and Ron Frank's documentary, "Bad Boy Made Good," which can be ordered from his website:

Next: French director Bertrand Tavernier with the early films of the Lumiere Bros.



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