In 1925, composer George Anthiel created 25 minutes of pure insanity and gave us a glimpse into the future of composition. In fact, Ballet Mecanique was so cutting edge that it couldn’t even be properly performed in its original conception.
Scored for sixteen player pianos synchronized through an elaborate fan and bellow system, the composition also included various percussion, sirens, electronic bells and three airplane propellers, and if the logistics of getting sixteen player pianos to play at the same time wasn’t enough, the score itself contained over six hundred time signature changes.
Antheil’s futurist vision polarized its audience upon its first performance at Carnegie Hall almost causing riots (and the technical quandary of syncing player pianos plagued many subsequent performances). It would be nearly sixty years later with the advent of MIDI and sampling that the world would hear its first proper treatment of his score.
His formative years were spent in the heart of the Paris avant garde. He lived in an apartment above Sylvia Beach’s famed Shakespeare & Co. bookstore and mingled with all the likely characters ranging from Ezra Pound to Ernest Hemingway. This period is wonderfully documented in his autobiography Bad Boy of Music and is well worth reading if you’re drawn to this era of creativity.
Antheil later moved to Hollywood and composed scores for film — much milder than Mecanique, I might add. With no shortage of creativity, his body of work soon expanded into research and writing. One of the stranger Antheil books out their is the extremely rare Every Man His Own Detective which will supposedly teach you to identify potential criminals through the study of their glands.
Perhaps ever odder was his late collaboration with Hollywood starlet and mathematician Hedy Lamarr. In 1942, the pair worked on a secret communications system known as spread spectrum which they hoped would help in the war effort. The technology was never used and it would again take about fifty years for Antheil’s vision to find a proper home, this time, in the now common cell phone.