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Ballet Mécanique

ballet mécanique, ballet mécanique george antheil
Ballet Mécanique 1923–24 is a Dadaist post-Cubist art film conceived, written, and co-directed by the artist Fernand Léger in collaboration with the filmmaker Dudley Murphy with cinematographic input from Man Ray It has a musical score by the American composer George Antheil However, the film premiered in a silent version on 24 September 1924 at the Internationale Ausstellung neuer Theatertechnik International Exposition for New Theater Technique in Vienna presented by Frederick Kiesler It is considered one of the masterpieces of early experimental filmmaking


  • 1 Film credit and history
  • 2 Visual puns
  • 3 Ballet Mécanique as a score
    • 31 A musical analysis
    • 32 The mechanics of the ballet
  • 4 Ballet Mécanique as synchronized film
  • 5 Discography audio
  • 6 Bibliography
  • 7 References
  • 8 External links

Film credit and history

In her book Dudley Murphy: Hollywood Wild Card, film historian Susan Delson argues that Murphy was the film's driving force but that Léger was more successful at promoting the film as his own creation However, after fighting at the front in World War I and spending the year of 1917 in a hospital after being gassed there, Fernand Léger exclusively made the dazzling effects of mechanical technology the subject of his art, and it is clear that he conceived of the film himself

Léger's experiences in World War I had a significant effect on all of his work Mobilized in August 1914 for service in the French army, he spent two years at the front in Argonne He produced many sketches of artillery pieces, airplanes, and fellow soldiers while in the trenches, and painted Soldier with a Pipe 1916 while on furlough In September 1916 he almost died after a mustard gas attack by the German troops at Verdun During a period of convalescence in Villepinte he painted The Card Players 1917, a canvas whose robot-like, monstrous figures reflect the ambivalence of his experience of war As he explained:

I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimeter in the sunlight It was the magic of light on the white metal That's all it took for me to forget the abstract art of 1912–1913 The crudeness, variety, humor, and downright perfection of certain men around me, their precise sense of utilitarian reality and its application in the midst of the life-and-death drama we were in made me want to paint in slang with all its color and mobility

The Card Players marked the beginning of his "mechanical period" of which Ballet Mécanique is a part, an artistic technique that combined the dynamic abstraction of constructivism with the absurd and unruly qualities of Dada We see this trend in the film from beginning to end

However, a photo of a Dada sculpture with the name Ballet Mécanique had been previously featured in 391, a periodical created and edited by the Dadaist Francis Picabia that first appeared in January 1917, and continued to be published until 1924 But it is not known if Fernand Léger was aware of it or not

Visual puns

In its original release, the film's French title was "Charlot présente le ballet mécanique" as seen on the original print, referring to Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character as he was known in France The image of a Cubist-style paper puppet of Charlot, by Leger, appears several times in the film It is only the first of many visual puns in the film—a seeming display of the film's sheer visual modernity, as intended by its creators from the get-go

Ballet Mécanique as a score

George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique 1924 was originally conceived as an accompaniment for the film and was scheduled to be premiered at the Internationale Ausstellung neuer Theatertechnik However before completion, director and composer agreed to go their different ways The musical work runs close to 30 minutes, while the film is about 19 minutes long

Antheil's music for Ballet Mécanique became a concert piece, premiered by Antheil himself in Paris in 1926 Antheil assiduously promoted the work, and even engineered his supposed "disappearance" while on a visit to Africa so as to get media attention for a preview concert The official Paris première in June 1926 was sponsored by an American patroness who at the end of the concert was tossed in a blanket by three baronesses and a duke The work enraged some of the concert-goers, whose objections were drowned out by the cacophonous music, while others vocally supported the work After the concert, there were some fights in the street Antheil tried to replicate this scandal at Carnegie Hall by hiring provocateurs, but they were largely ignored

Although the film was intended to use Antheil's score as a soundtrack, the two parts were not brought together until the 1990s In 2000, Paul Lehrman produced a married print of the film This version of the film was included in the DVD collection Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894–1941 released in October 2005

As a composition, Ballet Mécanique is Antheil's best known and most enduring work It remains famous for its radical repetitive style and instrumentation, as well as its storied history Antheil himself was not a Dadaist, though he had many friends and supporters in that community

In concert performance, the Ballet Mécanique is not a show of human dancers but of mechanical instruments Among these, player pianos, airplane propellers, and electric bells stand prominently onstage, moving as machines do, and providing the visual side of the ballet As the bizarre instrumentation may suggest, this was no ordinary piece of music It was loud and percussive – a medley of noises, much as the Italian Futurists envisioned new music of the 20th century

In 1927, Antheil arranged the first part of the Ballet for Welte-Mignon This piano-roll was performed on 16 July 1927 at the "Deutsche Kammermusik Baden-Baden 1927" Unfortunately, these piano rolls are now thought to be lost

The original orchestration called for 16 player pianos or pianolas in four parts, 2 regular pianos, 3 xylophones, at least 7 electric bells, 3 propellers, siren, 4 bass drums, and 1 tam-tam As it turned out, there was no way to keep so many pianolas synchronized, so early performances combined the four parts into a single set of pianola rolls and augmented the two human-played pianos with 6 or more additional instruments

In 1953, Antheil wrote a shortened and much tamer version for four pianos, four xylophones, two electric bells, two propellers, timpani, glockenspiel, and other percussion The original orchestration was first realized in 1992 by Maurice Peress

In 1999, the University of Massachusetts Lowell Percussion Ensemble presented the first performance of the original score without the film using 16 player pianos and live players The player pianos were Yamaha Disklaviers, controlled via MIDI using the Macintosh software program Opcode StudioVision

In 1986, the film was premiered with a new score by Michael Nyman

The score and film were successfully combined in 2000 by Paul Lehrman, who used an edited version of the original orchestration in which he used player pianos recorded after the Lowell performance, with the rest of the instruments played electronically This version is available in the DVD set Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894–1941 released in October 2005 and also in the DVD set Bad Boy Made Good, which also contains Lehrman's documentary film about Antheil and the Ballet mécanique, which was released in April 2006 The featured film print is the original version, premiered in Vienna on 24 September 1924 by Frederick Kiesler

In November 2002, a version of the score for live ensemble which required further editing, since live players couldn't play it as fast as electronic instruments was premiered in Columbus, Ohio by an ensemble from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, conducted by Julian Pellicano This version was then performed a dozen times in Europe by the London Sinfonietta in 2004 and 2005

In 2005, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC commissioned Lehrman and the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots LEMUR, Eric Singer, director, to create a computer-driven robotic ensemble to play the Ballet mécanique This installation was at the Gallery from 12 March to 7 May 2006 It was installed in December 2007 at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach, FL, and again at 3-Legged Dog in New York City, where it was used to accompany a play about Antheil and Hedy Lamarr, and their invention of spread-spectrum technology, called "Frequency Hopping" During the run of the play, the Léger/Murphy film was shown, with the robotic orchestra performing the score, at two special "after-concerts"

A musical analysis

The Ballet is hard to surmise from just looking at the score—one must hear it to get a real sense of its chaos It moves frighteningly quickly, up to 32nd notes at tempo quarter = 152 It sounds like an onslaught of confusing chords, punctuated by random rings, wails, or pauses The meter rarely stays the same for more than three measures, distracting from the larger form of the music and instead highlighting the driving rhythms However, the piece is definitely structured in a sonata rondo

The sonata rondo form follows an pattern, where A is a first theme, B is a second theme, and C is a middle section loosely related to A and B:

A – Theme 1 starts at the beginning of the piece It is easily identified by the oscillating melody in the xylophones It moves through rhythmic and intervallic variations until a bridge into the next theme measure 38 in the original scoring

B – Theme 2 m77 features the pianolas, supported by drums The melody is mostly built from parallel series of consonant chords, sometimes sounding pentatonic but often making no tonal sense at all Antheil uses pianolas for things that would be difficult for human players a 7-note chord at m142, for example

A' – Xylophones return in triple meter to recall Theme 1 m187 This is not strictly a repeat of Theme 1 but another variation and development upon it This section descends into increasing chaos starting m283 which signals a transition into part C m328

C – The xylophones and pianolas play a new tune They stay in better rhythmic agreement here and give a more ordered feel to this section The xylophones eventually cut out to make way for a serene pianola passage

A'’B'’ – The xylophones return m403 with the theme from the beginning There are differences from the original AB part, including new bitonal passage m530 and miniature round m622 between xylophones and pianolas The pentatonic melody, hinted in part B, returns m649 and gets developed in the context of the round

Coda – A startling change occurs when all instruments cut out except for a lone bell m1134 This signals the beginning of a very long and thinly textured coda It alternates between irregular measures of complete silence and pianola with percussion The measures of silence get longer until the listener begins to wonder whether the piece is already over Finally, there is a crescendo of pianola, a flurry of percussion and a bang to mark the real ending The score indicates the last measure of the piece to be ended with the pianos and drums only, but modern performances have the xylophones joining back in and doubling the melody of the pianolas to create a more firm, solid, and recognizable ending

The mechanics of the ballet

The mechanical pianos keep the tempo strictly at quarter = 152 Interestingly, all longer rests in the pianola part are notated in 8th rests, as if to suggest the exactness of the instrument At this rate, the 1920s pianola played 85 feet per minute of paper rolls over three rolls This logistical nightmare has been described by some scholars as being an error, and that Antheil's suggested tempo was actually half that quarter = 76, but in fact Antheil's 1953 Ballet Mécanique score indicates a tempo of 144–160

The airplane propellers were actually large electric fans, into which musicians would insert object such as wooden poles or leather straps to create sound, since the fans don't make much noise In the Paris performances, beginning in June 1926, the fans were pointed up at the ceiling However, at the Carnegie Hall premiere on 10 April 1927, the fans were positioned to blow into the audience, upsetting the patrons

Ballet Mécanique as synchronized film

Nevertheless, with respect to the original synchronized film, and despite the quality of last sound performance and its consistent reliability with Antheil's original plans for its concert made by Lehrman himself and endorsed by the Schirmer publisher for the DVD Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894–1941, 2005, its timing with the film it is still in full debate today

New points of view offers Ortiz Morales, in his thesis El ballet mécanique y el Synchro-ciné , already in 2008 He refutes all the points of view that have given origin to the realization of Lehrman and proposes other alternatives within what he calls the state of confusion around the film Among others, the score of 30 minutes and 16 synchronized pianolas so laboriously obtained is not really the original musical idea for the film, but a subsequent expansion of the original idea, which was carried out by Antheil as a spectacular and independent concert, once proved that it could not synchronize its music together with the images of Léger The true film score must have been much simpler and more precise, and possibly the one that would end up orchestrating in 1953 It argues, therefore, that the problem of original synchronization was never in the 16 synchronized pianolas of the giant score, but the problem with the simple version for the film must have been in the device that had to synchronize it mechanically : the Synchro-Ciné of the inventor Charles Delacommune, possibly the first audio-visual mixing table of the story and with which it is known that they were desperately trying for a while there is documented the material for that film, signed by Léger and Delacommune According to technical studies on documentation the apparatus as such was lost in II World War , it seems that the synchro-ciné was a synchronizer capable of good audio-video simultaneities in standard measures, but the fleeting and devilish rhythm of the work far exceeded its possibilities: especially the amalgamated ones, of 7 and 5, very used in the work and impossible to obtain with a such precarious device With a more restrained and square music, they could have been tuned and synchronized mechanically, which was what Léger promised to the press after talking to Delacommune but before having tried it in practice with the music of Antheil

This thesis, and the implications that it originates, has been greatly reinforced in 2016 with the publication of the original reconstruction of kinematic synchronism according to it in the so-called Canonical version This version, made with the collaboration of the Ensemble Modern, and from the few truly reliable and objective data that have reached today, searches through algorithms computer the exact copy of the film and the correct Antheil score, which they both joined together in 1935 the only time they know that proper 'timing' occurred, according to themselves Since the various copies that have come to us from the Ballet Mecanique are different from each other some a lot, because it seems that Léger was, little by little replacing the original images of Man Ray and Dudley Murphy until almost the end of his lifetime Thus, in each period, a slightly different copy of the Ballet has circulated: no two are alike That is to say, that the film was going from dadaist to cubist, gradually, which explains, in part, doubts about its ascription to a certain aesthetic

Discography audio

  • "Fighting the Waves: Music of George Antheil" Ensemble Moderne, cond HK Gruber RCA, 1996
  • "George Antheil: Ballet Mécanique" Boston Modern Orchestra Project, cond Gil Rose BMOP/sound, 2013
  • "Ballet Mecanique and Other Works for Player Pianos, Percussion, and Electronics" UMass Lowell Percussion Ensemble, cond Jeffrey Fischer Electronic Music Foundation, 2000


  • Buck, Robert T et al 1982 Fernand Léger New York: Abbeville Publishers ISBN 0-89659-254-5
  • Chilvers, Ian & Glaves-Smith, John eds, Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009
  • James Donald, "Jazz Modernism and Film Art: Dudley Murphy and Ballet mécanique in Modernism/modernity 16:1 January 2009, pages 25–49
  • Oja, Carol 2000 "George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique and Transatlantic Modernism" In Ludington, Townsend A modern mosaic: art and modernism in the United States Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press pp 175–202 ISBN 0-8078-4891-3 
  • Oja, Carol J 2000 Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s Oxford University Press pp 71–94 ISBN 978-0-19-516257-8 
  • Néret, Gilles 1993 F Léger New York: BDD Illustrated Books ISBN 0-7924-5848-6
  • Ortiz Morales, JM 2012 "El Synchro-Ciné de Charles Delacommune" PDF Thesis COM/CAPUMA-Málaga Reg:2012/00200020399 
  • Richter, H Dada: Art and Anti-Art Thames and Hudson 1965


  1. ^ a b Chilvers, Ian & Glaves-Smith, John eds, Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009 p 400
  2. ^ Néret 1993, p 66
  3. ^ Fitch 1985, pp 192–93
  4. ^ Greene, David Mason 1985, Greene's biographical encyclopedia of composers, Reproducing Piano Roll Fnd, pp 1297–98, ISBN 978-0-385-14278-6 
  5. ^ Suzanne Rodriguez Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris New York: HarperCollins, 2002: 249 ISBN 0-06-093780-7
  6. ^ Key, Susan, Larry Rothe, and Thomas M Tilson American Mavericks San Francisco, Calif: San Francisco Symphony, 2001
  7. ^ a b "Paul Lehrman's website devoted to the film and music ''Ballet Mecanique''" Antheilorg Retrieved 11 November 2013 
  8. ^ Ballet Mécanique CD liner notes MusicMasters 1992 01612-67094-2 
  9. ^ http://wwwantheilorg
  10. ^ Encyclopedia listing for Nyman, Michael 1944–
  11. ^ "Bad Boy Made Good" Bad Boy Made Good Retrieved 11 November 2013 
  12. ^ "The Ballet Mecanique Page" Antheilorg Retrieved 11 November 2013 
  13. ^ "Frequency Hopping" Hourglassgrouporg Retrieved 11 November 2013 
  14. ^ Prefatory material from the score of Ballet Mécanique published by G Schirmer 2003
  15. ^ Jon Blackwell undated "1927: Trenton's 'bad boy' of music" The Trentonian Retrieved 10 November 2013
  16. ^ a b c d e Ortiz Morales, JM 2008 "El ballet mécanique y el Synchro-Ciné" PDF Tesina COM/CAPUniversity of Málaga 2008 RPI: 2009/99900744172 

External links

  • Ballet mécanique on IMDb
  • Paul Lehrman's website about Ballet Mécanique both Leger's film and Antheil's music
  • 2016 The last version of film : the canonical version

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