Entertained by the weird, wacky and eclectic sounds of Frank Zappa, especially the orchestral Uncle Meat and King Kong, I subsequently learnt that his favourite composer was Edgard Varèse, famous for composing a symphony for percussion only (as well as being one of the earliest pioneers of electronic music). This struck me as such a ridiculous idea that I knew I just had to check it out (if Zappa liked it, then hell, I might too). Fortunately I had a friend with the expertise to initiate me into this intimidating foreign musical domain. And so my introduction to the wonders of twentieth century classical composition began. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring became an instant favourite, and Bartok's work soon after, followed by the scary sounds of Penderecki and Ligeti (remember those spine-chilling chorals in Kubrick's 2001?) It all made sense since I had already admired Bernard Hermann's Psycho, and discovered minimalists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass- the history was coming together from both ends.
So what about George Antheil (1900-1959)? Well, here we have a most unusually talented character. Besides work as a composer and pianist, he also mastered other disciplines and interests, writing on criminal justice, military history, and the explanatory role of endocrinology for criminal investigations, as well as patenting a torpedo guidance system and, with the actress Hedy Lamarr, a broad spectrum signal transmission system! His credentials of association with creative artists are also impeccable- in 1922 he went to Paris, where he met his idol Igor Stravinsky, as well as hanging out with Hemingway, Pound, Yeats, Picasso, and Man Ray, most of whom were apparently enthralled by his avant-garde music, which for them served as the soundtrack with which to advance their modernist manifesto.
So, finally onto Ballet Mécanique itself. This remains his most famous work, which I admit had a rather gimmicky appeal for me. After all, this is a symphony for aeroplane propellers, electric buzzers and numerous grand pianos! On its premier in Paris in 1926, the audience response was favourable, despite a leather strip flying into the audience, the propeller blowing off hats and toupées, and one audience member attempting to protect himself from the aural onslaught with an umbrella (wish I could have witnessed it)! The following year however, at Carnegie Hall in New York, his masterpiece was met with amused derision, and the discerning elite refused him their stamp of approval as a serious composer. Still, in the early days Antheil's radical work often sparked riots amongst audiences, resulting in his sobriquet as the `Bad Boy of Music' (which served as the title of his 1945 autobiography).
"Rhythmic vitality, harmonic pungency, and melodic vigor" characterise his work, and putting the gimmickry aside, it's worth reminding ourselves that a conference honoring his legacy was held in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey in 2003, and that this rendition of his work was issued by Naxos in 2001 -all of which testifies to his enduring legacy (he does not deserve to be forgotten). Antheil's status as a great composer has surely been secured, and besides performance of the 1953 revised version of the Ballet Mécanique, this album also includes the relatively less radical Serenade for String Orchestra, Symphony for Five Instruments, and Concert for Chamber Orchestra, all of which are also fine pieces. And if anyone remembers the Walter Cronkite-narrated CBS documentary `The 20th Century', which ran from 1957-1970, then you have already heard some of the work of Antheil, who besides shocking audiences with bold musical innovations, later resorted to scoring films in order to earn a living. Far from cacophonous, Ballet Mécanique is an incredible piece, essential for anyone interested in 20th century composition (and by the way, the clockwork penguins on the cover seem peculiarly apt when one considers the fusion of mechanical and organic that characterises the instrumentation for Ballet Mécanique).