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Posted at 3:41 PM ET, 03/14/2006

National Gallery: Ready to Rock

By Julia Beizer

Loyal Got Plans? readers have seen me plug this performance almost every week since the middle of February, but for those of you who haven't heard about "Le Ballet mechanique" at the National Gallery, consider this post a get-thee-to-the-Mall call.

In 1924, American composer George Antheil created an elaborate score to accompany the dada film "Le Ballet mechanique." His 27-minute score called for 16 synchronized player pianos, three airplane propellors, four bass drums, three xylophones and a siren, along with other instruments. In Antheil's day, a feat like this could not be accomplished, but thanks to new technology, we are now able to see this piece of music as it was envisioned.

"The piece is wonderful and the whole concept behind it is wonderful," said Tufts University Professor Paul D. Lehrman, the music and technology whiz who translated Antheil's work into a MIDI script that makes this performance possible. "The fact that we can basically rescue this piece of music and present it as it was intended . . . is very cool."

About eight years ago, G. Schirmer Inc., the publisher of Antheil's music, approached Lehrman about doing a live performance of the score. Since then, Lehrman's MIDI composition of "Le Ballet mechanique" has been performed nearly 20 times. What sets the National Gallery performance apart is that this is the first time the piece has been put on by an all-mechanical orchestra.

After the National Gallery approached Lehrman about performing the score in conjunction with the Dada exhibit, he suggested they contact Eric Singer of the Brooklyn-based music collective LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots). The gallery enlisted Singer's group to design robotic instruments (the xylophones and bass drums). The player pianos were donated by QRS Music Technologies of Florida, and the first all-mechanical performance was born.

The result is a very, very loud 10-minute segment of noise that literally pulls people out of the galleries and onto the East Building's mezzanine area to see what the commotion is about. At the 4 p.m. performance yesterday, nearly 200 people watched the pianos play. Some covered their ears at the especially loud parts; others left to avoid the pounding bass drums, but those who stayed seemed to really enjoy watching the keys on the pianos dance. I certainly did. The booming score isn't exactly my taste in music, but I liked how the mallets on the xylophones moved in perfect time, played by the nearly invisible hand of technology.

The music certainly isn't for everyone, but as Stephen Ackert, the head of the music department at National Gallery, said in a recent interview: "The idea is to allow people to experience what a composer did in response to the dada movement because that was a movement that crossed all the lines of the arts."

You can find an audio clip of the score here, but you can't really get the full experience until you see it for yourself.

Has anyone seen the performance? Let us know what you thought.


By Julia Beizer  | March 14, 2006; 3:41 PM ET
Categories:  Museums  
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LOVED IT! I stumbled on it randomly going to eat lunch with a friend of mine that works at the gallery on first I wondered what that loud banging was, but then when I saw it...I was captivated by all of those instruments playing by themselves at the same time. a must see!

Posted by: DC girl | March 22, 2006 1:44 PM | Report abuse

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