Thursday, March 3, 2011
Ballet mécanique (1924)
Ballet Mécanique was a project by the American composer George Antheil and the filmmaker/artist Fernand Léger. Although the film was intended to use Antheil's score as a soundtrack, the two parts were not brought together until the 1990s. As a composition, Ballet Mécanique is Antheil's best known and most enduring work. It remains famous for its radical style and instrumentation as well as its storied history.
In concert performance, the "ballet" 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. To explore a fascinating artifact of modernist music like Ballet Mécanique, it is worth understanding its history and also its musical qualities.
In its original release, the film's French title was "Charlot présente le ballet mécanique" (as seen on the original print), referring to showman André Charlot, who financed this film's French distribution. In France, Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character was also known as Charlot; the combination of the producer's name and Chaplin's screen image, represented by a Cubist-style paper puppet, 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.
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