‘Ballet Mecanique, Part 1,’ George Antheil

The cover of a 1927 recording of George Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique."

The cover of a 1927 recording of George Antheil’s “Ballet Mecanique.”

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed “McKonkey’s Ferry,” by Trenton native George Antheil, at its season-opening concerts this weekend. Antheil’s masterpiece, though, was his 1924 composition, “Ballet Mécanique.”

It’s not really a song, but I still think it deserves to be included in the 350 Jersey Songs series, since it’s such a remarkable work, looking forward to the hypnotic repetitions work of Philip Glass, the harsh complexities of Frank Zappa, the manic surges of Raymond Scott, and even the machine-like effects of industrial rock.

Antheil wrote it for 16 player pianos, accompanied by two grand pianos (played by actual musicians), three xylophones, four bass drums, a gong, three airplane propellers, seven electric bells and a siren. “All efficiency. No LOVE,” he once wrote. “Written without sympathy. Written cold as an army operates. Revolutionary as nothing has been revolutionary.”

Technological limitations preventing him from hearing it the way he conceived it before his 1959 death, but there have been various attempts to do it the way he wanted, after that, with the help of computers and synthesizers.

One such attempt was by Ensemble Modern on its 1996 album, Fighting the Waves — The Music of George Antheil. Listen to the first part of this very modern-sounding composition, below.

New Jersey celebrated its 350th birthday in 2014. And in the 350 Jersey Songs series, we marked the occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, from September 2014 to September 2015 — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. To see the entire list, click here.


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