The human desire to produce a loud noise by striking one object with another must be as old as communication itself, and like all histories, it has its high points and lows. The period between the two world wars, for instance, was a very good time for the art and science of banging. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project reminded us of this fact on Friday night with a memorable concert that was in equal parts ambitious musical event, cultural time warp, and sonic magical mystery tour.
The night began and ended with landmarks of that period: Varese’s Ionisation, a brief work heard somewhat frequently, here given a fluid and meticulous account, and Antheil’s infamous Ballet Mécanique, a piece that prowls the history books but is almost never spotted in the flesh.
Both works are inseparable from the period of their creation, a time when composers were breaking rules, issuing manifestos, dreaming of novel scales and instruments, and often linking their works not to Romantic myths of individual struggle but to the hurly-burly of everyday modern industrial life. When George Antheil set to work in 1923 on his great paean to pounding, he strove for something, in his own words, “brutal, contemporary, hard-boiled, symbolic of the spiritual exhaustion” of the day.
To accomplish this goal, Antheil’s score convenes a kind of absurdist spectacle, a congress of noise, for sirens, airplane propellers, xylophones, bass drums, grand pianos, and, originally, a fleet of 16 mechanized player pianos. It was a vision out of reach in his own day mostly because the player pianos could not be suitably synchronized. More recently the composer Paul Lehrman has placed contemporary technology at the service of Antheil’s original ideal. Friday’s performance featured eight Yamaha Disklaviers on the Jordan Hall stage linked by Lehrman’s own computer interface. The propeller noise was prerecorded. Gil Rose conducted from a click-track delivered through a wireless earpiece, while Lehrman himself manipulated the piercing wail of the sirens with the controller from a Nintendo Wii. It was something to behold: digital technology as midwife to outrageous analog dreams.
Fortunately, some eight decades after its Paris premiere, Antheil’s score has not lost its ability to harass and delight the senses with its sheer audacity. Friday’s performance produced a glorious din, with vast sheets of machine-tooled rhythm, interwoven layers of cacophony, and sudden gaps of ghostly silence. Visually speaking, the most memorable sight was witnessing that octet of Yamaha pianos playing themselves, a kind of depopulated orchestra eerily appropriate for a work written in the wake of the First World War.
In an inspired pairing, Ballet Mécanique was preceded on Friday night by Lou Harrison’s La Koro Sutro, which is also a percussion-based work but one hailing from a very distant spiritual universe. Instead of mechanist brutalism we find a serenely radiant meditation on ancient Buddhist texts. Harrison conceived his 1972 work for chorus and what he called the “American gamelan,” a small ensemble of invented percussion instruments in special tunings. For Friday’s concert, BMOP commissioned its own American gamelan, built from the likes of steel washtubs, PVC piping, and sawed-off oxygen tanks, complemented by various Balinese bells and gongs.
The sound of this junkyard symphony was a wonder, heterogeneous in all its swirling parts but also with a dense sonic halo, as if created by some vast cosmic vibraphone. Harrison set his texts in Esperanto, naturally, and the fine Providence Singers dispatched them on lovely rivers of pentatonic melody. This music tends to lull one into a kind of peaceful reverie, though lingering in that state was not advised. After intermission, the Antheil awaited, fists raised.
Still, links persisted. Despite the yawning gap separating their two sound worlds, both Antheil and Harrison were drawn to an avant-garde of totalizing visions, and both recognized they could tap into something at once modern and primordial, with the simple sound of a bang.
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