Mavericks Report #4: Antheil's Music Looks Back To 'Modern'

Human musicians augmented by 16 cyber-counterparts in Antheil's Ballet.

[Editor's Note: is on-site to cover the San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks series — which runs June 7–24 — to an extent that has never before been attempted on the Web. Click here to access our complete news, radio, photographic and video coverage of the festival.]

SAN FRANCISCO — At one place and time — Paris in the 1920s — the "modern" music movement sought to codify the clash of new ideas and the clang and clamor of machines as they affected society.

The American Mavericks series attempted to recreate the feel of that place and time Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall, with the music of the classical world's self-described "bad boy," George Antheil.

Sonically, few creative spirits of his era embodied and embraced the idea of the "modern" as completely as Antheil. In fact, the centerpiece of the evening, a performance of the original version of his 1924 Ballet mécanique was so modern that its technological demands were unable to be met until recent advances in computer and MIDI sound technology.

When conductor Michael Tilson Thomas came onstage for the Ballet, he was accompanied by 11 musicians and two computer operators. Behind them, an arc of eight Yamaha Disklavier electronic pianos and another eight computer-controlled player pianos loomed like the machines that once inspired Antheil and his contemporaries to flights of fear and wonder.

A set of electric alarm bells hung on the wall behind it all. And a lone musician snapped on a rubber glove to man an air raid siren.

Four percussionists slammed their sticks down on bass drums, as the xylophonists smashed mallets on keys. Two human pianists banged away, while the 16 cyber-keyboardists behind them did the same.

The sound was fast, furious and unflinching in its intensity. Incessant beats blasted the hall, as the musicians — all of whom were deploying instruments that were made to be pounded — assaulted them like trained madmen.

It was the sound of an assembly line gone out of control, of the mind running amok with images of gigantic, noisy mechanical contraptions.

With sound levels reaching more than 100 decibels, Tilson Thomas conducted — and held on for dear life at the podium. All the while, he followed a rhythmic "click" track on his headphones. At one point, the clashing time signatures grew so complex that the energy level was amped up to such an extent, that Tilson Thomas inadvertently swept his headphones off and fumbled them to the floor.

The Ballet went on and on, but it let up often and abruptly, as if a switch had turned off the whole thing. As the computer clicked its clicks into his ear, Tilson Thomas raised his hands and held them to the ceiling, as if surrendering to the machine that was conducting him.

Then, he and the musicians and musical machines would be off and running again, sending barrages of note clusters and whining sirens and fire alarm bells and even, at one point, a sampled aircraft propeller, into the hall.

Suddenly, it was all over. The near-capacity crowd snapped to its feet and called the musicians — and the computer guys — back for four tumultuous ovations.

And that wasn't necessarily the highlight of the night.

A high point occurred in the first half of the program, when the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio offered a swooshing, sweeping, but somehow endearingly elegant rendition of Antheil's Sonata No. 2 for Violin with Piano and Drums. It swerved from the violence of Rite of Spring-era Stravinsky to a halting, rag-tinged close.

And then there was A Jazz Symphony, Antheil's romp through various musical forms of his era, from pop songs and Charleston dance tunes, to jagged rhythms and sinuous themes that recalled Stravinsky, Bartok and Gershwin.

Like the Ballet, these pieces had a charmingly dated — but not outdated — sense of modernity that could seemingly last for all time.