A signal work in the history of American music, George Antheil's Ballet mécanique (1923-1925) is notable not only for its early use of massed percussion, but also for spawning the first great "scandal" of American music -- a singular honor in the atmosphere of early twentieth century avant-gardism. Antheil, who was among the first wave of American expatriates in Europe in the early 1920s, took a profound interest in rethinking traditional conceptions of musical form. Rather than delineating the form of a work by the manipulation of harmonic and melodic materials, Antheil postulated, it might be possible to sculpt music using a "time-space" principle -- that is, using time (via rhythm) as a canvas for which tones merely provide coloration. Taking the music of Stravinsky as his point of departure, Antheil produced a number of works that made particular use of rhythm and percussive effects, most notably in a series of piano works with titles like Airplane Sonata (1921), Sonata Sauvage (1922-1923), and Death of Machines (1923).
With Ballet mécanique, however, Antheil took this aesthetic to new extremes. The results, in fact, caused a sensation when the work was first unleashed upon audiences in the mid-1920s. Ballet mécanique began as an accompaniment to an experimental film (this was, it must be remembered, the period before synchronous soundtracks) by painter/filmmaker Fernand Léger. The ethos of the film, which is composed of abstract, repetitive, even absurd images of machinery, household objects, geometric shapes, and human faces, is aptly echoed in Antheil's score. Ultimately, however, technical limitations prevented the marriage of sound and image. Antheil's score called for the synchronization of a number of Pianolas (a type of player piano), a feat that required a level of mechanical precision impossible in pre-computer days. (It wasn't until 1999, in fact, that the score -- through the aid of computer-controlled pianos -- was first realized according to Antheil's original vision.) Still, Antheil fashioned Ballet mécanique into a clangorous concert work that calls for multiple keyboards and a battery of percussion "instruments" that includes a siren, electric bells, and airplane propellers.
When the work was first performed in Paris at a private function in 1926, it created a genuine sensation. "A number of persons instantly fell over from the gigantic concussion!" Antheil proudly recounted. (He also reported audience members hanging from the chandelier and women being tossed into the air from stretched blankets, among other examples of Roaring Twenties misbehavior.) When the work was introduced to America in a 1927 Carnegie Hall premiere, it fell flat (largely through the ill-considered meddling of a zealous promoter) but caused a riotous response and cemented Antheil's reputation as the "Bad Boy of Music." Though Antheil went on to produce a sizable (albeit toned-down) body of operas, film scores, and other works, Ballet mécanique remains his best-known effort and a remarkable sonic artifact of its time and place.