ballet mechanique

March 12 - May 14 2006


Our largest fabrication project to-date for a single event.

League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR) is currently engaged in its largest fabrication project to-date, creating custom robotics for George Antheil's "Ballet mécanique," which will be performed from March 12 to May 14, 2006 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. The installation of an all-mechanical Ballet mécanique orchestra is being presented in conjunction with the National Gallery's major exhibition on Dada. Antheil's amazing 1924 composition was originally written for three xylophones, four bass drums, tam-tam, two pianists, seven (or so) electric bells, a siren, three airplane propellers and sixteen synchronized player pianos. It is the first time in history that an all-mechanical version of "Ballet mécanique" is being performed. The revival is being programmed and edited by Paul D. Lehrman, a faculty member at Tufts University and America's leading authority on "Ballet mécanique" (www.antheil.org).

LEMUR is creating custom robotics to play three concert xylophones, four concert bass drums, a gong, a siren and three industrial fans. The fans will be used to simulate the airplane propellers. Altogether, there will be 140 separate robotic mechanisms. The robots are being built at LEMUR's shop at the Madagascar Institute, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, by a team headed by LEMUR Director Eric Singer and including Jesse Fox, Leif Krinkle, Roberto Osorio-Goenaga, Mauricio Melo, Mark Krawczuk, Michael Ang, Eleanor Lovinsky and Jonathan Zalben.

George Antheil was a young American composer living in Paris during the heady 1920s. This masterpiece was never heard in its original version until 75 years after its composition. It will now be presented on the mezzanine of the National Gallery of Art's East Wing every day for over two weeks, starting on March 12. Performing it will be 16 computer-controlled player grand pianos and an orchestra played entirely by robots. This will be not only the first all-mechanical version, but also the fastest, most maniacal, and--thanks to the cavernous acoustics of National Gallery's East Building--the loudest "Ballet mécanique" ever performed.

The player piano parts will be handled by 16 Gulbransen baby grand pianos equipped with Pianomation controls. The xylophone, bass drum, tam-tam, siren, propeller, and bell parts will be performed on real instruments by custom robots, all controlled by MIDI, using robotics built especially for this installation by LEMUR, under the direction of Eric Singer. The entire orchestra is under the control of a Macintosh G5 computer using Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer software.

The National Gallery's massive exhibition of Dadaist art (www.nga.gov/exhibitions/upcoming.shtm#dada) was previously shown at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and is coming to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This installation was commissioned by the music department of the National Gallery to accompany the Dada exhibit.


The installation will be in place March 12 through 29. The all-mechanical orchestra will be located on the Mezzanine of the National Gallery's East Building, next to the entrance to the Dada exhibition hall, and will be visible at all times. Twice daily (once daily on weekends) the orchestra will roar into action. Performance times are 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm on weekdays and 1:00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. At the National Gallery's request, the piece has been specially edited to ten minutes for this performance, partially out of concern for the comfort of a standing audience.

In addition, the film "Ballet mécanique" by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy will be shown (without sound) continuously as part of the Dada exhibit.

There will be a gala premiere Sunday, March 12 at 1:00 pm.

Admission to the National Gallery of Art is always free. The National Gallery of Art is located on the National Mall between Third and Seventh Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.


LEMUR (www.lemurbots.org) is a Brooklyn-based group of artists and technologists creating robotic musical instruments. Founded in 2000 by musician and engineer Eric Singer, LEMUR's philosophy is to build new types of instruments that extend the capabilities of human players. LEMUR contributing artists and technologists have included Jeff Feddersen, Milena Iossifova, Bil Bowen, Luke DuBois, Kevin Larke, David Bianciardi, Michelle Cherian, Brendan J. FitzGerald, Chad Redmon and Kate Chapman. Composers who have created works for LEMUR instruments include Joshua Fried, Mari Kimura, Lee Ranaldo, Milica Paranosic and J. Brendan Adamson.

The group's workspace is at The Madagascar Institute, an art combine located at 217 Butler Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217. (The closest subway stop is Bergen Street on the F/G lines.)

Eric Singer started thinking about musical robotism in 1999. Having worked extensively in electric instruments played by humans, with people sending data into computers to make sounds, he thought it would be provocative to reverse the process, "to make the data go the other way." After conversations with friends and colleagues, a group was formed and preliminary designs were discussed. In 2000, Singer reached out to Honeybee Robotics, a Manhattan company that creates robots, flight subsystems, automated drills and other machines destined for work on Earth, Mars, and beyond. Engineers from Honeybee joined the working group long enough to "show the way" in many areas. Key funding came in 2001 from the Rockefeller Foundation. Soon after that, Singer and colleagues began learning about machining and mechanical engineering to make up for the skills that engineers from Honeybee had initially brought.

The collaboration of LEMUR with Paul Lehrman on this production took root in 1999, the year that Singer first began conceiving musical robots, when he traveled to Lowell, MA for the he world premiere of the original version of the "Ballet mécanique." That performance, held in Durgin Concert Hall at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell and produced by Paul Lehrman, occurred 75 years after "Ballet mécanique" was composed and 40 years after the death of Antheil. Singer reports being "blown away" and inspired by the experience.

Lehrman was introduced to Singer's work when the two met at the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression in May 2005. When Lehrman was approached by the National Gallery a few months later about helping to design a Ballet mécanique installation, he suggested that the instrumental parts of the piece be handled by robots made by LEMUR. Lehrman and Singer met again at the October 2005 conference of the Audio Engineering Society, where the technical and logistical details were finalized.

LEMUR is supported in part by generous grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), the Greenwall Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, Arts International and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). LEMUR is also sponsored by Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center.


"Ballet mécanique" (www.antheil.org) is Antheil's most famous—or notorious—piece. It is a highly rhythmic, often brutalistic piece combining, among other elements, sounds of the industrial age, atonal music, and jazz. Its instrumental parts are extremely difficult to play. It lasts, in its various versions, between 14 and 30 minutes. (As indicated above, the piece has been edited to ten minutes for this performance.)

At its various early premieres, it caused tremendous controversy, not to mention fistfights. Although it was very successful in Paris, it was a huge flop when it came to New York, and in fact Antheil's career as a "serious" composer never recovered from that debacle.

The piece was originally supposed to be a soundtrack to a film of the same name by the French Dadaist painter Fernand Léger and cinematographer Dudley Murphy. But Antheil and the filmmakers worked separately from each other, and when they finally put the music and the film together, they realized they didn't work at all -- for one thing, the music was twice as long as the film.

Antheil wrote several versions of the piece. The very first, written in 1924 calls for 16 player pianos playing four separate parts, for four bass drums, three xylophones, a tam-tam, seven electric bells, a siren, and three different-sized airplane propellors (high wood, low wood, and metal), as well as two human-played pianos.

Until the 1990s, this version of the piece had never been performed in its original instrumentation, since the technology for linking and synchronizing multiple player pianos, whether 4 or 16, although theoretically possible when Antheil conceived the piece, turned out not to be practical. The European-based Ensemble Moderne was the first to attempt the piece: in 1996 and 1999, they performed it in Germany and France using two custom-modified MIDI-driven player pianos to play the four parts, and six pianists to play the two human parts.

In response to the technical difficulties, Antheil quickly re-arranged the player-piano parts so that they could be performed on a single instrument. This version was performed, using one player piano and 10 human-played pianos, in Paris in 1926 and in an extremely ill-fated concert at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1927, where it created such a fiasco--technically, musically, and financially--that it was not performed again for over 60 years. In 1989 it was revived by conductor Maurice Peress for a performance at Carnegie Hall, and at that time received its first and only recording.

In 1953, after he had established himself as a film composer in Hollywood, Antheil again revised the piece, using a very different ensemble of four pianos, four xylophones, two electric bells, two propellors, timpani, glockenspiel, and assorted percussion. This version, which is much tighter and shorter than the early versions, is performed fairly often and has been recorded several times.

Today, however, we have the technology to perform the piece with its original instrumentation. This has now been done over two dozen times. Since its premiere in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1999, it has been performed by the American Composers Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and other ensembles from British Columbia to Germany.

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