Now That’s What I Call Not Music 3!

To end this little series about reactions to early 20th-century avant garde music, I found this lovely apologea from the poet William Carlos Williams, about George Antheil’s “Ballet Mechanique“—whose orchestration called for “16 player pianos (or pianolas) in four parts, 2 regular pianos, 3 xylophones, at least 7 electric bells, 3 propellers, siren, 4 bass drums, and 1 tam-tam.” (Here’s a video of a modern performance by a robot orchestra). Williams’ enthusiasm gets at the idea that valuable art should not (or not only) be an escape from the world but something that equips us to dive back in and make something new of our old surroundings. I’m still not convinced that the “Ballet Mechanique” effect would work more than once or twice for a given listener, but what a once or twice!

Here is Carnegie Hall. You have heard something of the great Beethoven and it has been charming, masterful in its power over the mind. We have been alleviated, strengthened against life—the enemy—by it. We go out of Carnegie into the subway and we can for a moment withstand the assault of that noise, failingly! as the strength of the music dies….

But as we came from Anthiel’s “Ballet Mechanique,” a woman of our party, herself a musician, made this remark: “The subway seems sweet after that.” “Good,” I replied and went on to consider what evidences there were in myself in explanation of her remark. And this is what I noted. I felt that noise, the unrelated noise of life such as this in the subway had not been battened out as would have been the case with Beethoven still warm in the mind but it had actually been mastered, subjugated. Antheil had taken this hated thing life and rigged himself into power over it by his music. The offense had not been held, cooled, varnished over but annihilated and life itself made thereby triumphant. This is an important difference. By hearing Antheil’s music, seemingly so much noise, when I actually came up on noise in reality, I found that I had gone up over it.

Originally published at

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