Arts & Culture

Charlie Chaplin image from the 1924 Léger–Murphy film (Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives)

Robots and Riots

BLAIR SCHOOL PREMIERES HISTORIC PIECE

On April 7 the Blair School of Music’s percussion ensemble VORTEX presented the Southeastern U.S. premiere of American composer George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique in its original 1924 orchestration.

Composed for the abstract film of the same name by French artist Fernand Léger and filmmaker Dudley Murphy, Ballet mécanique is a musical treatise on the human becoming mechanical—a piece so far ahead of its time that it could not be played as written until 1999 when computer software was created by Tuft University’s Paul Lehrman to synchronize the eight player pianos required for the performance. Lehrman joined VORTEX for the April event, which was only the sixth-ever performance of Antheil’s original orchestration to be presented along with the original version of Léger’s film.

Blair musicians had performed Antheil’s later 1953 arrangement of the piece in 2002, but that version had been written in desperation, says VORTEX Director Michael Holland. Antheil had created a piece for which the technology required did not exist.

“When Antheil was creating [the 1953] arrangement, I think he was kind of throwing up his hands,” says Holland. “By then he had been disgraced by the abominable performance at Carnegie Hall [in 1927], which was mishandled by the promoter who put it together.

“Antheil wrote for the sound—and this is key—the sound of three propellers: a large and small wooden propeller and a metal propeller. He didn’t write for the propellers to be on stage. The 1927 promoter turned mécanique into an outrageous spectacle. He hung a garish ‘jazz age’ backdrop, smuggled an actual propeller onstage just before the concert, and he pointed it right at the musicians and into the audience. He turns it on, and music is flying off the stands. It’s total chaos. A siren—never available in rehearsal—could not be controlled and screamed throughout Carnegie well after the piece was over.”

Although riots ensued after the 1927 Carnegie Hall premiere, Blair’s April performance was orderly. A delegation from the French Embassy and the Consulate General of France in Atlanta attended the performance, which opened with an introduction by the consul general’s cultural attaché, David Kibler. Arshia Cont, scientific leader of the MuTant Team Project in Paris, spoke at a mini-symposium earlier in the day that also featured a robotics exhibit.

Read more about Ballet mécanique and the award-winning documentary Bad Boy Made Good, produced and written by Paul Lehrman.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

London Stage Workshop (Credit: Joe Howell)

IMPRESSION

THE PLAY’S THE THING

Actors From The London Stage visited Vanderbilt University Theatre in February, performing Hamlet at the end of a weeklong residency. Actor Charles Armstrong, left, was one of the guest artists who led Vanderbilt students in workshop exercises during which the students interacted with Shakespearean texts. Students participating included (from left) Suolan Jiang, Nicole Gallop, Laura Winston, Mac Rackoff and Joel Derby.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Lorrie Moore (Credit: LINDA NYLIND)

Tale Spinner

AUTHOR LORRIE MOORE JOINS FACULTY

Lorrie Moore, a distinguished American fiction writer whose acclaimed short-story collections include Birds of America and Like Life, joins the Vanderbilt English department faculty with an endowed chair this fall. She will be the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English.

Her most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs (2009, Random House), was described in a New York Times book review as “her most powerful book yet, a book that gives us an indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11 and her initiation into the adult world of loss and grief.” Honors for the book include finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Orange Prize: Shortlist, and Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for Fiction. She also wrote the novels Anagrams and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

Moore is currently the Delmore Schwartz Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her many fellowships have included those awarded by the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Lannan Foundation. She has written for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and elsewhere.

Read The New York Times’ review of Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Alumna Ellen McSweeney, far left, and the Chicago Q Ensemble devote their efforts to collaboration with various art forms and championing the works of living composers. (Credit: Danielle Aquiline)

Pulling Strings

CHICAGO Q RELEASES NEW CD

The Chicago Q Ensemble, which features Ellen McSweeney, BMus’07, on violin, has released a CD of string quartets by American composer Amy Wurtz.

“We immediately felt we wanted to share Amy’s music with the world,” McSweeney says. “The two quartets were head and shoulders above other contemporary works we’d read. They are full of challenging harmonies, textures and techniques found in most 21st-century music, but also have the qualities of great traditional string quartet works.

“We saw this not only as an opportunity to premiere two outstanding pieces, but also to help change the underrepresentation of women in new music.”

Chicago Q is dedicated to collaboration with other art forms and championing works of living composers.

In 2012 they completed a residency at the Poetry Foundation that included six sold-out performances of Fjords, a collaboration with shadow-puppet performers Manual Cinema, composer Kyle Vegter
and poet Zachary Schomburg.

The quartet was the 2011 fellowship ensemble at the Worcester Chamber Music Society summer festival. In the summer of 2012, they made their debut at the Gesher Festival in St. Louis, performing works of Golijov and Shostakovich.

Watch the Chicago Q Ensemble on its YouTube channel.