ANTHEIL:  Ballet mÈchanique.  CAGE/HARRISON: Double Music for Percussion Quartet.  GRAYSON: Shoot the Piano PlayerMister 528. ROLDÁN:  Ritmica No. 5.  Ritmica No. 6.  MENDELSSOHN-LEHRMAN:  Saltarello-Presto from Symphony No. 4
University of Massachusetts Lowell Percussion Ensemble/Jeffrey Fischer, cond.
EMF CD 020 (F) (DDD) TT:  59:43

Bonk! The Twentieth Century has done at least two notable musical things: expanded the percussion section and freed it from its limited role as orchestral commentator; built increasingly versatile musical automata. Little did Liszt realize what his use of the triangle in the first piano concerto would lead to. The piano, of course, was itself the first modern high-tech musical machine -- as Harold Schonberg points out, an emblem and product of the new industrial age. This CD programs music for percussion ensemble, synthesizers, player pianos, and various exotica. Most of the music here is sixty years old and older. All of it at least piqued my interest. Some of it I even love.

John Cage and Lou Harrison's Double Music had an interesting genesis. It's a semi-collaborative work. The two composers agreed on matters of meter and tempo (as well as the pitch ranges they would work in) and then wrote the music independently of one another -- one taking soprano and tenor, as it were, and the other alto and bass. You would expect a proper mess, but the work confounds expectations. It's mainly very delicate -- decorous, even -- suggesting the quieter instances of Balinese gamelan. One of my favorite sounds in the work is that of the "water gong" -- a gong struck under water. This effectively filters out the harshness of a gong struck out of water and leaves a hum on a definite pitch that sounds like a cello bowed forever.

Richard Grayson's works are the most recent. Shoot the Piano Player (alternate title, Shoot the Player Piano) from 1995 unites the player piano to electronic sounds. Grayson has a sense of fun, which undoubtedly will not ingratiate himself to that part of the classical-music audience without one. He wants to evoke those saloon pianists in film westerns. His "pianist" is, to put it kindly, uncertain -- from rotgut, arthritis, whatever. There's a similar effect in Copland's piano concerto from the Twenties. The piece ends with electronic gunfire (Colts, not Uzis) and the predictable result. Mr. 528 employs six player pianos (Disklaviers; 6 x 88 = 528) and synthesizers. In this realization, three of the Disklaviers (conceived of by the composer as "heard but not seen") are simulated by a synthesizer, and another synthesizer provides electronic twitterings and glissandi. The piece has a very strong visual element. Three of the upright Disklaviers have their hammers visible to the audience, and one gets visual patterns as well as aural ones -- lost, unfortunately, on an audio CD. The piece ends in an orgy of glissandi up and down the keyboards. This must be a spectacular live show.

Roldán, a Cuban composer, was born with the century and died young. On the basis of these brief pieces, he was a tremendous talent. The Ritmicas use standard and folk-percussion instruments on Cuban dance patterns, like the danzón. Tremendously vital, the works capture the cross-rhythms of the Caribbean.

The arrangement of the Mendelssohn comes across as a kind of party piece. Sixteen Disklaviers arranged into eight groups become an orchestra of pianos, with various "instrumental sections" located in particular parts of the sonic image. The Mendelssohn symphony is one my favorite works and, apparently, one of the arranger's (Paul D. Lehrman) as well. Indeed, he seems mildly obsessed with it and has arranged it many times for various electronic and computer formats.

The real star of the CD, however, remains the Antheil. This is, apparently, the first recording of the absolutely original Paris version. The main difficulty in realizing a performance stems from the composer's use of four groups of pianolas. At the time, there was simply no way to synchronize the instruments. MIDI control makes this issue a snap, and that's what they've done here, coordinating sixteen Disklaviers in four groups. In addition, Antheil specifies -- not actual airplane propellers -- but the simulation of their sound, as well as sirens, electric bells, and two grand pianos played by humans. In this recording, sampled sounds took care of the propellers and the sirens (which take a while to warm up; this way, a musician could respond to a "normal" cue). Since sixteen Disklaviers would overwhelm any two Horowitzes, piano synthesizer modules were fitted to Roland and Kurzweil keyboards, which were then amplified. The upshot of all this is a hell of a racket, exciting and brutal at the same time. Antheil made two other versions: one in 1926, using a single player piano (the Carnegie Hall version, recorded by Maurice Peress on MusicMasters 01612-67094-2 (which may still be available from BMG Music Service); one in 1952, abridged and rescored for more conventional forces. I have very little love for the '52 version, which to me straightens out the kinks and makes the piece way too respectable. The 1924 original is wild and wooly, but in this particular realization seems too thick. Those sixteen Disklaviers really muddy up everything. They can't get out of even each other's way. Furthermore, it's just too mechanical for me. Peress, particularly in the last movement, seems to get the music to breathe as well as to beat. So I favor the 1926 version over the other two. Here, one realizes the genius level of inspiration in the music itself, above and beyond the means. Nevertheless, I'm going to keep listening to good ol' 1924. It's just so loopy.

The sound is fine in everything but the Mendelssohn and the Antheil -- clearer in the Mendelssohn than in the Antheil. 1408 hammers are a bit of a poser to any audio engineer. Add the straws of two amplified synthetic pianos, various bits of percussion, and a synthesizer in the Antheil, and you've just broken the camel's back. I haven't yet experimented with listening through high-end headphones, mostly for fear of busting my eardrums. But I may try it down the pike.

S.G.S.  (March 2002)