Thursday, September 02, 2010

Voilà Ballet Mécanique!

Okay people, I know you. I know all about you. You've probably been wondering where you could check up on the genesis of the internet and the role the silent film star Hedy Lamarr played in making it all happen with stolen Nazi technology (this is, I might add, actually true).

If so, you've only got a few days to get ready there's going to be a performance of Ballet Mécanique: A Spread-Spectrum Ecstasy at the University of Notre Dame (click the poster image above if you want to read the fine print). But if you can't make the show, fret not: it is an adaptation of “Automystifstical Plaice," the most important part of John Matthias' amazing book Working Progress, Working Title,, which you can dial up on Amazon for a mere twelve bucks.

I can't make the performance, but I can tell you about the poem, which in dealing with the intersection of eros, art, and technology takes on the big theme of the relation of power to the world of aesthetics and play. “Automystifstical Plaice,” the 30 page poem that begins Working Progress, Working Title, provides a stunningly complex example of the breakdown of the play/power dichotomy. The poem begins with an evocation of Paris in the twenties, jumbling together lines redolent of that era’s playfulness with lines that remind us of the two world wars — the clashes of powers — that frame the era:

In the beginning
without any mother the girl was born a machine.
In the year of erotic parades.
The Novia poured out the oil the gears were engaged
the études composed and the light bulb
was Amèricaine. Voilà Picabia sweetheart of first
occupation voilà ballet méchanique.
We’ll not eat our bread by the sweat of our brows
in the end: Je viens pour toujours
it is error and grief you’ll be known by
the strength of our steel
the number of our rivets...

We begin with a girl, but this one is “born a machine,” and therefore somehow affiliated with the world of mechanized utility and power. Erotic parades indicate an outbreak of play in the streets of Paris, and the tremendous playfulness of the era’s artistic production gets a nod. It’s important that we’re presented with avant-garde artists like Francis Picabia and Georges Antheil, too: it is the avant-garde, with its disdain for market success or political propaganda, that represents art at its most free and playful. And the very idea of Antheil’s Ballet Méchanique seems to imply power turned to play: it involved using airplane engines (recently developed by the wartime powers as instruments of war) as musical instruments. The optimism of the era and its artists even seems to promise a liberation from the realm of necessity and material utility: “We’ll not eat our bread by the sweat of our brows” almost reverses the injunction to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows placed on Adam and Eve when they’re expelled from Eden. But the signs of malevolent power are everywhere. We’re reminded of Picabia’s exile during the occupation of France, and we’re reminded, too, of how the era entre deux guerres came to an end, with error and grief and the relentless wartime exercise of power by armies built of steel and rivets. The throwing together of all this indicates at the outset of the poem the blurring of the distinction between the spheres of play and power that we’ll see in the pages that follow.

The poem soon unfolds a bizarre, true story that seems at first to show the subordination of play to power. We meet the starlet Hedy Lamarr in her early life in Germany, where she’s an actress in pornographic movies and the mistress of Fritz Mandl, an arms merchant selling his wares to the Third Reich. “That’s Mandl, Fritz, from Vienna, the armaments man, the war profiteer,” we read, and with him is Hedy Lamarr, introduced as “the naked broad in the film.” He is a dark figure of power, while she is the thoroughly objectified woman, Mandl’s plaything, and utterly subordinate to his will: he literally will not let her leave his sight. Mandl’s possessiveness of Lamarr, combined with a contempt for her intellect (sadly typical of the man of power’s contempt for the player) lead to a breakdown of the barrier between play and power, and to a kind of revenge of play upon the world of power.

The poem approaches this breakdown of these barriers by showing us one of the more curious scenes in the history of modernism: the riot that took place during a performance of Antheil’s piano music, a performance that was being filmed for Marcel L’Herbier’s movie L’Inhumaine. L’Inhumaine was intended as both a star-vehicle for the famous singer Georgette LeBlanc and as a showcase for modern art of all kinds, with figures such as Francis Picabia, Fernand Léger, and Darius Milhaud involved in the production, and luminaries such as Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Erik Satie, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce making brief appearances. Although Antheil did not know it at the time, L’Herbier and LeBlanc were banking on the music causing a riot, as it has in earlier performances. As Antheil put it in his autobiography,

…most curiously, this riot is no fake one. It is an actual riot, the same riot through which I played and lived the night of October 4, 1923. When I first viewed this movie a year later, I suddenly remembered Georgette LeBlanc walking up to my piano while the great floodlights in the balcony poured on us both simultaneously: I had thought it odd then. So I naturally asked Margaret Anderson [founder of The Little Review and lover of Georgette LeBlanc] about it, not without a grin of appreciation. She said yes, it been a sort of plot at that, but a plot in which she and Georgette had been sure I would greatly profit. She said that she thought I would be too nervous if I knew in advance that the house floodlights had been previously reinforced and cameras hidden in the balcony in the hope that my piano sonatas would cause the same sort of riot in Paris that they had caused in Germany.

L’Herbier was correct in predicting that Antheil’s performance would provoke a riot, an angry expression of the power of a crowd. But this apparent trumping of play by power is by no means the end of the matter: the expression of crowd-power is harnessed by L’Herbier’s cameras, and becomes a part of his own ludic artwork. Then, in a fine irony, the film itself goes on to provoke riots. As Jacque Catelan, the actor who played the scientist, wrote of it in his memoir of L’Herbier:

A chaque séance, les spectateurs s'insultent, il y a autant de partisans frénétiques que d'adversaires acharnés. C'est dans un véritable vacarme que passent sur l'écran, à toutes les représentations, les images multicolores et syncopées sur lesquelles se termine le film. Des femmes, le chapeau de travers, exigent d'ètre remboursées; des hommes, les traits convulsés, se précipitent sur le trottoir où, parfois, les pugilats continuent.

Which I'd roughly translate as:

At each screening, the spectators insulted each other: there were as many frantic partisans of the film as there were crazed adversaries. The multicolored, syncopated images at the film’s end were shown amid a true uproar. Women, with hats askew, demanded refunds, while men, their faces convulsed with anger, poured out onto the sidewalks, sometimes to fight.

The relation of play and power is no longer one of simple antimonies: it has become dialectic. Play becomes power becomes play, and so on.

Matthias cross-cuts his descriptions of L’Inhumaine and the Antheil riots with a treatment of another scandalous Antheil piece intended to accompany film, the groundbreaking Ballet Méchanique (which involves using airplane engines, synchronized player pianos, and modified automobile parts as instrumentation). Here, too, we see the dialectic of power and play at work:

Ma clicketyclack
of the dactylicanapests jerking the film
through a circle of light the soloist booed from the stage
the piano rolls looping their loops
in twelve pianolas electronic bells and a xylophone siren
another Picabia made from the parts
of a Model-T Ford

This presents a strange music, a music in which the instruments of technological power and the fruits of mass production are transformed by Antheil and Picabia into the pure play of music: Picabia’s constructions are a kind of détournement of the great symbol of modern America’s industrial power. Later, the speaker asks us if we understand the mathematical principles behind Antheil’s complex, automated synchronizations of his mechanical instruments: “You do comprehend these recursions are different/from those you expect” says the speaker, “the power plant cycles like no minuet?” Here, our attention is drawn to the way Antheil has repurposed mathematical formulae more frequently used for the generation of power, converting them to musical play.

It’s not just that these players seize the materials of power, though: power and play morph into one another throughout the poem. Consider the following passage (“Lescot” here is Claire Lescot, the leading character of L’Inhumaine, and an important character throughout “Automystifstical Plaice”):

So Model-T begat Picabia who as machinist made the shape that named a choreography. And then Antheil’s recital drove the riot L’Herbier required for Lescot before she visits Léger’s laboratory where her lover there among the angles and geometric shapes, the silver desks and rods and knobs and dials and flashing beams of light, transfigures her.

Firstly, there’s the business about Picabia and the Model-T: previously, we’d seen him as turning the symbol of technological power into an instrument of play. Here, though, we see things from a different angle: the kind of play Picabia and Antheil (and L’Herbier, and a host of others) are up to is enabled only by the mechanized power of Henry Ford and the powerful industrial society for which he stands. Play transforms power, but also depends on it.

It all gets more complicated, too. In drawing our attention to a scene in the Léger-designed laboratory of L’Inhumaine, Matthias calls up one of the central plot events of a film that is, itself, a meditation on the relation of art and play to power. In the film, the protagonist Claire Lescot is a famous singer courted by many powerful men, including the Maharaja of Nopur. She is aloof, and spurns them all, causing one of them, a scientist, to commit suicide. Her fans are appalled by her inhuman coldness, and riot during a concert she gives (this is, of course, the scene for which L’Herbier engaged the services of Antheil). Shaken by this, she goes to the tomb of the scientist and confesses her love for him. It turns out that he has only feigned his death, but no happy reunion is possible just yet: the jealous Maharaja kills Claire. Fortunately, the scientist is able to restore her to life. The events of the film involve the triumph of a singer — that is, a figure of play — over the Maharaja, a jealous figure of power. All of this is facilitated by technology.

Matthias ties the story of Hedy Lamarr and Fritz Mandl (another tale of play and power) into all this. Since Mandl wouldn’t let Lamarr out of his sight — even when meeting with high-level Nazi officials and discussing new military technology — she was privy to secret information. As Matthias puts it, “she had been a silent party to analyses of radio control and interception by the politicians and engineers,” and

she’d listened first to all those conversations among guests who’d come on business with the Hertzenberger Industries. Like Krupp and Basil Zaharov, Mandl had the reputation of a man who’d start a war if that would move the goods. Goebbels kissed her hand from time to time and Göring held her chair. No one understood she could understand the technicalities.

When Hedy Lamarr finally escapes from Mandl and Germany, she ends up in Los Angeles, where she meets another European émigré, George Antheil. Because he’d learned the mathematical and mechanical technicalities of signal synchronization to stage his Ballet Méchanique, he was able to collaborate with her on adapting Nazi war technology for new purposes. The fruits of their collaboration included what eventually became the standard remote control system for American naval torpedoes, as well as the signal technology behind cell phones and the midi technology that allows for contemporary digital music. The work of men of power is changed in the hands of figures of play, and is transformed into new forms of play and power. The very distinction between the realms of play and power breaks down.


Here, if you're interested, are Matthias' performance notes for the upcoming show. They're also good to have on hand if you're reading the book:

In November of 2000 I happened to read the obituary of Hedy Lamarr, the famous screen siren of the Golden Age at MGM. I remember seeing her in Tortilla Flats when I was very young, and a little later in De Mille’s Samson and Delilah. She was in fact a remarkable woman. Having created a sensation in 1933 with a nude swimming scene and, for its period, a very convincing episode of lovemaking with her co-star, she made the Czech movie Ecstasy a famous episode in the history of cinematic candor. In that same year, however, she married Friedrich Mandl, the Viennese arms manufacturer who became friends with Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering during the rise of the Nazi regime. Eventually, he was a major producer, on the scale of Krupp and Hertzenberger, of armaments during the war. Mandl was extremely jealous and quite horrified at the famous nudity and lovemaking in Ecstasy. He bought up all the copies of the film he could lay hands on and more or less imprisoned Lamarr in his castle. Before she escaped in 1937 disguised as one of her maids, she had sat through many technical discussions between Mandl, Nazi officials, and other industrialists. Lamarr was a smart and mathematically-literate woman, and she understood everything that was said. By the time she escaped, first to Paris and then to the United States, she intended to put her knowledge to use.

I learned from the obituary that once Lamarr was settled in Hollywood and had reignited her acting career with the help of Louis Mayer, she asked around about making contact with someone who understood synchronization. She was put in touch with George Antheil, the avant-garde composer and friend of Pound and Joyce, who was now also in Hollywood writing music for the movies. Antheil was mainly known, and is still mainly known, for his score for the movie Ballet Méchanique, which eventually became a stand-alone concert piece for percussion and sixteen synchronized player pianos. Lamarr asked him if he could help her design a radio-directed torpedo according to the principals that we now call spread-spectrum technology. It turned out that he could, although he had to work almost entirely with the number 88 since all of his previous experience with synchronization had to do with that number of piano keys. In fact the two collaborators did eventually design such a scheme, got it patented, and tried to convince the War Department that the contraption would actually work. The patent gathered dust until Sylvania began developing transistor technology in the 1950s. The patent in fact is the prototype of designs used for cell phones, wireless Internet, and today’s so called smart weapons. Only at the end of her life did Hedy Lamarr obtain any credit at all for one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century.

I began at once to write a poem that deals with the Lamarr-Antheil collaboration in the context of many other things happening in the lives both of the two principal characters and the lives around them. Of great importance in following the text is the association of scenes from a number of films from the period, especially Ballet Méchanique itself, which is almost entirely abstract or cubist, and L’Inhumaine, about an “inhuman” singer whose cold and calculating life leads to her being shouted down by a large audience in the famous Théatre des Champs Elyseés in Paris. The connection with Antheil in the second film has to do with a performance of several piano pieces at the Theatre des Champs Elyseés that did indeed start a riot that was filmed, and in fact anticipated, by the director of L’Inhumaine, Marcel L’Herbier. The actress Georgette Leblanc was superimposed on Antheil in the film so that it looks like the audience is directing their ire at her character, Clare Lescot, rather than at Antheil. But the riot itself appears to be entirely authentic because it was. In fact we see people like Pound, Joyce, Duchamp and others who attended the Antheil concert shouting down the rioters on behalf of the person who appears to be Claire Lescot in the film, but who was actually George Antheil.

There are many other historical characters and references in the poem. Some years after having published it on the Internet, in a magazine, and in my book called Working Progress/Working Title, I had the thought that it might make an interesting theatre piece if we could add a lot of documentary material in sound and image. Chris Jara has taken on this task with great enthusiasm and skill. Hedy Lamarr does not speak in the poem, but she is much spoken about. The main voices are Claire Lescot, who steps out of L’Inhmaine as the kind of mechanical figure she was portrayed to be in the film, but who in the course of the text morphs into a fully mature contemporary robot inhabiting a robotics lab at MIT. Her voice is read by Joyelle McSweeney. General background and commentary is filled in several times by the voice of an over-enthusiastic 1940s radio-journalist type. One might think of Walter Winchell, if anyone remembers that name. Steve Fredman reads that part, as well as the brief intrusion of Salvador Dali’s voice in the course of a dialogue in California with Cecil De Mille about surrealism and the Un Chien Andalou. I will read the text of various links and connections, as well as one voice in the two dialogue sections with Joyelle-Claire Lescot. The title of this, by the way, is “Automystifstical Plaice,” and Plaice is spelled with an i. A few other references to keep in mind:

Auteuil, often referenced with regard to Antheil and his circle: A French race course.

Boski: George Antheil’s wife

Aribert Mog: the co-star with Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy

Picabia: The artist whose painting of Le Ballet Méchanique appears behind me.

Daumier’s Washer Woman: Looped and rhymed in the Ballet Méchanique film.

Café du Dôme: Popular Parisian hangout during the pre-WW II period.

Un Chien Andalou: Surrealist film by Dalí and Luis Buñuel.

MIDI: A computerized device used by contemporary composers.

RUR: Russell’s Universal Robots, a play by Karel Çapec, in which the word Robot first entered literature.

The Plainsman: a De Mille film with Gary Cooper.

Neils Barricelli: a Princeton mathematician and thinker.

If you make it to the show, drop me a line and tell me about it. I'm sad not to be there. I mean, anything having to do with Hedy Lamarr should be a site of pilgrimage.