Unusual arsenal for 'Big Bang'

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The Boston Globe
David Weininger
November 13, 2009

Eight player pianos, two grand pianos, four bass drums, four xylophones, an air-raid siren, and a gamelan that weighs nearly a ton - that's just some of the equipment that the Boston Modern Orchestra Project will have on the Jordan Hall stage for "Big Bang," tonight's percussion-heavy season-opening concert.

It's a bang big enough to cause some logistical headaches, says BMOP's music director, Gil Rose.

"My orchestra manager decided she won't kill me, but there has been some discussion of it," he says, sounding not entirely unserious.

The three works responsible for enlisting this unusual arsenal are George Antheil's Ballet mécanique, Edgard Varèse's Ionisation, and Lou Harrison's Lo Koro Sutra. Together, they stretch across 50 tumultuous years of modern music and present three composers striving to overcome the limits of conventional instrumentation and open new sonic horizons.

The works by Antheil (1924) and Varèse (1933) come from a period when Stravinsky’s success was emboldening composers to outdo one another in spectacle. "There were several composers who felt like they could get to the top of the heap by being the baddest boy in town," Rose says. "Can I write something so ridiculous that it outdoes the riot at the Rite of Spring?"

Antheil, in fact, titled his autobiography "The Bad Boy of Music." Ballet mécanique, his best-known piece, was an attempt to bring to life a mechanical form of music making. Along with an air-raid siren, airplane propellers, and a battery of percussion instruments, it was written for 16 player pianos that Antheil envisioned would play in synch with one another. Problem was, the technology wasn’t there yet.

"He thought that pianolas could be coordinated," says Rose. "And they can - for about five seconds." So Antheil made a number of shorter versions of the piece that eliminated them. A performance of the original version didn’t take place until 1999; Rose and BMOP performed it in 2001 at Symphony Hall. It's possible now thanks to MIDI software developed by Antheil expert Paul Lehrman.

A performance of the Ballet fulfills Antheil's mechanistic vision. At tomorrow's concert, eight Yamaha Disklaviers will play at a predetermined tempo, coordinated by Lehrman's software. Rose will wear an earpiece with a click track; when he conducts the human members of the ensemble, he will, in essence, be following the machines.

Problems of a different order bedevil Harrison's Lo Koro Sutra, composed in 1971 for chorus and gamelan on a Buddhist text translated into Esperanto. (The Providence Singers will perform with BMOP) Gamelans - collections of diverse percussion instruments - originated in Indonesia, but Harrison began building his own in the 1960s, often using scrap metal and other junk materials he came across.

"Harrison would invent these gamelans, write a couple of pieces for them, and then he’d find some other angle he wanted to pursue sonically and he’d invent another one," Rose explains. The catch is that "you need those instruments to play those pieces."

Lo Koro Sutra was written for what Harrison called his "American gamelan." Among its contents are triangles, maracas, gongs, two different kinds of tuned metal bars known as sarons and genders, and six enormous bells made from sawed-off compressed air tanks. And before you mention the kitchen sink: It also contains two steel washtubs.

Two versions of this gamelan existed when BMOP made inquiries about renting one for their performance. They discovered that Harrison's original was too fragile to travel, while the other version was, improbably, already booked for another performance.

"This is where the adage that it's better to be lucky than good came in," says Rose. He made contact with an instrument maker named Richard Cooke who had helped Harrison build the original American gamelan and was building a copy of it for an Illinois museum. BMOP commissioned him to build another.

"We are now the proud owners of 1,800 pounds of gamelan," says Rose. "And all the cases that go with it." BMOP plans to perform and record the other two pieces Harrison wrote for the gamelan and to rent it out for performances by other groups.

Constructing it entailed myriad challenges - among them, procuring compressed air tanks in a post-9/11 world. (They can be used to make pipe bombs, Rose notes.) But the sight of the gamelan - along with the spectacle of the player pianos moving in synch with one another - should make for an evening that’s as dramatic visually as it is aurally.

Still, he says, "There’s a lot of mornings I wake up and think, yeah, I wish someone would've tackled me before I wandered down this path."