Repetition II

Jacques Derrida:

I am not an “Ornette Coleman expert,” but if I translate what you are doing into a domain that I know better, that of written language, the unique event that is produced only one time is nevertheless repeated in its very structure. Thus there is a repetition, in the work, that is intrinsic to the initial creation—that which compromises or complicates the concept of improvisation. Repetition is already in improvisation: thus when people want to trap you between improvisation and the pre-written, they are wrong.

Ornette Coleman:

Repetition is as natural as the fact that the earth rotates.

From an interview in Les Inrockuptibles, 1997. Translated by Timothy S. Murphy. (And with thanks to Geoff Winston.)



space station

‘Repetition is so fantastic, anti-glop. Listening to a dial tone in Bb, until American Tel & Tel messed and turned it into a mediocre whistle, was fine. Short waves minus an antenna give off various noises, band wave pops and drones, hums, that can be tuned at will and which are very beautiful.’

Lou Reed. ‘The View from the Bandstand’, Aspen 3

And then possibly…

‘Records should have cracks after the best phrases. So they will repeat over and over and over. As many times as I want to hear them.’

Ballet Mécanique

Francis Picabia. Cover of his magazine 391, New York, 1917.

Francis Picabia. Cover of his magazine 391, New York, 1917.


Saturday evening at 5, February 9th. Royal Festival Hall. The Aurora Orchestra ‘Dance of the Machines (Paris 1926)’. Part of ‘The Rest is Noise’ season.

This concert is unusual for a number of reasons:

The programme is short and very mixed (though thematically linked):

Jai deux amours – composed for Josephine baker by Vincent Scotto

After I Say I’m Sorry – composed for Josephine Baker by Abe Lyman and Walter Donaldson

Jazz Sonata – George Antheil

‘Danse Sacrale’ from The Rite of Spring – composed and arranged for pianola by Igor Stravinsky

Ballet Mécanique – George Antheil

The audience are similarly mixed…quite a few children with their families alongside the people you might expect to see at the RFH. Furthermore the performance space has been reversed so that the audience are sitting on the stage while the musicians have their back to the auditorium. So the audience are looking out beyond the stage to the empty, unlit hall.

Front page of Antheil's original score.

Front page of Antheil’s original score.

The final piece in the hour-long programme is Ballet Mécanique – for 2 pianos, 1 pianola, multiple xylophones and percussion plus propellers, klaxons and bells. Though film has been used to link the various pieces in the set so far, this piece of music, though written for Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s film of the same name, is shown without visuals. And this is because the composer, George Antheil, ignored the film when he was composing the piece…he made it twice as long as Léger and Murphy’s film and it is questionable if he ever saw footage while he was working on the music. So Ballet Mécanique the film was premiered without its soundtrack. The premier of the music ended in a ‘riot’ – possibly the riot that Alex Ross suggests was actually staged for Marcel L’Herbier’s film LInhumaine.



Since that point the piece has had a history of difficulties and mismatches. It soon emerged that it was nearly impossible to synchronise the 16 pianolas which had been intended for the piece. When the New York premier took place in Carnegie Hall in 1927 there was trouble once more and the music was ridiculed in the press.


Hearing it played by the Aurora Orchestra on Saturday it is just possible to imagine the hostile contemporary reaction though hard to see why it might provoke a riot. The music has a percussive insistency flavoured by jazz and is punctuated by the wailing of klaxons and the drive of percussion. It is all quite exhilarating and offers at least the illusion of a microcosm of the avant-garde music of Paris at that particular point in time. Surprisingly, the concert marked the first public appearance of the pianola on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall.

‘In music there is nothing else, except TIME and SOUND, and the physical and psychic CONCEPT of these vibrating the human organism.

Anything else is literary, and does not belong to pure music.

For instance my Ballet Mécanique has absolutely no forte or piano moments. It is MERELY PLAYED LOUD ENOUGH TO BE HEARD.’

George Antheil, My Ballet Mécanique, 1925.

Doing some internet research later the confused history of Ballet Méchanique is revealed. Antheil himself made several arrangements of the music, one in 1926 to address the problems of the unsynchronised pianolas and another in 1953 for a more conventional orchestra. It was not heard with the film until a new synchronised arrangement was made by Paul Lehrman in 2001. During the Dada exhibition in Washington DC in 2006 the music was played by 16 pianos set up as a mechanical orchestra by the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots. Programming and midi interfaces have made new versions possible too. So the piece seems even further from any sense of authenticity than most composed music with the possibility of a definitive rendition disappearing into a fog of technical difficulties and proposals…maybe its performances will go on evolving beyond anything the composer would have recognised, constantly breaking, morphing and re-emerging.

The Aurora Orchestra

The Aurora Orchestra



The Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon

Gabrielle Ducomble – voice

Rex Lawson – pianola

Iain Farrington – piano

PS. I strongly recommend reading Rex Lawson’s response to this piece which corrects a few factual errors and adds insightful detail….see ‘comments’.



31st January 2013


1. At the Kurt Schwitters exhibition in Tate Britain as the sound of the Ursonate leaked out from the central room…trying to work out where the fragment of ‘phonograph record’ was in the collage.

kiss 1

2. This Prince single from Dalston Oxfam. 59p.

3. Telling my son. Ivo,  about how ‘That Lady’ (by the Isley Brothers – but I couldn’t remember that at the time) was stuck in my head…but also thinking that the intro of acoustic guitar followed by that wailing electric guitar and wordless falsetto vocal is really wonderful. This song is almost ruined by too much exposure…too much radio play and being played in the background in too many shops.

4. At the Vortex Jazz Club after hearing a duet by Han Bennink and Steve Beresford, talking to Ivo about the validity of ‘prepared piano’ as a musical strategy.

5. Evan Parker, John Edwards, Han Bennink. Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston.









6. Listening to Instant Composers Pool Orchestra and thinking about the band I heard in the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi in the 1980s. They were playing jazz in a lounge style but they also kept drifting into an almost subliminal version of Indian music. It was like an inflection within the sound. Well, I think that is how they sounded. I think I may have got drunk that night and so much time has passed. Out of time and space.

7. ICP’ s cellist, Tristan Honsinger’s single vocal intervention into the ICP set sounding just like a fragment of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate.