The New Time Travel


New technologies don’t always lead inexorably toward the future. Lately they’ve also been opening doors through which we can step straight into the past. One such door has let us experience a part of the childhood of our parents; another has led to the world premiere of a revolutionary 19205 musical milestone; a third—and most remarkable—opens out to a tour across preRevolutionary Russia, exactly as if it were all there today.

Even the relatively recent past holds mysteries we can never penetrate—just look at any book of jokes from more than a half a century ago. And until recently anyone under 60 in America was utterly perplexed by the idea that the children of an apparently simpler time—our parents—had amused themselves by pushing around on kick scooters, those old playthings that were essentially wood and metal skateboards with a vertical pole at the front. They were almost as unfathomable as that earlier fad of rolling a hoop with a stick. Then in an instant scooters were new and all around us again. Technology made it happen.

Specifically, a Taiwanese businessman named Gino Tsai decided he needed a way to get around his big bicycle factory. “My legs are too short, and my walking speed always seems too slow,” he explained. He took the long-forgotten concept and updated it with aircraft-grade aluminum tested to support an 1,100pound load without bending more than a fifth of an inch, polyurethane wheels and silent bearings (which had also helped bring about the disco-era revival of roller skates), and a patented brake worked by stepping on the rear fender. When he rode his scooter around the floor of a Chicago sporting-goods exposition in 1998, he was noticed by a buyer for the Sharper Image. That company took up the scooter, and it took off.

At the peak of the craze, in 2000, Tsai’s Razor scooter was the best-selling toy in America, and not just for children. For a brief time you could commonly see men in business suits scooting to their jobs on Wall Street. A generation from now that image will doubtless be as impenetrable an enigma of the past as scooters themselves were just a couple of years ago.

Another reawakening of a vanished age took place in the concert hall recently. An insurrectionary 192.4 musical work had its true premiere three-quarters of a century later—because technology made it finally possible. The work was Ballet Mécanique , by George Antheil. Antheil, born in Trenton, New Jersey, trained as a concert pianist and composed avant-garde music; he also wrote about romance for Esquire magazine, advised Hedy Lamarr on getting her breasts enlarged and collaborated with her on a torpedo-control invention used in World War II, predicted before the war that Germany would invade Poland and later Russia and would draw the United States into battle, and ended up a Hollywood movie-music composer.

In the 1920s, as an exile in Paris, he composed pieces with titles like Airplane Sonata and Death of Machines. Ballet Mécanique , in its earliest and most ambi tious version, in 1924, was scored for, among other instruments, 16 player pianos playing four separate parts, 4 bass drums, 7 fire bells, a police siren, and 3 airplane propellers. It proved impossible to perform, for there was no practical way to synchronize the player pianos with anything like the precision needed. It became famous —or infamous, anyway—though, when Antheil wrote a shortened and simplified version with just one player piano; it had its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1927, and it was such a fiasco that it wasn’t performed again for more than 60 years.


Enter a composer named Paul Lehrman, in the 1990s. He took all 1,240 bars of the original score and painstakingly translated them into a MIDI file. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the standard computer language for controlling musical instruments. Ballet Mécanique changes its time signature more than 600 times, and the job of converting it was huge. But once that was done, any part of it could be played by any MIDIequipped instrument, such as a Yamaha Disklavier CD-driven piano. Lehrman then prepared a click track, a recording indicating the beat, to help a conductor wearing headphones negotiate the constant time changes.

The results came together first in Massachusetts in 1999 and then at a Carnegie Hall premiere in April 2000, where eight MIDI-coordinated Disklaviers played all the player-piano parts, a woman in the middle cranked a siren, four xylophonists clattered away, and the three propellers roared through speakers from a recording made in California. The result was a big, repetitive clangor, sometimes loud, sometimes louder, sort of like a Philip Glass piece for industrial noisemakers. The New York Times called it “a riot of intertwined rhythms and noise.” For the first time the world heard what even in a watered-down version three-quarters of a century before had been considered “the acme of demented modernism,” in Virgil Thomson’s words, and had “outsacked the Sacre [ Rite of Spring ],” in Aaron Copland’s. Here was a living moment of the past that the past itself hadn’t experienced.