Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ghost in the Machine: Leonardo Balada's 'Steel Symphony'

The wistful, lovely sounds of modern machinery have long fascinated composers. Especially in the 1920s, the clanging of factories and the rumblings of engines permeated musical scores. Inspired by futurism, composers like George Antheil (in the Ballet mécanique) brazenly built the sounds of machines into their works.

While this excitement about mechanical sounds has certainly suffused music of the later twentieth-century, it has gone far beyond simply imitating and reveling in modern noise. You could argue (as Flora Dennis and Jonathan Powell have in their Grove article on futurism) that movements like serialism and minimalism are related to the futurists' fascination with machines.

But some music of the later twentieth century is cut directly from the same cloth as pieces like the Ballet mécanique or Arthur Honegger's train-inspired Pacific 231. Enter Leonardo Balada (1933-), who was born after the 1920s musical tech-craze but produced at least one symphony that could have fit right into that movement.

Balada, born in Spain, composed several symphonies and has taught at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pa, since 1970. So it's fitting that he'd make one of those symphonies intimately linked to the industrial landscape of his American town. The Steel Symphony was premiered by Donald Johanos and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1973. And as the composer acknowledged in the liner notes for Lorin Maazel's 1986 recording with the same group (heard in the clips here), he used the sounds of local steel mills for inspiration.

The symphony begins like Weigl's Fifth, with the sounds of an orchestra tuning. Perhaps that was the easiest way to suggest the beginning of the workday in a steel mill, the tools literally tuning up for a day's work:

Soon, a blanket of ominous sounds covers the listener. Layers of pedal points, striking intervals, and ghostly, sliding strings make this clip sound more like a march of war than a day at the factory:

Clearer rhythms and tunes do show up in this symphony — eventually. The regular pulsing of a machine nearly becomes an all-out dance before it's rudely interrupted (by the foreman?), and one of Balada's favorite devices, the frantic scurrying of strings, takes over:

Overall, the form of this one-movement work alternates between the dance-like, mechanical passages and broader, more rhapsodic, unpredictable, and pedal-point heavy ones, like this:

Balada's Steel Symphony came toward the end, rather than the beginning, of an industry's heyday. Back in the 1920s, machines were exciting — even though the First World War taught everyone how harmful they could be. In the early 1970s, when Balada wrote his Steel Symphony, though, the prospects for steel in Pittsburgh — whether Balada knew it or not — were getting bleak. So Balada's symphony gives us something of a look back. In his liner notes for the Maazel recording, David Wright suggested that the timpani heartbeat-like rhythm at the end is an "unabashed tribute to the symbiosis of human and machine." But we could instead hear the fading of that heartbeat rhythm as a prediction of the death of a big part of a city's identity, or as a musical depiction of an industry's last gasp:

But I don't think futurism itself is dead. It's just taken on new forms. As this clip reveals, there's hope yet for the connection between music and machines.

— Matthew Mugmon