A professor follows his own beat

The chaotic sounds of sirens, propellers, and electric bells rang through the ears of a teenage Paul Lehrman the summer that he was first introduced to composer George Antheil’s famous “Ballet Mechanique.” Although such sounds may not be what the typical person conjures up in his head when thinking of music, Lehrman, currently a member of Tufts music department, thinks otherwise.

For the past several years, he has been working on creating a documentary film to explain the phenomenon behind Antheil’s work. A controversial early twentieth century composer, many critics deemed Antheil’s music noisy and cacophonous.

Lehrman’s film debuted in Trenton, N.J. last March. The task of making the film was actually the offspring of a much greater task. In 1998, Lehrman was asked by music publisher G. Schirmer to help realize the original, never-performed version of George Antheil’s 1924 “Ballet Mechanique.”

The original score called for technology that did not exist at the time, such as high tech pianos and a music publisher. It also called for unconventional noisemakers, including sirens, electric bells, and propellers.

Using his extensive knowledge of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), Lehrman was able to electronically convert the original composition to sixteen synchronized player pianos, something that Antheil was unable to do back in 1924.

“I’d been working with MIDI and computers for twenty years,” Lehrman said, “but this was the first time that I actually got to do something historical and reach into the last century … I got to rescue a piece of music.”

Lehrman was only five years old when he began taking piano lessons. Born into a musical family — his with a composing brother and a violin playing father — music has always been at his core. At one point, Lehrman could play a total of seventeen instruments. “I played rock, folk, jazz, classical, I sang in choirs, I sang solo,” Lehrman recounted.

Lehrman spent his high school summers at the University of Vermont Summer Music Session, a music camp where, in addition to having the time of his life, one of his teachers familiarized him with a variety of percussion ensemble pieces, one of which was “Ballet Mechanique.”

He had no contact with the piece, however, until twenty years later when he began to work on bringing it to the concert hall. “I thought about [the piece],” Lehrman said. “It was kind of just lying dormant in the back of my mind all those years.”

After high school, Lehrman studied electronic music composition at Columbia University for two years until he decided to take a hiatus. When he returned to school, he attended SUNY Purchase, where he got his B.F.A. in orchestral performance as a bassoonist.

Lehrman was a member of the faculty at UMass Lowell for several years before he was recruited by music Professor David Locke for the Multimedia Arts Program at Tufts, and in 2000, he joined the Tufts faculty. Currently, Lehrman is teaching a class called “Electronic Musical Instrument Design,” which is offered through the music department, but is cross-listed as a class in the Mechanical Engineering Department.

“I love Tufts,” Lehrman said. “I love the students here, the attitude here, and the support … my favorite thing about Academia is bridging the departments.”

In addition to being a lecturer, Lehrman is also a journalist, and writes a monthly column for Mix Magazine. Some of his recent topics have been issues such as vocal synthesis — the idea of computers replacing singers, “why the world is so loud,” and copyright infringement involving file sharing programs such as Napster.

He has also written free-lance articles on the topic of “Ballet Mechanique” for other music magazines including Wired and Electronic Musician. In total, he has published over 500 articles in the last twenty-five years.

When Lehrman is not teaching, writing, or working on one of “Ballet Mechanique’s” many performances (since its debut in 1999 at UMass Lowell, it has been performed at over six venues worldwide), Lehrman spends his time composing.

He has composed music for various television documentaries, and in April, he will be performing an improvisational piece called “I dig a pigmy” at a sampler with other faculty members.

Lehrman completed his documentary, entitled “Bad Boy Made Good,” about “Ballet Mecanique” and its composer, which has received much acclaim, last March. After the premiere in Trenton (Antheil’s hometown), Lehrman showcased his documentary at a film festival in New Haven, Conn, where it won first prize.

Modestly, Lehrman joked about his win. “The winners were decided by audience vote, which means my mom probably voted fourteen times,” he said.

“Bad Boy Made Good” premiered at Tufts last month. The film, which was written and produced by Lehrman, was directed by Ron Frank, an award-winning documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles. A number of Tufts faculty and students, including professor Howard Woolf and graduate student Don Schechter, were involved in producing the documentary.