POETICS OF MUSICAL MACHINERY
Interview with Pierre Bastien
Interview with Pierre Bastien
“I think the machines have a certain style. I think I got a style from my little machines.”
Q: Where does your composing process most often start from - a musical idea that you start transcribing into mechanical action, or from the mechanism that you start building and than composing the rest of the elements in relation to that, or from the choice of sounds (objects or instruments) that you want to use in a piece?
A: In general, when I want to compose music, I need to build things first. I don’t remember how was it at the beginning, but nowadays a new composition would be just the continuation of the previous one. For example, now I am building a new machine, a new system. It’s a set of machines I will be playing with for the following two years. Basically, I base my construction on the previous construction. I am trying to improve them based on my experience with previous machines. For example, the current system has a small bass player made of rubber bands, elastics. I pull the elastics one after another (8 strings), and I can make different bass-lines. There is a mechanical finger which is turning and plucking the strings. Now, I am building a new automatic bass player, and this one will have 20 strings instead of 8, and I will have a good range to compose some bass-lines.
Q: Are you ever inspired only by an object that you found interesting and decide to base the whole piece around that object? If so, what kind of object is it, and what attracts you about it - its shape, the function, the sounding possibilities or something else?
A: I have been making music for long, so all the options happen at some point. Some 15 years ago, I built an orchestra made of household (daily-life) objects, and I mechanized them. These were scissors, teapot, pliers, tooth-brushes, leather-scale...There were 8 to 10 objects. I remember choosing scissors because they are sometimes used in African music, as a percussion instrument. The teapot because the lid can open and close like a hi-hat. Tooth-brushes were used as brushes on a drum set. This was more an imitation of instruments. Nowadays, I choose objects because I like their flexibility. When I chose those objects, I’ve read a famous book by jazz musician Art Taylor - “Notes and tones”. He has interviewed his drummer colleagues, asking them if they tune their drums. Most often, they would say no, they just do it at random to make basic differences between high, mid and low tones. I liked the idea, and decided to build this little bass-player in the way that the strings wouldn’t be tuned. I also remember reading about the Taraf, Romanian gypsy orchestra. Musicians say that they basically don’t mind if the bass doesn’t play right notes, as long as it’s used to play the right rhythm on it. They use bass like a bass-drum basically. My bass-player made of rubber bands is made in a similar way.
Generally I use objects to build the machines, like I use Meccano. I also use paper, a lot of paper.
I use plenty of existing musical instruments. I have something like 200, 300 instruments, from Africa, Asia, America, from everywhere and I love the different tones and the types of fabrication. Also I have conventional instruments like violins, cellos, trumpets, tubas etc., but I mostly use folk instruments.
Q:Are there particular ways in which you can get certain sound results from these objects, that you have learned and that you repeat in different works?
A: Yes, recently I’ve tried to amplify that practice and to develop it a bit. I’m trying to use paper in different ways for example. The last installation I made was “Paper orchestra”. But, I started with paper-organs before, which are harmonium chords played through a blowing systems. A sheet of paper is waving and clicking on top of it. Than I had sheets of paper flapping on drums. Recently I used long sheets of paper 2, 3 meters, which I called paper-snakes, activated through the blowers but more powerful long cylinder blowers which turn and blow air. And the paper is running very fast, in a very high speed and I cut the paper at the end into 10 straps, 10 paper-fingers which would hit the wooden floor like a very fast percussion.
Q: Once there is a musical idea - a rhythm, melody, harmony or any combination of these, and let’s assume it’s not the most simple one, and you start setting up the robots to perform it - how many compromises with the musical content do you have to make in order to make it work practically? Does this idea become sometimes completely different from the one you started with, being caused by the difficulties in realization? To narrow the question even more, how much the mechanical and musical construction influence each other and in what way?
A: I’m making a lot of compromises along the construction and afterwards also. I remember making the cylinders which were pushing the keys of a keyboard, and I was reducing the chords as much as possible, trying to fight agains the length and the number of chords because my cylinders weren’t big enough and turning slow enough to have many chords programmed, so I even had to reduce the number of bars from the original idea. At that time, I was building those cylinders from the cardboard rolls from the kitchen, and putting the pins on them. I was trying to measure as well as possible to put the pins in the right spot, and since the white and black keys on the keyboard are not on the same hight, I had some troubles. Sometimes I was putting the pins on the wrong spot, but I was getting some better rhythmical ideas coming form the machine, from the cylinder. Sometimes a simple idea becomes more complicated by some irregularity which occurs accidentally, which makes the music more interesting.
Q: Artists use robotics and mechanics most often to achieve the impression of “unmistaken”, of brilliancy which is unreachable to a human musician. On contrary, your music displays intentionally this roughness and imperfection although it is performed by machines. How do you achieve to preserve this quality and how is it possible for a machine to be this slightly out of tune? Is it related to the Meccano technology, and would you consider using something more advance as for example Lego robots or anything similar? Do you think you could achieve the same effect with it?
A: I think it is better for me not to use the modern technology, because I would loose my soul probably. Even in human playing I like when it’s a bit loose and not completely perfect. My machines do it naturally because I’m not that handy, even if I make measurements, it doesn’t turn out that perfect. For example I use electro motors and rubber rings, the same way the record players are made, and they play perfectly. My machines for some reason don’t and I’m happy with that. Generally after I make machines, I’m making the improvements to get rid of imperfections. Still some remain, and I am happy with the remainings. But the imperfections I do not program, it’s the fact I’m not very handy. There is also the fact that I’m using only a screwdriver, soldering iron, pliers , knife and rudimentary tools, so that’s probably why it’s never perfect.
Q: Your music is three-dimensional as you said yourself in some of the interviews. Although with some of the recordings you provide photos of the Meccano instruments, and you project live video of what you’re doing on the stage, what do you think it is being lost in the recording when the visual aspect is eliminated? Could you consider composing only concrete music and never exhibiting your instruments and showing the way you create music? How do you think this physicality of your instruments and the sound as an airy, intangible thing, relate?
A: Any music lover knows through experience how to reconstruct the physical reality of a recorded music. As a music lover myself I enjoy that game when I imagine the instrument I am listening, and even the gestures of the players. My own recordings put the listener in a slightly different position, still an interesting one: he/ she is as if contemplating a shadow from a cave and trying to determine its origin. Obviously the mechanical line sounds different from a human score through its fragility, its ability to repeat a certain hesitation, its very particular sobriety. In this sense, yes, I could consider composing without showing: for example doing a remake of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and replacing "who is playing what?" with "how is it done?"
Q: Roto-rhythm from “The box #3” - it is an automata made of Meccano parts and violin. Is it a musical sculpture, an instrument or a piece of music (composition)?
A: I think it is a piece of music, on a CD at least. When I exhibit it, in installation it is always with other “brothers and sisters” and a lot of them, like 20. And when I record, I pick one of the machines and play with it, sometimes 2 or 3.
Q: Building your own small mechanical orchestra that you play along with, contains something incredibly personal in it - like a child creating the imaginary world from a set of toys. This setting and also the way of realization draws for me the similarities with the Circus by Alexander Calder. He makes these objects which will become “mobiles” later, but at that point they are still “representational”, they are characters, and he creates this narrative around them by moving them around, singing along and talking. This child-like world of his or the Jean Tinguely’s works, do you think there is similarity with what you do?
A: I hope, because I love Alexander Calder, he is my favorite artist. But, at the time I started, I knew only the big sculptures, not the Circus, but I think it’s very close to what I do, the same kind of activity. About Tinguely, I knew everything from him when I started. I started with a lot of hesitation because I was afraid of repeating what he have done. But I was wrong, it is completely different. There are many who continued his tradition, before me someone who did fantastic work was Joe Jones. At the time I started in ‘70s in France, he wasn’t that famous, and I didn’t know about him. Among others, there is also Pierre Berthet, Belgium artist who makes music with water drops, long strings and reversed vacuum cleaners. I particularly like artists who are working with simple things, not so much with high technology.
When musicians go to a shop and buy the last Roland or Korg, they just take the music in the middle of the process I think, instead of taking it from the beginning. When you go and buy a robot or a machine or electronic device, you just forget half of the pleasure. It’s good to start with the origin and design your own sound sources and than play with them. I think it’s good to handle the whole process. But, at the same time when I say it, I think I may be wrong, because the violinist wouldn’t build his own violin. I think I’m closer to the African tradition where a musician builds his own instrument. For example there are some tiny instruments and some very big ones, with thick keys. I have the sanza from Cameroon with thick keys and big gaps in between each key, so probably the musician who built and played this instrument was a big man, a giant, and was able to push the keys easily. But for me, I have small hands and it’s more difficult. And I also have a tiny sanza and it was probably the other way around - the builder was small, much smaller than me and it is also difficult for me to play it. So, I like the fact that you build, you build and design your instrument or your sound device according to your possibilities, to your body.
Q: When I analyzed how Cage used objects in his prepared piano pieces, I came to the notion that it is a quite peculiar situation - that when we are listening to some very lyrical piece of music for prepared piano, that in this abstract, emotional experience that we have as listeners, these things are taking part, such as screws and bolts, by modifying the sounds of a piano to achieve that certain color which stimulates our senses and emotions. What do you think about it, is it weird to compose a lyrical piece of music, and to make it for a machine, a robot to play it. I think there is some kind of conflict between the two, which is in my opinion a bit ironic and a if not a bit humorous sometimes, but also very delicate and beautiful.
A: No, I don't see any conflict. Just irony as you say, and paradox. Have you ever seen this special part of a violin, the one that amplifies the sound and modifies the tone which is called the sound-post? In French we say "âme", the soul of the violin. It is also paradoxical to realize that this soul is just a small piece of wood taken from a spruce, one of the most common trees. I remember when I first mechanized the violin. I studied the double-bass, and during my studies, my teacher was always focusing on the pressure of the bow on the strings. Himself was a soloist at the orchestra, and he was always searching for a better pressure, position, better attack etc. When I mechanized the first violin, bowing the arpeggio on the violin, I noticed I could get the right pressure in one second by bending more or less a piece of metal that was in front of the bow. This shortcut to be able with a very simple mechanism to go over the years and years of studies and exercises, it was really pleasant to do it, instead of studying for years, just bending a piece of metal, “hop” and you get it.
Interview was made by Svetlana Maras, via Skype on 10.06.2011, audio recording, transcribed