To be at a Pierre Bastien’s live show is always a special event for any lover of contemporary music. And the other condition to appreciate the French multi-instrumentalist’s music is to esteem a slightly poetical and joyful audiovisual dash. This is a feature of this artist so dear to Aphex Twin who has realised Bastien’s production with his own Rephlex Records.
Indeed, as many people know, Pierre Bastien is not used to play music with computers and is not at ease in the cold digital aesthetics. Actually, Pierre Bastien plays mechanical instruments, mechanisms, objects and not with electricity, nor flow of electrons nor circuits nor information nor complex robotics instruments and finally nor software. None of all these things, no. Pierre Bastien plays DIY mechanical miniatures and it seems there is an invisible fat oiling them: do you know the game Meccano? Perhaps the thirty-year olds have in mind it, while the others could have found evidence of it in Internet and Second Life.
Meccano is a model construction kit comprising metal strips, plates, angle girders , wheel, saxles and gears , with nuts and bolts to connect the pieces. In other words it is a tool able to trigger percussions, movements, rotations, rubbings in space in order to create the sound in two main ways: exerting a physical force on an organic instrument, that is to say: playing it, or acoustically amplifying its same movement. This is what happens in the mechanical orchestras of the genial French musician: the Mecanium, the Mecanology and the newest Mecanoid.
Every track of Pierre Bastien‘s concert shows a repeating structure: the musician’s deft hands moving inside his mechanical mini-orchestra made of dozens of objects and devices. The mechanical details create always repeating rhythmical and hypnotic movements in order to establish the rhythmic base of the track. Infinitesimal but yet still heard sounds are superimposed in order to enrich the sound environment and when the hypnotic level reached the pick here you hear the trumpet, of course played live, romantic and sad, ironically contrasting with the physicality all around in the air, with its sound able to call forth strong emotions and warmth.
During the last 10 years the mechanical instruments constructed by Pierre Bastien have been several, as the Mechanical Orchestras and countless lives performances where he played the role of the main character. It is also true that Pierre Bastien has always paid attention to the visual aspect of his work, obtained through a very simple operation of video-recording live of what happens on the stage. It’s almost a cinema-truth. On one hand because the realization of a track is absolutely fundamental, as well as a close-up on each single sound with his corresponding mechanic instrument. And on the other hand- and this is my consideration- because the audiovisual impact causes a high involvement and hypnosis among his public. And this always stuns the ones who are so patient and willing to approach to his live show.
So could someone ask me: but what’s digital, technological, experimental in this? Nothing, that’s right, and so? Waiting to see him in Florence during the second edition of the Screen Music at the end of October, I decided to have a little talk with him.
Marco Mancuso: Can you tell me about your past as a musician? I would like to know about your studies and your experiences as multi-instrumentalist and composer and also your collaboration with Dominique Bagouet Dance Company….
Pierre Bastien: At the time I started playing concerts in the early seventies most of the bands were collective: every member was composing and building up the general musical approach of the group. When our group composed of 4 people reduced to a duet with Bernard Pruvost, we both tried to fill the gap by playing the missing instruments. This was the starting point for multi-instrumentalism. Working with a dance company made us go further: Dominique Bagouet’s manager was also in charge of a huge public collection of music instruments from all over the world. For the second orchestral score that we composed for the company, we were invited to choose whatever we would like to play from that instrument collection.
This was like a super-Christmas gift! From Tibetan horns to African harps and xylophones, from Asian mouth organs to Arabic violins we experimented the sounds of the planet instead of just focusing on the Western timbres. Years after I like to be surrounded with about 150 instruments from the five continents.
Marco Mancuso: How and why did you start with the idea of the “mechanical instruments” and the project of the orchestra Mecanium for Pascal Comelade’s Bel Canto Orquesta? At the end, this orchestra counted about 80 elements/instruments, so how could you play/control everything? Are you not using it anymore in live performances?
Pierre Bastien: Mecanium and Bel Canto are two distinct projects. They just crisscrossed my musical life. It took me about ten years from the moment I built the very first machine in 1978, to the moment I had enough of those robots to perform a full concert with them: this happened in 1988 at the Forum Art Fair in Hamburg . In 1983 when our band Nu Creative Methods stopped performing live, Pascal Comelade asked me to join the first concert of his Bel Canto Orquesta. Not only the experience was great, but it also helped me spending all those years without a band on my own.You may think that ten years are a too long period for the purpose of building a mechanical orchestra out of Meccano and small electro-motors taken from old turntables and acoustic music instruments. Nowadays when I want to renew my system and have new machines, the process costs me about three-months work only. But at that time nothing was clear in my mind: I built the first machine for a short solo concert in Paris without thinking that there would have been a second one. After some time and because of the nice time I had playing with it, I decided to construct two other machines, but the critics were so negative about them that I’ve stopped for some years, until some friends encouraged me to start again.
It is true that I never stopped since then and that I ended with a 80-piece orchestra, though I never performed a concert with more than 15 machines. In 1996 I was proposed an overview exhibition at the Apollohuis in Eindhoven , Holland . There I installed 66 machines, and it took one week to set up the whole orchestra: no festival can offer this luxury. As an installation, the orchestra is conducted through several mechanical programs. Instead of playing an instrument, these machines push and release switches that start and stop several ensembles to get the automatic composition played. I have not been using this first version of Mecanium for live performances since 1997. Afterwards I did Mecanology which plays on daily life objects like scissors, hammer, tooth brushes, tea-pot etc (2). Then I did several versions of Mecanoid where the Meccano machines don’t play on instruments or objects, but directly on amplified Meccano parts for a more abstract view slowly revealing its potential musicality (3). Right now I’m starting playing with some air-activated machines to get some less predictable rhythms and sounds and more melodies coming out of robots.
Marco Mancuso: Can you tell me something also about your mechanical installation? Do you feel to belong to the tradition of meccano musicians starting from the very origins of Ballet Mecanique?
Pierre Bastien: The exhibition activity came by chance: I don’t consider myself as an artist. But it is quite nice to think that at the moment I am answering your questions in Rotterdam, the Mecanoid installation plays in Southern France and the Paper Organs play with the Enclave Dance Company in Barcelona or Brussels and the Steel-Drum Ensemble plays in a museum of music instruments and some other machines are about to play in Japan or Portugal…As for the Ballet Mécanique, I feel more on the side of Léger than on Antheil’s. As I said before, generally my machines play few notes, not always in-sync. They create through induction a music that is radically different from any robotic research. Actually my first impulse was not musical: the idea of building an automatic player came while reading the description of a thermodynamic orchestra in “Impressions d’Afrique” by Raymond Roussel.
Marco Mancuso: The idea at the base of your compositions is very challenging and original, the final result is romantic and sensuous especially when you start playing trumpet on the mechanical bases, that are really hypnotic and timeless. Don’t you think to be like an alien inside the electronic music world? Why, in your opinion, are you invited in such a digital art festival (like also Todaysart)? It seems that your music and your work are important for digital geeks to understand how it could be important to work with materials, to build up something with hands, to be able to play an instrument and to merge different attitudes together….
Pierre Bastien: Medium now seems to become the genre. Don’t you think we are doing a big mistake by highlighting the tool instead of the result? “Electronic”, “digital”, “multimedia” come first on the bill… and well, I am not the right person to complain: in the past I also put the word Meccano in the front and that helped a lot. From then on journalists and public have been able to write and talk about my music. Speaking about the medium seems much easier than speaking about aesthetics. But you can play music with the last hi-tech device or with twigs and pebbles, as long as you can touch me I will love your music equally. Something else: I am not a new comer and I was always feeling as an alien whatever the key word was. In the seventies you would have improy music and punk, in the eighties it was acousmatic and avant-rock, the nineties brought electronic and experimental, there will be more key words to deal with, although as a music maker you should better be yourself and forget about main and even secondary streams.
Marco Mancuso: In your live performances you pay attention to the visual aspect of your work. There is a camera or an operator filming everything, how do you build up the system, how does it work and play? If you look at the screens and you hear the music, the final result is really hypnotic and delicate. Do you think that the visual aspect of your live show is important as an hypnotic addition to your music? Or is it more important as a visual documentation of what you are doing?
Pierre Bastien: To have no mystery about sound sources is my preoccupation. Once I played in a school for blind students. They listened carefully and after the concert they all came on stage to touch every instrument. I remember they insisted asking when exactly this one had played, and this one, and this other one. They were re-experiencing the composition by ‘watching’ it closely. Then I realised how important it is to feel the music with your senses, especially your eyes when you are not blind. But you are right: the hypnotic aspect is also important. I am lucky with my 3-dimensional music. It is not pure ether that vanishes with the last sound. After a concert the machines remain and testify that everything really happened. Then I don’t need a V-jay who will be more or less connected with the music. In my case v-jaying consists in placing a video camera in front of the orchestra for a real time projection. A sort of “cinéma-vérité” (truth-cinema) about sounds and music.
Marco Mancuso: Finally, how and when Aphex Twin contacted you? And why, in your opinion, did he decide to have you inside his Rephlex label that normally produces Idm and ambient electronic music?
Pierre Bastien: I cannot tell about Aphex‘s motivations. I guess he is more aware than anyone of what happens in modern music. Is it a coincidence? He sent me a fax right after my music was released on a Flemish label (4), and he had his first compositions released in Ghent (5). His message came in 1999 with some nice words and an offer to join the label. Some years ago, at Barbican Centre in the glass-house, Aphex Twin played, remaining invisible, for 200 people wearing headphones, so that the exotic birds there could normally sleep. Nearly at the end of the 2-hours concert he used one of my pieces for 20 seconds and suddenly I could understand what the music was made from: that night he played thousands of extracts from multiple sources, superimposing them in a subtle arrangement. Which means that he had listened to millions of records for his selection. I am just one of the millions. I really admire Aphex Twin for his music and for being such an open-minded and so brave person. For the same reasons I admire Squarepusher who dares inviting Evan Parker and me to play at his bass solo show. And I feel quite lucky to be still amazed and inspired by recent productions like Aphex’s albums and Squarepusher’s live sets, instead of just being stuck to my first loves.
(1) Nu Creative Methods: “Nu Jungle Dances” is now available on Chevrotine, distr. Orkestra.
(2) Mecanology can be heard on “Boîte N°7”, ed. Cactus.
(3) “Mecanoid” and “Pop” on Rephlex, “Téléconcerts” on Signature.
(4) “Musiques Paralloïdres” on Lowlands .
(5) “Selected Ambient Works” on Distance.