Lots of people spent their childhoods building cool machines with the motors, gears, and pulleys of an Erector Set, but you’d have a hard time finding anyone who’s taken the concept as far as French artist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Pierre Bastien. Bastien builds machines that play just about any instrument or noise you can imagine, creating a personal orchestra he plays along to.
Bastien brings his sound installations to this year’s Spirit & Place Festival, giving a lecture from 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 3 at Big Car Service Center, performing from 3 p.m that same day at the Central Library’s Clowes Auditorium. Both events are free.
He talked about his work and demonstrated one of his machines via Skype from his studio in Rotterdam, surrounded by instruments from all over the world. (You can check out the machine on the festival’s website.)
NUVO: The theme of this year’s festival is “play,” a nice double entendre for your work.
Pierre Bastien: Yes, you have this expression of playing music, and also, all my musical work is based on a construction game for children, but also for adults. You call it “Erector Set” — in Europe and some other places like Japan, all the children of my generation and later play with Meccano, which is the best Erector Set you can imagine. It’s a British invention and it’s really well done and very reliable. You have all the holes already drilled, and you just have to assemble all the parts with bolts and screws.
NUVO: Do you dream of a machine first, or do you hear music and then make a machine to play it?
Bastien: It’s both. Generally, I have a musical idea in mind, and I try to realize it into machinery that will help me play it. On top of this mechanical orchestra, I also play some melody or sometimes rhythmical parts. The idea is to have a domestic orchestra. Now I have realized the machines gave me a sort of style in music. I work with musicians, but I like to have some machines around all the time.
NUVO: How do you want your music to sound?
Bastien: I think I would like to invent my own folklore. There’s a French writer, Michel Leiris, who said that for him, “Jazz is my folklore.” Jazz was very important, of course, because we were missing something — some folklore — in our Western societies. But I was always interested also in the music of the planets, and the different tones you find. Nowadays, people are looking into the computer to find different sounds. Young musicians don’t say that they play music; they say they are making sounds. I like the natural sounds of the planet. So I like all those sounds coming from natural material, like calabash [a gourd], leather, wood, and metal.
NUVO: How important is the visual element to your music?
Bastien: I think it’s 90 percent of it. I have three tiny video cameras placed in points close to the machine, so they take close-ups of what happens, and project them in real time, so that the audience can enjoy the source of every sound I produce. I have a DVD player and I make some loops taken from musical films from the 1920s and 30s. I mix them so that those ghosts, those musicians from the past, they come into the machines onscreen, and they play with us.
NUVO: What can people expect from your lecture?
Bastien: It’s not a conventional lecture, but one based on plenty of video examples, so that it will be fun and nice to look at. I can show all these traditional sound installations from the past, even from ancient times, like the Aeolian harp, or some installations invented in Japan, which were used to scare deer from a garden. They were made out of water flowing onto bamboo, which rotates and hits stone. So you can show the links between tradition and contemporary art in this specific field of sound installation.
NUVO: You play music in a unique way, but it’s very melodic and easy to approach. How do you do that?
Bastien: I have a theory about that. Generally in contemporary music, people take some options and they avoid some element of the music. I try not to avoid any of the components of music. You have only five: rhythm, harmony, melody, noise, and tone. I try to use them as much as possible, and to mix them together. For me, this is music. I like to have everything—noise also—but mixed together to make the music as rich as possible. —