Interview mit Pierre Bastien

Das Interview mit Pierre Bastien fand aus Anlass seines Auftritts im Rahmen des Club Transmediale in Berlin statt, und zwar am 29. Januar 2007 in Björn Gottsteins Privatwohnung.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

I would like to start with how it all came about. It is maybe the stupidest question to ask, but I guess I have to ask nonetheless.

I have a large panorama of different answers.

You can tell lies.

No, it is always true but there are so many reasons. The starting point I have in mind now, because there is a reissue of my first recordings with machines, that has just been released now, and the first piece is a piece from 1968. And I was 14, 15 years old at the time. I found it in my archive, and old tape that I had made; at that time I had some free time because we were occupying the college. It was the riots, the revolution in France, and maybe I was infiltrated by these ideas, the revolutionary ideas, and I rioted against my studies. I was studying guitar, classical guitar, and at that time we had a metronome that was a machine – nowadays it is electronic, but at that time there was a spring inside that was clicking all the time giving the tempo – and it was a horrible click, it was anti-musical completely. So I decided to change it into music. I went into the kitchen; I stole two pans from my mother and I put them on both sides of the metronome. And then instead of a click-click-click, very dry, I got a spling-pong-spling-pong-spling-pong, and I could adjust the rhythm by the gap between the two pans. And I played a bit of guitar part together with that machine. So that was my first machine in a way. But I didn't know at that time, so I stopped for some time. I restarted it when I was asked to play a solo in a long solo night in Paris and I didn't like to bring my double bass, I was a double bass player at that time, and play a double bass solo. So rapidly I built my first machine. I think my parents were moving at the time; I helped them to move, I found my old toys, among the toys this Meccano box, you call it Märklin in Germany, and from that Meccano box, two cymbals, I built the first machine in order to dialog with something, not somebody, but something, on stage that night. And we were two musicians who tried to avoid the solo, Bernard Vite was the other, and he did a very nice performance. He arrived as a giant, he was on the shoulders of somebody else, and another musician probably, but we didn't know who. They had a big code, and they had a saxophone with a long neck, they had enlarged it. And the man on the top was blowing and the man below was pushing the keys. And it was of course a strange result. And I thought, yes ...

You are now talking about 1977. Had you already finished your studies?

I studied music, but never in the music school. I always had private lessons.

Didn't you study at the Sorbonne?

Yes, but I studied literature and French literature, so it is not really connected. But in a way it is connected, because the third motor, the third spring that pushed me into this way of making music was literary, some books I read at that time around my 20s, books by Raymond Roussel, who is a French writer, he was mainly a millionaire, eccentric millionaire, he liked to live a bit like a hero of Jules Verne, surrounded by strange devices, for instance he invented the camping car. He was so rich he could have this built for him. But he designed a truck, where he could live, have a bath etc. And his driver could also sleep there and have his own bathroom. (lacht) And Raymond Roussel was not only an eccentric but also a writer. He published, he payed for publishing his books. He never had the success he deserved, probably, because after his death, he got some success. Raymond Roussel was focussing on imagination. And he had a kind of process to write his books, his stories, his process was mechanical. He was starting from one sentence, reaching the same sentence almost after a story that he had to invent to fill the gap between the two symmetrical sentences. So for instance what he explained in a book called Comment j'ai écrit certains de mes livres, he explained that he started from the sentence: "Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard." And he was arriving, he finished, he had to fnish with: "Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard." Which means something completely different. They sound almost similar except for one letter. But in the first sentence the meaning is: "The signs of the chalk on the edges of the old billiard." And in the second version the meaning is: "The letters of the white man concerning the troops of the old thief." Something like this. So in order to connect the two sentences he had to invent something. And this has been very important for many people in literature and also for many artists. I read some years ago an interview with Rebecca Horn, the German artist, and she was asked whether Marcel Duchamps was the greatest influence from France in her work, and the said that Raymond Roussel was a greater influence. And I can understand that and you know that Rebecca Horn made several machineries that are really fantastic, also including some music in it, like this piano that falls down and makes this thunder sound, and there are mechanical violins on a tower ...

... there was a big exhibition in Berlin just recently. A retrospective.

Oh, I missed it. Probably there are in France other artists. Also some of my colleagues. When I see the machine by Joe Jones, it is not a machine, it is a "kinderwagen", and inside of it there are some musical instruments, like a cymbal, percussion, and in the museum you always see it without moving; I think if you push it, it works, it plays something. And this is very similar to the description that influenced me and started me to build machines. This is the description of the Thermodynamic Orchestra, that a scientist invents a new gas, and inside of a glass cage there are several musical elements, instruments and others. And some thermometers, and the new gas can be heated or cooled very, very fast. That is the quality of this gas. And then through this quality the inventor, in order to demonstrate the quality of his invention, he plays some music. So by hitting the inside of the cage, he gets some very frenetical polkas; and by cooling down everything you get some other type of music. But the descriptions are so meticulous, so well done, that you believe in it. And you even start thinking of building such a device. Of course, it is impossible, because me, I didn't invent such a gas, but still I started thinking of doing some automatic music.

This was in the 70s you were reading Roussel?

Yes, in the 70s it became more famous because the writers from the "nouveau roman" put that in front and said that they were inspired by it. In New York also, in what they call the New York School, they were also influenced by Raymond Roussel. For that reason I believe that Joe Jones might also have been inspired.

I have never read anything by him.

In his two most famous novels, Impressions d'Afrique and Locus Solus he describes 13 or 14 sound installations. Of course, it is not all about sound. He also describes some plastic installations, some other types of creation. I like to refer to literature, because the writers are very free. They just have to take a pen and a piece of paper and they can invent things. We in arts and in music, we have to realise something first. It's less easy. So it takes more time for us to build the devices, to find the medium. I think it is always to look at what happens in literature.

I would think that your thoughts would have directed you towards electronic music, considering also that IRCAM was founded just around this time. That never came to mind?

No. No. Because in France we had some pioneers like Les Frères Bachet, that were also an influence, who built some instruments, but also some automatic music like the fountains, automatic sound instruments and sculptures and nearby in Germany Mauricio Kagel was working mostly without electronics. And I remember, when I was precisely twenty, he had this premiere in Paris of this Zwei-Mann-Orchester, which was also a big thing. So I was more into this playful way of making music than the more serious way that Pierre Schaeffer initiated.

There is one thing about the sound quality of your instruments. You often use ethnical instruments from other continents. Where does that come from? It's just something that you are fond of?

Yes. This maybe has something to do with what was happening in France at that time. We had a bit late, compared with Germany or America, we had this collection of records called Ocora. Through this collection we learned a lot about ethnic music. And also there were some nice ideas when the socialist came to power, there were some intellectuals, one intellectual brought his collection of instruments from all over the world and put that in the hands of everybody. It was a disaster at first, that happened at the Musée d'Arts Modernes in Paris on a Saturday afternoon and in the evening the instruments were broken mainly. But then the idea was taken over by an institution, they collected instruments and they made the sound gallery, La Galerie Sonore, that traveled across the country. And that came generally from an interest for all the tones you can get, all the sounds you can get in the world.

It seems obvious for several reasons. They are beautiful instruments. Then you need a certain mechanic aspect. I would think it problematic to make a trumpet mechanically.

It is possible but not by me. You need some other engines to do that.

But also the interaction between lips and mouthpiece seems quite complicated, whereas the bow, even though it's a difficult sound, you can still make a machine that leads the bow across the string. The same is true for a percussion instrument. But I should maybe come to the next question. When you start building an instrument, do you already know what it is going to sound like? Or is it more an experiment?

Every time I start something, it depends. Sometimes I have an idea and I work until the idea is achieved. I am not very handy?

You are not?

No. When I have to hang the curtains at home, it's not well done, never. But when I have a musical aim, I try to be better, to work better. Sometimes I fail and the result is better than I thought. And then I keep it like it is. There are different situations.

But there is always an acoustic idea at the beginning?


Is the reason for building an instrument, that you need it for a certain piece. Or does the instrument come first?

Generally I need something. A part. A musical part. And the I build something until it is done. I am not that young now. But as a young musician I never had the orchestra, I wanted to have. I started first, like many musicians, playing with my friends, organising a band with friends, but the friends, they abandon music, they go somewhere else, so you have less and less friends and musicians who can help. Or they become great musicians and make their own music, they don't want to collaborate any longer. So the mechanical orchestra was a good solution to have an orchestra at home. It took me some time to get the first one. And now I spend one month, two month, and I get a new system that will play a new composition.

But there are no scores?

The scores I do later on for the composer's society, but it all comes from practicing and playing.

How many Mecaniums are there?

Probably eighty pieces.

Eighty instruments. And you combine them in different ways.

Yes. I don't own them all. I sold some pieces. But I have probably fifty remaining and I can combine them. Now, that the last generation made of Meccanio, they are more orchestral pieces, it includes some reed instruments, some percussion, some strings sometimes. Well, it can be considered as an orchestra. Because my world is more to build orchestras than to build instruments. I like to have enough devices to play the five elements composing music – in my opinion. I like to have an instrument that can play a short melody, some harmony, some rhythm, some nice sounds and drones, and some noises, and combine those five elements in composition.

So the symphonic orchestra for you some kind of a model.

Yes, I am quite traditional in this way. What I dislike is the stereotypes in music. I am always surprised that when somebody invents a combination of instruments, then everybody is playing the same configuration. Nowadays most of the people in contemporary music play laptop for instance, but in the seventies they were all playing guitars and in the eighties they were all saxophone players, and then you have some moments in music that are a bit stereotyped. But also I speak about those stereotypes like the rock bands that is made of a drum set and two guitars and a bass guitar and a vocalist, the jazz quintet, even in India you have those stereotypes, that an Indian band very often has the same instruments. So I like to avoid that, to escape that. In classical music in general. If you consider classical music in general, composers could escape because they were composing sometimes for string quartet, sometimes for the piano, sonatas, you have different ways of getting your pleasure as a composer. I wouldn't like to compose all my life for two guitars, a bass and a drum set. It would be boring. (lacht)

Do you sometimes wish that the instruments you build were more versatile, that they maybe could play vibrato now and then?

Yes. Yes. That is why I am busy with different types of instruments, of devices. Some years ago I had this idea of using – I am not the only one, far from that – of using record players. But the way I use them they are automatons but they can improvise a bit. They sample the groove of some 7-inches, but they never sample the same part. The needle never falls on the same part of the groove, or sometimes it does, but this is unpredictable. So that gives me some surprises in the composition. And also by working, like I do now, with some ventilators, and sheets of paper, generally tracing paper that has a very nice sound. Also this system gives some surprises. And I use the tracing paper on the ventilator in different systems, for instance a piece of paper waving gently on top of the air flow, and then the paper will click and a provide a kind of percussion but very, very light; if I make the ventilator blowing onto the membrane of a drum and I glue a piece of paper onto the membrane then the paper is flapping onto the membrane. And it makes a drumming, but also an improvised drumming, because I don't why exactly but the air flow is never the same even if the motor is turning regularly.

So are you looking for irregular patterns and trying to get away from the loops?

In addition to the loops it is nice to have some other elements that can escape the loops. Yes.

The loops are very important. One of the first mechanical loops would be a vinyl record, that has gotten stuck, or a tape loop. Since then the loop has become very important and it is quite different from the ostinato in Baroque music. Would you put yourself in a loop music tradition? Is minimal music for you of any importance?

Yes. But then what is more important is the music that comes from Africa. Or also some drumming that can be also considered as looped. The jazz drumming for instance – they follow the theme only as long as the theme is played, and they make a sort of break at a certain moment just to restart the general loop, the cycle of the 32 bars or something like this, but otherwise they play a kind of loop. So I was thinking, it is a pity that there is a man behind the drum set, because we could have it done by a machine. It would be easier. As a double bass player also I was getting bored sometimes by the work that is given to the bass player in the orchestra. So I was always thinking, oh, a machine would do that better.

But there is a difference obviously. You are aware of the fact, that it is not the same.

I know. I know. Actually I prefer when the machine plays.


Yes. Well my machines are not absolutely perfect. So they never play exactly ... well they play on a general tempo, but they escape that also. I don't know exactly why, probably because I am not very handy, probably also because of the rubber rings. On a turntable you have a rubber ring at the end. That's the big difference I think.

It's a tight rubber ring.

No, it is not. It is rather loose. It is used at the end of the process. The first, the acceleration from the motor is usually friction driven, between the axle and the first wheel. Generally that comes because it is used at the end of the system. But I am using it from the beginning. So all the rubber rings probably change the loop a bit all the time. For instance, recently I was asked to compose for a strict video installation, and it has to be 5 minutes and 40 seconds. And I started using one of my machines, and that was the basic part of the composition, and I recorded this part on the computer. But I couldn't multiply these bars, in order to get the this exact time, because I realised that the rhythm was always slightly changing, but so slightly that you can still play on top of it, a bit like when you play with a musician.

In the world of analogue there is always a slight difference. That is the beauty of not using digital media. Of course the differences that your machines create might be bigger than an analogue copy of let's say a book or a record. But I think that is the beauty of it. It is not a robot. That would be – not a dead machine, but something less lively.

It doesn't touch you in the same way. It is more emotional, when rubber rings are involved. Also in my machines, where I use instruments from Asia, Africa, there are always some skins, there is leather involved, some woods, and all this moves a little bit all the time and makes it more human in a way. More organic. I hear from many of my friends who are making electronic music, they try to incorporate into their music organic elements, they try to use a guitar or use something that will change the music towards – what I would call – my direction.

I remember working with Cubase on a Atari in the beginning of the nineties and how I was really baffled by this function called "humanise". I should maybe ask about the rhythmic structure of your pieces. You mentioned those five compositional elements. I guess the rhythmic structure is then not as important as I thought. I always thought that the layering of the rhythms is the prime aspect of your music. But you just mentioned four other aspects. Every machine has a tempo?


You can vary the tempo?


In every case?


So would adjust the tempo of each machine to fit in?

More or less. But I think in this way I act a bit like a DJ. On the turntables they can adjust the speed, and because you can never be absolutely perfect with this button, it is more a groove than a perfect beat that you get. And me, I could be perfect by using only one motor running the whole system. I did it only one time and it was not really convincing. When I use only one motor it would be like having an orchestra with only one heart. So it would play perfectly in synch. But I am not sure it is important to add to the panorama of music nowadays, to add another synchronised music. All the music we hear or many are so perfectly in synch that I would like to have something a bit different. One of my friend is a sound artist, Paul Panhuysen, he speaks of military music. He says to him everything in the popular music sounds a bit like military music. (lacht)

The machines are very disciplined. Would you say that there is a French tradition of instrument building? The idea of the "bricolage", you mentioned Jules Verne, I remember his fantastic machines, for me it is a very French tradition. Do you agree?

It seems to happen everywhere, because for instance I live in Holland and in Holland they have a wonderful museum in Utrecht about mechanical music. They have some French machines in the museum, they have also some Belgian machines, machines from everywhere. The Swiss were very good in making music clocks and music boxes. And the strange thing with the Swiss and the music boxes that we have used, the thumb piano played by machines, the system of the thumb piano we know from Africa. All the music boxes from Switzerland, they play those keys, small keys, and of course they are not thumb pianos any more, they are mechanical pianos, we never used that for human musicians. And for me the thumb piano is a wonderful instrument, it's worth using it.

One of the first instrument builders I saw was Jacques Remus, then I met Jean-Francois Laporte.

Yes, there is Frédéric Le Junter, but when I went first to exhibit at the Apollohuis in Eindhoven, this was in 1986 in think, at that time I thought we were three, four, five people, because I knew only the French, and that is what you would qualify as an arrogance, because it not true. At the Apollohuis they were specialised in sound art and were publishing catalogs and in the catalogs there were plenty of wonderful creations made by people in Australia, in Hungary, everywhere. So no no, there are plenty of inventors. In America ... in Holland this was very developed very much in the eighties. The pity with Holland is that when they subsidise a field of art, then it develops, then when they change politics, it stops. (lacht)

Everybody goes where the money is.

Probably. Or other people come to the front.

Where is the museum?

In Utrecht. "Van Speelklok tot Pierement." It is beautiful. They have this machine, that has – it might be German – a violin player. It has a circular bow that turns very fast, and many violins put in a circle, and the violins are moving toward the bow. So they are played when they touch the bow and there is this ballet. It is beautiful and the melody comes out of this process. It is beautiful to look at. They also have this big machine that was playing in a cabaret in Antwerp, called the Blue Angel, I think. And it is a big "luminaire", I don't know the word, a big organ-like machine with percussions etc., and it has a function that imitates the voice of a blues man. It's not bad.

OK. I think I have taken enough of your time.

One more thing. I would like to mention that my instruments never play better than a musician. They play generally worse than the musician. At least they play less notes, less fast, less complicated parts. And this is probably a good point, a good thing for me, because people who invented machines, they invented that to play more than a musician. Conlon Nancarrow for instance: his machines can play the 88 notes of the piano at the same time. And by chance my machines do the opposite, and then I get a style out of that. And it is not easy to play less than a musician actually. It's quite useful, because when you ask a musician to play the same part, he will get bored or if he is an improviser he will add some other notes, so you never get the three notes you need. And the way to get them for half an hour, if I wanted to, was to build machines. I have to say that because they will listen to this, they will listen to machines that play only two notes, and they might think that that is not really interesting. They at least have know that is wilful.