The Mechanical Warmth - an Interview with Pierre Bastien
Pierre Bastien's art balances on the verge of simplicity and sophisticated experimentalism, where surreal "Meccano" contraptions play strange, yet elegant sounds ranging from hazy jazz melodies to poppy instrumentals or even more abstract atmospheric musical forms such as ambient or droney soundscapes. However, this diverse sonic pallette has this unifying Frenchy touch reminding us the subtlety of this nation's pop sensibilities as well as its surrealist heritage and traces of futurism. Pierre's self-made strange constructions built from "Meccano" sets also hint at the simplicity of music and some nostalgic childhood memories as he created an entire orchestra from the tool he has been using since he was a kid literary building it from metal plates and screws. The precision of chords, rhythms and tones create a monotonous, hypnotic and cozy mechanical repetitions with a very strong humane feel as these robots also have some warmth and colorful playfulness.
Bastien's collaborations list is also as colorful as his music and includes joint projects with such notable artists as free jazz experimentalist Mats Gustafsson, Dutch guitarist Lukas Simonis, French musician Pascal Comelade, who experiments with various toy instruments. Moreover, Pierre also released several albums on Rephlex label founded by Aphex Twin and Grant Wilson-Claridge. All these artists share some similar traits to Pierre's marvelous world of strange machines and emotional sounds. Thus Secret Thirteen is honored to have Pierre's presence in the virtual pages of the journal. Before his upcoming gig in Vilnius at Speigas Festival this week Pierre told about his literary influences and academic background, the freedom and power of this art form, challenges and joys of his creative process and the importance of limitations.
Paulius Ilevičius: What was the first impact in your life that made you construct these "Meccano" machines?
Pierre Bastien: The first impact was mainly two books. I was 19 year old, when I read a book by a French writer from the beginning of the 20th century. He is still not famous and his name is Raymond Roussel. Raymond was a big fan of Jules Verne and he liked to describe some sort of machinery, but in a completely different way from Jules, in an imaginary way. So he invented many strange machineries in his books and described them in a luxury of details. But those machines were doing very strange things like paintings of a river or some strange music. In the novels there are dozens of descriptions of sound installations and they are very impressive. A lot of people were impressed and influenced by it. The first of them was Marcel Duchamp who mentioned them several times in his writings. Now there are also plenty of artists who are influenced by Roussel. Among them there are musicians like Gavin Bryars. In 1975 he composed a piece "Ponukelian Melody" and it comes from "Impressions of Africa", a novel by Roussel, where he described the thermodynamic orchestra. Also the German artist Rebecca Horn mentioned Roussel's influence several times. I am just one of the artists who were inspired by the work of this writer.
PI: Having in mind that your musical path was inspired by literature and you also have a doctorate degree in French literature, how does this art form overall influences the sounds you create at the moment? Does it have a big inspiration for you now?
PB: It does. I think a writer has a big advantage over musician and maybe we are a bit handicapped as musicians, painters or sculptors, because we have to deal with materials. A musician has to deal with sounds, music instruments, recorders, microphones and other tools while a writer just puts his or her imagination on paper with pen. And that's much faster. So I think that is one of the reasons why a lot of great things come from literature. They are pioneers just because they can be faster than us. So yes, I am really influenced by literature in general. Probably a bit less when I play music, but when I conceive the conception and composition I owe a lot to literature.
PI: I find your sound having some nostalgic, even childish elements. It represents some aiming for simplicity, inventive playfulness for me. Your collaborations with Pascal Comelade also support this point. Is there any sense of nostalgia, simplicity in your creative intentions?
PB: There is a French poet from the 19th century Romantic period. He said that desperate songs are the most beautiful. I have a tendency of thinking the same and I favor minor chords when it comes to harmony. I like the sense of melancholy in music like in everything in life. But I hope there is also humor in it, that it can be sometimes funny to observe. Maybe melancholy is the first thing you feel when listening to my music, but when you watch what I do you probably would experience some other feelings, because there is also some derisive side. I play music with "Meccano" construction game, also I build robots that are funny in some way. They can play music, but they are tiny and simple. I mostly use small electromotors from turntables, then wheels and gears. And in the end they can play quite sophisticated music. So there is a paradox between the simplicity you see on stage and the resulting music. And it can be funny to see how they hit percussions, how they play flutes. There is a mix of feelings, which is created by visuals and something you do not get from just the sound.
PI: What are the biggest challenges of creating music this way? What was the most complicated task you had to face in your creative/construction process?
PB: Neither in music nor with technology I was never into virtuosity. I have never tried to do anything that I do not know well and clearly. I never start a process, which I cannot handle easily. Of course, there are some technical problems, but they are more general and easy to solve. I make machines with the construction toy I was using when I was a kid, so I know it quite well, I can improvise with it, I can build a machine without making plans. I just have a general idea and then a machine takes shape. Probably the most challenging is the final part of the construction, when I have to make machine play exactly what I need. When I have some succession of chords, the machine has to play them in the right order at the right time. Rhythms, even noises have to be precise. I like to mix a bit of everything in my music - harmony, melodies, tones, noises and rhythms. So these final adjustments of the machine are usually most difficult. I am only able to play with them, when they play exactly what I need.
PI: When you pick certain instruments for the machines, is it the construction or robot that dictates the instrument or do you build these machines around some particular instrument you picked?
PB: Generally, I choose an instrument and then I develop a machine that will play it. The system I will bring to the concert in Vilnius is based on the machine that I made 25 years ago, but recently I developed more functions in it. At first it was able to play only one grade of chords (4 chords). It was the basic portions of a song. Now it can play more chords and has incorporated flute player, it has a percussion part in it. I can change the last module that plays the percussion, so I can get different rhythms for different songs. I can make these machines evolve all the time during the concert. I start from the skeleton of the machine and then I slowly build it up. The audience get surprised all along.
PI: You are also affiliated with Rephlex label, which in a kind represents the younger generation of experimental artists. Having in mind that your career is quite lengthy, how do you see the situation in current experimental music scene and don't you think that sometimes the unlimited possibilities we have nowadays limit the creative potential? Do you think they help to create value or maybe you think that limitations are better for creativity?
PB: I generally favor limitations for my own music, but I meet a lot of musicians, who love to have unlimited possibilities. They can deal with that and I admire it. I have just read an article in "The Guardian" today and the article is about how Aphex Twin used Soundcloud to put lots of unreleased music. He uses the internet in a new way. Well, this is more about the diffusion of music, but also he did a lot of things with his technical equipment. He is very inventive with new technology. But for my own music I prefer limitations. I feel more kinship to African musicians who play an instrument with 5 strings and they can play marvelously with those strings. I like when a device has his own music in it and you have to interfere with that. So you tune these 5 strings in a certain way. You will be limited, but you will have to move across these 5 tones and find your way. So I really like to interfere with an instrument. It would be less easy to do with a computer.
Of course, brands like Apple, Roland, Yamaha etc. open doors. But on the other hand I am a bit reluctant to use what unknown engineers have conceived. So I prefer to stick to my own inventions, but at the same time I like to listen to what other musicians play with for example Apple inventions and manufactured gear. So it is a bit ambivalent feeling, but I really enjoy using devices I built from beginning to end.