The Wire april 1998
: Popular mechanic :"I like to combine a cello or a viola with a godje from Niger and a Javanese rabab: enthuses French musician and instrument builder Pierre Bastien. "It's like in a city, where all the different cultures blend with one another: you get a richer palette of sounds." Bastien enacts this interplay with his Mecanium, a Heath Robinson-like contraption which plays all kinds of instruments at one and the same time: its bows, drumsticks and plectrums can beat an African drum or Indonesian gamelan, play a thumb piano, kora and harmonium, and bow a violin, while activating an entire string quartet. The mechanism that drives it is based on simple principles: intricate constructions built from Meccano parts and powered by motors taken trom old record players activate the bows and sticks by means of gears and pulleys. Yet Bastien's bizarre contraption is more than just a hotchpotch of seemingly incompatible instruments: despite its apparent lack of sophistication, a Mecanium performance is a complex, emotionallv charged affair. This fragile, home-made orchestra executes elaborate and strangely moving symphonies, while the miniature pulleys and levers cast giant shadows on the wall behind them, and Bastien himself sits amid his mechanised instruments accompanying them on trombone, violin or musical saw.
Bastien's childlike constructions are there to remind us that we shouldn't take modern-day music too seriously. The Mecanium harks back to the tradition of the one-man band - a notion that's become redundant in today's technological age - yet paradoxically, its hypnotic rhythms are reminiscent of modern-day sampling techniques. "Rhythmic patterns are repetitive and change very little," Bastien says, "and that's something that machines are very good at Many musicians don't like to be asked to play the same melody or rhythm for ten minutes, and with the Mecanium I have 75 musicians who can play 75 loops. I always wanted to play around with loops, just like Jungle musicians do today, but when I was starting out 20 years ago you didn't have all the electronic equipment You have nowadays. When the bow plays an arpeggio on the violin and repeats it ad infinitum, it's as if I'm looping a violin player."
Pierre Bastien has always been something of a musical outsider. As a double bass plaver in the 70s, he was part of the strong countercultural movement that flourished in France during that period, plaving alongside like-minded musicians such as the oppositional maverick Jac Berrocal. "He used to have a band in which he played all kinds of
[household]objects, and on one of his records I had to flick tea-towels in the air!" recalls Bastien.
A competent multi-instrumentalist, Bastien drew on his musical abilities to build the first Mecanium in 1976. Like all the other elaborate Meccano-based constructions that were to follow, it was a throwback to his childhood. "I've never been a virtuoso in music, but I started using a Meccano set when I was four and I was always good at it," he explains. As the Mecanium took shape over the years, he joined forces with yet another kindred spirit, Pascal Comelade, the Catalan composer and noted toy instrument virtuoso. Bastien became one of the mainstays of Comelade's Bel Canto Orchestra from its inception in 1983, playing a variety of instruments.
Bastien's memories of those days testify to the extraordinary vitality of that bizarre yet occasionally brilliant ensemble "I've played in several improvised music ensembles, where the music was very conventional, but it was in Pascal's band, which most I y played covers, that l had the most surprising experiences in my career as a musician", he says. "Pascal wouldn't always allow me to attend the rehearsals. He would give me a list of songs five minutes before tlie concert and I'd have a few seconds to choose my instrument and decide what I was going to play." The Bel Canto Orchestra more or less ran out of steam in 1993, and Bastien was lelt to concentrate on his solo career with the Mecanium. The trio of Bastien, Berrocal and Comelade have nonetheless played together onseveral occasions since, and last year released an album with Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, The Oblique Sessions Together with the plaintive notes of the toy instruments played by Berrocal and Comelade, the Mecanium's simple, evocatrive sound loops enhance the album's nostalgic atmosphere.
The element of nostalgia in the Mecanium's jaunty, tunetul melodies is further reinforced by its archaic construction Like The Bicycle Orchestra (a conglomerate of instruments attached to bicycles that ride around the performance space), or Ken Butler's Object Opera (an automated assemblage of dismantled musical instruments and household objects), oddities such as the Mecanium come across as solitary survivors from a pre-electronic age. Such contraptions generally have a strong visual appeal, even though the music they produce is relatively rudimentary. The Mecanium is no exception, offering a vast palette of sounds which Bastien is continually enlarging. He has spent the last ten months building a second Mecanium which plays objects such as scissors, an ashtray or a teapot, and producing a variety of percussive noises "I like the idea of plucking objects from their original context and putting them to new uses," he says, "it's the same principle as sampling." Bastien doesn't only perform with his 'orchestras' on stage. he also presents his work in museums and art galleries. One of his recent installation pieces is an orchestra of eight mechanised record players that play the same grooves over and over, performing robotically for months on end. It's an ironic comment on DJ culture: like the Mecanium, this installation parodies sampling technology. Bastien clearly has an affinity with sampling aficionados, and has performed with DJs on several occasions "It's a combination that works very well, because we all use loops I feel very much at home with DJs, even though I find their music a bit too conventional"
RAHMA KHAZAM / The Wire april 1998
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