Interview: Pierre Bastien - The Mechanical Wizard

Interview: Pierre Bastien - The Mechanical Wizard

1. Instruments

Pierre Bastien was born in Paris in 1953. He is a French musician, composer, and experimental musical instrument builder. He began building mechanical-based musical instruments at an early age, using items such as metronomes, cymbals, and pulleys. In 1977 he began collaborating with Pascal Comelade and composing music for dance companies. He performed in ensembles such as Operation Rhino, Nu Creative Methods, and Effectifs de Profil.

We met Pierre Bastien before his concert in Bucharest, at the tenth anniversary of Rokolectiv festival, and had a pleasant chat on the sunny terrace of the Contemporary Art National Museum.

You integrated many traditional instruments from all over the world in your orchestra - Chinese lute, Morrocan bendir, violin, sanza - to name a few. Can you tell us about your connection with traditional world music?

Pierre Bastien: I probably have a very eclectic interest in music, I like lots of different music genres, and especially the different traditions, and also I have a big interest in tones, because I think that with electronic music the musicians developed this interest in tones, but in electronic tones. Generally, in music you have this - you have different components, like melody, harmony, rhythm, noise, and tones. For me, tones are very important. Usually, people interested in tones go to the shop and buy effects, or they buy a laptop and they use a lot of electronic sounds, or they go to the field and they do some field recordings. Me, I went to the traditions of the world and I collected many instruments, I have maybe 300 in my studio. That was my way, my own path into tones.

Do you have a certain area that you prefer?

P.B.: I think I like everything but, of course, in some areas the people developed more on the percussions, other people developed more string instruments, or horns, like in Tibet, where you will have lots of wind instruments, like the Tibetan horns, Nepalese horns, gyaling oboe. Not many drums but still, there are a few, some cymbals, but mostly they went into wind instruments. Some other people went more into strings like us, in Europe. So I like everything. Africa is a wonderful continent because they really explored wind instruments, percussions and strings widely. I also like what happened in Japan, in China, India...I never collected much of Indian instruments, I have a few, the most primitive ones, because you need a lot of training before being able to perform properly on these instruments, so I prefer the more direct ways.

Were you musically trained?

P.B.: Yes, I studied guitar and double bass, but I never play neither guitar nor double bass on stage, I play trumpet. I think I'm freer with an instrument that I don't know so well. I get more freedom.

How do you relate to your music being written? Do you feel you can write your music?

P.B.: I used to write it afterwards. I used to write the music for the Music Society, to get my copyright, but nowadays it's not necessary anymore because you just sign a tape and that's it.

But you wrote the music for your instruments, right?

P.B.: You can write any kind of music, you can put on paper any type of music, just the tones you can't really define, because when you use an African goje you cannot explain what the tone is, this is not writable, but you can write the notes, the different rhythms, the chords, etc. But I don't believe you need to have it written to play. Actually, I believe the exact opposite - last week I was recording for my new album and I had a little technical problem on one track and I wanted the same notes, I improvised, the notes were perfect, just that there was some water in the trumpet that I didn't like, so I decided to write down my notes and play them again and I did it but I didn't play with the same feeling; when I was reading my notes there was a distance. I think people who interpret music they have this distance; it's very difficult to be in the skin of the composer, and the composer was myself but I couldn't put myself into my own skin. Paradoxically.

“This is my profession, like a philosopher is trying to build a system; I try to build one in a small scale, in the music field. And whatever the esthetic level of this system is, I have this satisfaction of having built something slowly.”

2. Creative process

I think that besides the influence of literature in your music, there are some avant-garde, some Dada symbols in your compositions. How do you use this in your creative process?

P.B.: This is a question I could have answered 30 years ago because I was thinking about that; now it's just natural. Now I do it without thinking but of course all this deconstruction of the rules was important to me when I started. I think that when you are trained into something, literature, music or whatever, they generally teach you the rules and the rules are very often negative - you shouldn't do that, this is forbidden, and then you have to re-learn how to open the doors that have been closed for you previously. It's a long hard job and it's a pity that you learn more negative points.

Around the time that you started working on your creations, the spectral music technique was being developed and before that, acousmatic music. Where do you place yourself in this picture?

P.B.: In the ‘70s I often attended concerts of acousmatic music, more to understand and see what was happening in that scene, and less to be inspired by it because it's just not my taste, it's not what I dream of in music. My concern, or one of my concerns when I play for an audience is to give the people surprises, every 10-20 seconds; I cannot manage that but still I try. Entertainment is something important also, when I'm attending a show I like to have some surprises, some coup-de-theatre. I like when an artist is rich, and even if I don't discover every component of the piece I like to enjoy a lot of it so maybe acousmatic has also some richness but to me it sounded...also because it was a composition for the ears and not for the rest, for everybody, all of this made me a bit reluctant.

Maybe you were in a creative process at that time and all these influences would distract you from your own work.

P.B.: No, no, sometimes you just build your own work in opposition. I remember my first exhibition in The Netherlands, when I was still living in France, and as a French artist I was invited in a gallery specialized in sound art, around 1985. The gallery has been an important place in the last 20 years of the 20th century, from 1980 to 2000. It's called Apollohuis, it was a world wide known gallery, they were exhibiting and also organizing concerts every month, four concerts a month and two exhibitions. It was an artist-ran gallery and the artist, Paul Panhuysen (who just died couple of months ago) the first thing that he told was, "Oh, you are opening electro-acoustic studios in France when everybody in the world is closing them". It was a bit shocking at that time.

3. Transitions

Also, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s you composed music for dance companies. Can you tell us more about the process of writing and your involvement in the resulting shows?

P.B.: At that time in the ‘70s we just had this sort of revolution in 1968 so we were supposed to work equally and there was this spirit of doing things together, sort of communism in art, so that was a good period and we were exploring and building up the show together - the choreographer, and the dancers and musicians, it was not a piece made by one person but by a collective. I still have this, well I mostly work alone but when I play with other musicians and when I invite or I am invited with or by other musicians I like to have a collective band and not something ran by somebody.

How do you see this transition from analog to digital influencing you?

P.B.: I'm not concerned by this, I don't define music by the material but from the esthetic of an art piece. For me, if a painting is made with watercolor or oil, I don't mind, if a sculpture is a wooden sculpture or if it's made of metal, what I like to look at and to enjoy is the result and not the material. So I don't make any difference between something that would be made with the help of a computer or something done with a screwdriver, for me it's all the same.

But how did you get to this setup? It's not a usual setup for a live show, all these customized instruments, mechanical instruments, in 2015, compared to a laptop, it's at least a bit ironic, don't you think?

P.B.: For me it's just natural. I have children, my daughter is a musician, she likes to play bass, she's not at all into laptops...It's very strange to me this way of defining genre through the material and through the medium you are using. You say for instance romanticism, classicism, symbolism, and things like that, but you don't say stone architecture or wood architecture. You don't make a difference between literature that has been written down with a pencil or at a typewriter or computer, but in music they make that difference - electronic music, acoustic. For me it doesn't mean anything. Whatever the medium is the important thing is the result, what you get. Me, I wanted to play with some loops and sampling sounds so I used what I had in store and that was the Meccano toy, this control-thing game, and some screws and that's it. If you have a computer - OK, do it with a computer but generally, the people who are looping and sampling with a computer, with a few exceptions like Aphex Twin and others who have built their own sounds, generally they just pick loops and sounds that have been done already by some engineers so they are not the creators for me, they are just a medium, something in between. The creators are anonymous and they are working for Apple or Roland and such.

So you don't think that the evolution of technology would necessarily limit the possibilities of experimentation in art?

P.B.: They will, but not necessarily. The big difference I think is the amount of time you spend. I spent an entire life building this and look - in between concerts I still have to work on it, instead, the people bringing a laptop they just open it and play...

4. Collaborations

Do you think that the music nowadays got more robotized? Or has lost the human touch?

P.B.: No, it's OK for me, I like robots very much. I wouldn't criticize any category of musicians. I like to have fun and I have fun building my own system. If people are OK without these pleasures, I don't mind. I think they miss something, but it's their problem. If people are happy with using what is available in shops, the computer programs and everything, why not? But they miss a lot of the fever of creation. It's really nice to build your own universe and even when it fails sometimes you feel a bit like a little god, building up something, your world. For me, this is my profession, like a philosopher is trying to build a system; I try to build one in a small scale, in the music field. And whatever the esthetic level of this system is, I have this satisfaction of having built something slowly. I think that's our job.

Earlier you were talking about sampling and I saw at the sound-check that you had a video sample of a Romanian musician playing the cymbal.

P.B.: Ah, yes! It's one of the musicians of the past but yes, I didn't realize that I was going to Romania and I had this guy with me in the suitcase. I also play with images of some Jamaicans, some Africans, Americans, sometimes with Russians, but I didn't bring the Russians with me this time, Spanish...

Have you thought about collaborating with other contemporary musicians?

P.B.: In one of the last concerts I played with some Spanish musicians who built huge machineries, all mechanical, but very big; they had an exhibition recently in Barcelona and we played there together. We played with small machines that I have made, one I think I had when I first came to Bucharest, a small Casio keyboard and some cylinders pushing the keys, and this machine had a midi output and that was fading a big machinery by an artist, and the name of the artist is Cabo San Roque; they are a collective of artists and they build incredible orchestras, mechanical orchestras, and because those machines are analog, but with drum elements, bows and plucked strings, the machines are ran through computers, so this time we just conducted the machines through my little machines so the little machine was conducting the big machines. So this was very nice. I play also with a French musician, Eddie Ladoire. He is playing vintage synthesizers. I also play with a singer, from France, she comes from the folk music and she plays hurdy-gurdy, harp, dulcimer, and she also sings.

Have you ever thought about conducting an orchestra of human musicians?

P.B.: I'm not good in human interactions, so I prefer robots. Or, probably because of my generation, I believe in collective ensembles and "conducting" is not in my vocabulary. I am conducting a robotic orchestra but no, I wouldn't ask people to do this or that. No. You are free to do what you like and if the result is good we keep it, if not, we skip it. That's my idea of collaboration.

5. Future past

Do you still see music the way you did when you first started?

P.B.: Yes, it evolves...I don't control everything, I control part of the evolution, but many aspects come from outside, daily life and you were talking about new technologies - actually I am influenced by new technologies in this setup that I have now and in the last sound installation that I did, because I am using a lot of those coolers that they used to cool down the chip in the computers. Now you go to a computer shop and you get all types of fans - this was not possible 15 years ago; different shapes, centrifugal, - now I know the terms - tangential fans, etc. So I'm not totally against new stuff, I think the society evolves and also, the things around us, the objects, and I'm depending on this evolution. Using those fans into my musical there were some unexpected rhythmical aspects, because previously all the machines were playing, more or less, the same type or rhythms, and now, with the introduction of the wind, of the air shaft, the air flows and they blow air into sheets of paper and there are some unpredictable sounds and patterns. The air is not blown the same all the time and the paper reacts differently than just pieces of metal biting each other. So it changed my music.

Can you tell us something about your new album that you said you're working on?

P.B.: I'm in the process of recording. The magical thing is that you just spend one, two or three days in front of the microphones and then something comes out of nowhere and almost nothing. And strangely, the new record takes shape. On the other hand, I would like to control and plan exactly what I will do but I must say that it's not exactly like that. Of course, I know more or less the direction but composing music for me is also getting surprised line after line or track after track.

Do you tend to go into older patterns, with this new album?

P.B.: With this album I had some suggestions from the musician who asked me to do it, Rabih Beaini. We met a few times in Italy and last year at a new festival called Terra Forma in Milano, and after the concert he asked me to join the label (Morphine Records), and with the invitation he gave me some suggestions to do something rhythmical and minimal. So, the rhythmical aspect, OK, not too hard to reach, but the minimalism is not easy to reach, because when you are recording you play a trio or a quartet and if it doesn't sound well there are two solutions - either you reform the trio or the quartet, totally, and this is the hardest job, or you add a fifth, sixth voice and maybe after that, when you reach the eight or ninth voice, the piece will start to work, but then you don't have a trio or a quartet, you have this massive sound with lots of instruments and then you are not minimal at all, and maybe it's too easy this way. I think it's more difficult to make a nice piece with three or four tracks and easier if you have a big ensemble, then it will work eventually.



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