Pierre Bastien

Instant Composing with Pierre Bastien

Music By
Pierre Bastien

PW-Magazine sat down with the French composer and multi-instrumentalist Pierre Bastien to talk about machines and his take on experimental music.

Pierre Bastien is more than just a musician. He creates his own instruments he refers to as robots. By interacting with his mechanical orchestra, he adds a sculptural dimension to his music and generates an audiovisual experience.

After having enjoyed his unconventional performance at donaufestival, PW-Magazine sat down with the French composer and multi-instrumentalist to talk about machines and his take on experimental music.

Your robots look very fragile. Did you ever break parts of them while performing?

Yes, it happened before. If one little thing breaks I can still rely on the rest of the machine. But if I break one of the rubber rings that basically run the whole thing, it can be really embarrassing. Luckily, this only happened a couple of times, but then I had to fix the whole system during the performance. I was sweating and it was horrible but in the end it was a big success because the audience realized that I do not only build my machines, but that I can also fix technical problems on the spot. It’s really nice to involve people in this process as well. I like these bad surprises, because every time you have to struggle, something interesting comes out of it.

Are the pieces you play on stage pre-composed or do you improvise on top of the machines‘ rhythms?

Some parts of my music are pre-composed. I’m alone on stage with a lot of robots and it wouldn’t be fair to be the only improviser. The robots go on repeating themselves, and rather than playing on top of these technical redundancies, I try to merge with their structures.

I basically jam with the machines‘ rhythms and focus more on constructing the whole building than on playing one note after another. I build something coherent out of different ideas and sources in order for a jam to become a composition by itself. In Holland, where I live, there was a collective of improvisers in the 70s who described themselves as ‚instant composers‘ – I can identify myself with this attitude.

In my show I try to create a whole orchestra that includes the five fundamental components in music: tone, rhythm, noise, harmony and melody.

In my show I try to create a whole orchestra that includes the five fundamental components in music: tone, rhythm, noise, harmony and melody.

Pierre Bastien

Did you ever build machines for other artists? If so, what is it like to listen to them being played by someone else?

Yes, I’ve built machines for several different artists including a circus company, contemporary jazz musicians and DJs.

It’s always very surprising to listen to the machines in a different context. Even though they are mechanical, you can still put your own personality into them. When somebody else is using them, they get a lot of other sounds and musical textures out of them and that’s really delightful to witness.

Have you ever spent months building a robot that ended up not fulfilling your expectations?

Yes, very often! (laughs) But that’s part of the process.

Sometimes a show or an exhibition can inspire me but at the same time limit my workflow. I remember visiting a nice presentation by Alexander Calder in Chicago. It was great because it was the first time I saw lots of his machines in one large space. He was able to create something very strong but also very light at the same time. Having seen this exhibition has blocked me for a while because I was attempting to achieve that combination of power and fragility myself – and I couldn’t.

Are the aesthetics of your machines as important to you as the sounds they create?

I try not to think about the aesthetics while building because in the end it’s the sound that matters the most. Then again, many engineers say that an efficient machine will be nice to look at. If something is built with love and a lot of detail, it will automatically look pleasant.

But I remember this particular cello construction. It was working well but every time I saw it, I immediately started laughing. The cello was just lying there and the robot was rubbing the strings. It was very sexual – which wasn’t intended at all. So the aesthetics can sometimes add another dimension to how the sounds are perceived.

You’ve been building robots for a really long time. Do you sometimes revisit some of your earlier works?

Yes, I’ve built a whole lot of them. It’s almost like I’m their slave now because I basically spent my entire life maintaining and fixing them. Sometimes I discover a contraption that I build 30 years ago and it’s a bit like meeting an old friend. They’re obviously not human but they do have some human quality to them. When Francis Picabia did his mechanomorphic paintings, he called them ‚motherless daughters‘. And I think I know what he was trying to express with that when I look at my machines.

Even though you are an experimental musician, your sound is very approachable. What’s your opinion on other experimental music?

I’m not even considering myself as an experimentalist – I just play music. It also depends on what you consider to be experimental. For example, I don’t like listening to extreme sounds in music. I’m talking about walls of sound or harsh noise, for instance. You can be extreme in other ways. And that’s how it is in every art form – if you want to make something intense, you don’t necessarily have to pour 200 litres of blood on a canvas.

I’m an old man now and throughout my lifetime I’ve seen a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I like getting old but the bad aspect is that you’ve seen it all before – even the things that are considered to be extreme in the present moment.

You can still discover great stuff nowadays though. I’m just saying that a lot of things that are promoted as being new often turn out not to be totally new to my ears.

How do you feel about the future then?

I think that we are living in a period where we make a genre out of the medium itself for the first time. Before electronic music we never called it acoustic music. We also don’t talk about wooden sculptures as a genre. You would never define a sculpture according to the material that was used. You classify according to the spirit and the state of mind of a work of art – not according to the material itself. In France we have this saying, which goes: „Qu’importe le flacon pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse“ -The bottle’s not important, as long as you get drunk. I like a strong piece that speaks to me. It could be either made with a computer or just water and soap – I don’t care. The important thing is to convey emotion, something that changes your mind. High technology, low technology or no technology at all – it doesn’t really matter.

Text and photos by Amar Priganica and Marie-Claire Gagnon

If you want to experience the mechanical orchestra by Pierre Bastien, check out the tour dates on his website: pierrebastien.com/en/concerts