sa Sound Arts vol.3

XEBEC SoundCulture Membership Magazine

a sound & art vision

Pierre Bastien: The Aesthetics of the Automatic Orchestra

By now, you have probably become quite familiar with our "sound & art exhibition"s. the ongoing series of shows held mainly in Xebec Foyer--"the space where sound can be felt." In this section, we will bring you interviews and reports about artists who have produced works for the series as well as other sound artists who are currently receiving attention.
April 27, 1995 Nagoya City Art Museum

Interviewer: NAKAGAWA Shin (musicologist)
Assistant: SHIMODA Nobuhisa (Xebec staff)
With this issue begins a series of interviews by NAKAGAWA Shin, who has been researching sound art around the world. For this interview, he talked to Pierre BASTIEN who was invited to show his work at the Fourth International Biennale in Nagoya--"ARTEC95."

Automatic Instruments

NAKAGAWA (N): Long time no see, the last time I saw you was at your
performance in Aachen, Germany in 1992.  First of all, I'd like to ask
you about the Automatic Orchestra.  When did you start it?

Pierre BASTIEN(B): I started 20 years ago now.  But 20 years ago it
wasn't an orchestra, it was a solo performance because there was only
one machine.  And I added more and more machines and now I have a
large band.

N: Why did you start it?

B: First, I read a book which was, and is, very important to me.  It's
a book called Impressions d'Afrique by Raymond ROUSSEL.  In this book,
there are several descriptions of machines and systems to make
pictures or music.  But there is one in particular that I loved very
much describing an automatic orchestra which is built under a closed
glass box.  And the scientist who builds the orchestra has previously
invented a new metal which can react very quickly to small changes in
 So in order to demonstrate his inventions he builds this orchestra
with pipes, with different kinds of drums, and a lot of musical
systems.  He has invented what he calls a "thermodynamic orchestra,"
and the description in the book is so precise that this induced me to
produce something equivalent.  I wanted to produce such an orchestra,
not a thermodynamic one of course, but automatic.  He influenced
Marcel DUCHAMP and Michel FOUCAULT a lot.  When a journalist asked
Rebecca HORN, "Who was your main influence?  Marcel DUCHAMP?"  She
answered, "No, it was Raymond ROUSSEL."  Even recently, for example, I
saw a piece by Joe JONES.  I'm not completely sure, but almost, that
it came from the same place.
N: You use instruments from various parts of the world, do you have
some criteria for choosing them?

B: I like the sounds--different sounds coming from different
instruments.  For example, I like the sound of this Moroccan drum very
much.  You cannot hear it each time it beats, but when you hear it, it
goes through your body.  For me the sound, but not only the sound, the
quality of the sound is very important--the timbre.  And I also like
the shapes of the instruments very much, and the colors.  Also, I like
to mix different instruments from different countries, but finally you
notice that they are from the same family of thinking.  A violin and a
viola from Niger, or a kokyu--those are the same family, the same way
of producing music.

N: It's interesting to me that you always use ready-made instruments.
Do you make your own instruments too?

B: I prefer ready-made instruments.  Certainly, because I like the
traditional instruments from everywhere very much.  Another thing is
that I have only seen a few very interesting handmade instruments.
For example, those by Peter VOGEL.  Those interested me a lot.  But he
is an exception.  I have seen a lot of sound installations with new
instruments, but they were not so interesting to my ears.  There are
so many violins.  If you take one family of instruments, there are so
many in the world that it's not easy to invent something that will be
able to compete.

N: When I see all of the instruments from all over the world that you
use, I feel some slight misgivings.  When you take the instruments out
of their original context, aren't you just making them into a
hodgepodge?  The dissimilar effect is interesting, but what happens to
the context?

B: I don't agree with you.  If instead I had a Yamaha synthesizer, and
if I played it in Rotterdam, I think the process is exactly the same.
For example, when you play a violin, you are also doing this activity.
Taking it from the seventeenth century and playing it in the
twentieth.  So for me, it's not so disturbing.  I have a simple life.
I change it from the shop--in the shop this Yamaha synthesizer is
corresponding to the environment, but not in my place.  In my place,
those instruments are more close to me and the objects around them.
N: So, this is one of your strategies--is it political or

B: Yes, if you like, you could call it one of my strategies.  Both.  I
don't refuse the political.  Because it's so difficult to do it with
people, but to do it with sounds, it proves that it is possible to mix
different cultures.  If it is possible to mix the sounds, it means a
lot I think.

Making Music

S: And you worked with Pascal COMELADE as a musician? But on the other
hand, you are making work for these kinds of exhibitions as a
sculptor, a kinetic sculptor.  In these works, what is your goal?

B: My main purpose is to play music.  I have never built a machine
with the idea of making something plastic.  My idea is just to play
the instrument, not by myself, but with a machine, and I think that if
the machine is useful, it will be beautiful.  Or correctly shaped.  In
industry and everywhere else, when a machine is very efficient, it's a
beautiful machine; it's also a beautiful object. So the music is my
main purpose. And of course I also perform without the machines. But
in the concert with Max EASTLEY, I performed with the machines.  I
think that here my influence could be the Count Basie Orchestra.
Because I like all of the old jazz very much, especially from the
beginning of this century.  Especially when it was played by men from
New Orleans.  From 1910, the beginning of the recordings, to 1920.

N: The Automatic Orchestra reminds me somewhat of minimal music.  Do
you like it?

B: Yes, but for me it's not a recent invention.  I find it in
traditional African music and not only African certainly.  Also, all
of this music which is performed by non-professional musicians; for
example, music performed by people in villages who don't play every
day of the year but just play for festivities.  People who are
normally workers or farmers.  I like this music very much.

S: What is your aesthetic theory for composing music?

B: What I listen to the most is what we call "ethnic music."  I have a
large collection of records at home and I listen to African music
mainly.  I don't know why I prefer it, but it's a fact that I do.  I
have no musical theory.  I couldn't explain it theoretically.  I know
what kind of feeling I want to create, but nothing else.  Also, I like
warm music, not cold sounds.  For example, that I use only minor
chords and never major chords.  And very often minor and 7th chords.
That's all.  I just notice that after doing the music.  I want to
introduce in my music continuous rhythm and melody if I can.  And
harmony.  I think that when those three elements are used together...I
miss the lack of those three elements in contemporary music from the
20's to the 70's.  Now, more and more composers are coming back to
those elements.  Sometimes using two of them, sometimes two others.
For example, Gavin BRYARS is using harmony and melody.  I think one of
the most important things in music, in Western music, has been the
accident of LULLY, the seventeenth century composer.  He used to beat
the rhythm with a large stick like all the conductors at that time.
But he had an accident, and he died from it.  He knocked his foot with
the stick, and at that time, it was very difficult to take care of it.
And from that time on, conductors stopped using sticks for the rhythm
and you began to hear the music without a beat, a continuous rhythm.
We stopped that in Europe because of this stupid accident.

N: Do you have the same idea when you compose music for regular

B: Yes, I composed for string quartets.  I have several compositions
of repetitive music, mainly.  Very simply, played, they don't need a
lot of virtuosity.  I had a string quartet about ten years ago, but we
were two musicians and two painters, and the two painters didn't know
how to play really.  Just very small things.  They had a lot of paint
on their fingers, so they couldn't play precise things with the
violin, so we had to manage with that.  I like art brut very much.  Do
you know the French painter, Jean DUBUFFET?  Just after the war he
collected a large art collection by crazy people, mad people, or
non-professional painters generally.  People who were retired, not
working anymore, so they had time to paint.  Because he wanted to
react against the professional environment around painting or around
fine arts.  This is also very important to me.  I'm of course
professional by the way, but I would like to make art without thinking
of art as a profession.  That's why we made that string quartet with
two painters.  We played at big events.  At the Mediterranean Biennale
in Barcelona and things like that.

N: That sounds like Scratch Orchestra, which was organized by
Cornelius CARDEW and Gavin BRYARS.  It's an orchestra of quite amateur
people.  They wanted to criticize the situation of the professionals.
But they were not mad.  They were, in a sense, a very political
orchestra.  Thanks for all of your interesting talking today.

(This interview was held in cooperation with ARTEC.)

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