Bath International Music Festival 2009
Some musicians seem to be born to play certain instruments. Buddy Rich, one of the world’s greatest ever drummers, was just eighteen months old when played his first gig on a kit. Mozart apparently knew his way around a keyboard by the time he was three. And at four years of age, Pierre Bastien was laying the foundations of his remarkable musical career by experimenting with his brand new Meccano set.
To those who have grown up with Wiis and Rock Band computer games, the humble Meccano set will seem like the product of a bygone age. Its strips of metal, held together by nuts and bolts, and given all sorts of possibilities with the aid of wheels and pulleys, were just the thing, however, for an enquiring young mind like Bastien’s, although it would be twenty years before he created the musical, mechanical vision you see before you tonight, Mecanium.
First there were his studies at the Sarbonne - in eighteenth century French literature – and his more conventional, instrumentally speaking, entry into professional music making when, as a double bass player, he became part of the highly productive countercultural movement in Paris during the 1970s. Here, he played in collective bands such as Operation Rhino, Nu Creative Methods and Effectifs de Profil. He also worked with the Dominique Bagouet Dance Company and the maverick Jac Berrocal who in a way similar to the brilliant street theatre/music company Zic Zazou, played all sorts of household objects and required Bastien, on one record, to flick tea-towels in the air.
Bastien’s experiments had already led to him building, at the age of ten, a two string guitar, which came from the constituent parts of another toy - a doctor’s outfit - and five years later, a kind of Mecanium prototype, which made creative use of a metronome and a cymbal. By the time he created Mecanium Mark 1 in 1976, though, he had moved on considerably and had at his disposal a complete ensemble of musical automatons, constructed from Meccano parts and activated by turntable motors, which played acoustic instruments from all over the globe.
With Chinese lute, Morrocan bendir, Javanese saron, Japanese koto and all manner of other exotica involved, not only was this world music before the term had been coined but Bastien’s use of turntable motors also anticipated by some years DJ scratching and sampling.
One reviewer described Mecanium’s early performances as “A composer's dream, a fail-safe orchestra at one's fingertips obeying ever so gently every command” and went on to praise the timelessness of a sound that blended ancient traditions with futuristic technology in sensuous music. In the years following Mecanium’s debut Bastien developed it further, adding more and more elements until there were some eighty instruments involved. He has since performed with Mecanium at music events and arts festivals across the world, including World Music Days in Norway, Tisea in Australia, Artec in Japan and the Flea Festival in the U.S.
Mecanium isn’t his only success, however. Aside from being an unusual inventor, Bastien is a musician and a composer of enormous talent who has written music for string quartets and ballets. He has also worked with other highly individual artists including the former Soft Machine drummer turned singer-songwriter, Robert Wyatt, the French-born Catalan musician Pascal Comelade, and Jaki Liebezeit, founder and drummer with German experimental rock band Can and has collaborated with video artist Pierrick Sorin, fashion designer Issey Miyake, dj Low, and the Trottola circus.
Of his modus operandi, he says: "I like to combine a cello or a viola with a godje from Niger and a Javanese rabab. It's like in a city, where all the different cultures blend with one another: you get a richer palette of sounds. Rhythmic patterns are repetitive and change very little, and that's something that machines are very good at. A lot of musicians don't like to be asked to play the same melody or rhythm for ten minutes, but with the Mecanium I can have as many musicians as I like who can play as many loops as I ask them to. It’s like the Jungle musicians of today, except that when I started out, we didn’t have all the electronic equipment that’s available now.”