Interview with Pierre Bastien

Published on the Liquid Architecture 5 website, archived here.

Pierre Bastien postgraduated in 18th-century French literature at University Paris-Sorbonne. In 1977, he built his first musical machinery. For the next ten years, he composed for dance companies and played with Pascal Comelade. In the meantime, he constantly developed his mechanical orchestra, which, since 1987, he has concentrated on through solo performances, sound installations, recordings and collaborations with such artists as Pierrick Sorin, Karel Doing, Jean Weinfeld, Robert Wyatt and Issey Miyake. Around 1986, Bastien built his own orchestra, the "Mecanium": an ensemble of musical automatons constructed from Meccano parts and activated by electro-motors, playing acoustic instruments from all over the world. 

As Michel F. Côté notes, the Mecanium is a "composer's dream; a fail-safe orchestra at one's fingertips obeying ever-so-gently his every command; a timeless-sounding orchestra, both futuristic and slightly Dada, conjuring ancient traditions in its surprisingly sensuous music. This is, in a nutshell what Pierre Bastien's Mecanium is all about – a daydream of sorts that he has successfully pursued since 1976. The musicians of his orchestra are machines. And the idea behind it is simple, efficient and poetic: to have traditional instruments (Chinese lute, Morrocan bendir, Javanese saron, koto, violin, sanza, etc.) played by mechanical instruments made of meccano pieces and recycled turntable motors. These hybrid, self-playing sound sculptures perform a series of short pieces, charming and hypnotic." 

Luke Jaaniste speaks with Pierre Bastien about then and now.

What are the main similarities between sound arts and music in the 1960s and the 1970s and today? What are the main differences?

I will answer about the '70s mainly, as I started playing concerts and building sound devices around 1972/73. First of all, I did not hear the term "sound art" before 1986, when I first came to show my work at the Apollohuis in Holland, at Paul Panhuysen's invitation. As far as I remember, in France we were talking of "sound sculptures", like the Bachet brothers did. Before 1986, I was naive: I was convinced, for example, that only a very few artists were involved in what is now called sound art. I could not believe that this activity would develop and become an important stream. One reason is that art critics and music journalists were discouraging us as much as possible: at their best they would consider us as Harry Partch followers.

Paradoxically, many composers from the '60s and '70s were trying to find a third way between popular and serious music. There were several attempts and propositions to create a third stream: they all failed and the alternative came eventually from an unexpected type of artist, a mix of well-trained and self-taught musicians, university-graduated and primitive sculptors who have in common the idea of breaking down the borders between Music and Art.

What do you think are the most interesting directions in sound arts today, and why? Do you feel that current sound arts are a continuation of the experiments and sensibilities of the 1960 & 1970s, or do you feel there is a new paradigm afloat?

I am interested in every direction, in every new piece I see. I don't know about this question of continuation. I just note that by using electronics instead of acoustics – new instead of old technologies – you don't transform an art work into a radically different object. I mean that the technical advancements did not give birth to a radically different approach. 

Art critic Tony Godfrey has suggested that much contemporary work is simply a reworking of ideas conceived in the 1960/70s – that the work today is simply more polished, with higher production qualities (for him this is a negative thing). What's your opinion?

Ah! This reminds me of some beautiful music magazines I inherited from my father. Reviewing Charlie Parker's master pieces – Koko, Yardbird Suite – immediately after they had been released, the critic says that Charlie Parker was not in a good mood for this recording session. He was not relaxed enough, he says – he did not play anything new. Then he gives him one star (out of five). This literature is very funny to read some fifty years later.

How have you been able to sustain your own practice over the decades? Can you list some strategies and methodologies that keep you going as an artist?

In the early days, I had more free time than now. I took the opportunity to start building one, two, several – many – automatons in order to get an orchestra: my own orchestra. This activity helped me two times: first I kept busy working with my hands, which is a good and healthy occupation. Then, my robots strongly influenced my compositions: the semi-automatic music I am playing with them cannot be related to any style, and at the same time can be related to every style. Thanks to them, I perform in very different contexts and play the same music exactly, and meet people who put a different name on it.

How similar or dissimilar is your current practice to your early years of working as an artist? In what ways is it different? What are some reasons for any changes?

Was it the same in Australia? I remember that in France we had only one museum of modern art until the end of the '70s, and it was the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris (and in Antibes the Musée Picasso, but this one was very specialised). There was also only one contemporary music festival, one jazz festival, and so on. Later on the situation changed quite rapidly: nowadays many cities are organising a festival, every region has a contemporary art centre and some have several. The possibilities of playing some new music and showing some recent works have been then multiplied by one hundred. In my opinion, this is the biggest difference, which of course influenced our practice for the better by giving us the feeling that we are no longer dilettante and that we are now part of the human society.