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Mechanics of music: Motors, acoustics fuel composer’s sound


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Pierre Bastien performs with his mechanical orchestra. Bastien usually plays a pocket trumpet or other instrument, while magnified views of his musical machinery at work is projected on a screen behind him. Bastien will perform Saturday in Indianapolis at a free concert.
SUBMITTED PHOTO
Pierre Bastien performs with his mechanical orchestra. Bastien usually plays a pocket trumpet or other instrument, while magnified views of his musical machinery at work is projected on a screen behind him. Bastien will perform Saturday in Indianapolis at a free concert. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Pierre Bastien performs with his mechanical orchestra. Bastien usually plays a pocket trumpet or other instrument, while magnified views of his musical machinery at work is projected on a screen behind him. Bastien will perform Saturday in Indianapolis at a free concert.
SUBMITTED PHOTO
Pierre Bastien performs with his mechanical orchestra. Bastien usually plays a pocket trumpet or other instrument, while magnified views of his musical machinery at work is projected on a screen behind him. Bastien will perform Saturday in Indianapolis at a free concert. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Pierre Bastien performs with his mechanical orchestra. Bastien usually plays a pocket trumpet or other instrument, while magnified views of his musical machinery at work is projected on a screen behind him. Bastien will perform Saturday in Indianapolis at a free concert.
SUBMITTED PHOTO
Pierre Bastien performs with his mechanical orchestra. Bastien usually plays a pocket trumpet or other instrument, while magnified views of his musical machinery at work is projected on a screen behind him. Bastien will perform Saturday in Indianapolis at a free concert. SUBMITTED PHOTO


The 80-piece orchestra played an otherworldly array of sounds through the concert hall.

Some songs are quaint and slow-burning. Others are snazzy and up-tempo. The sounds developed slowly, hints of xylophone, Asian string instruments and mournful trumpet. Percussion gallops in and out of the melody.

But only one man controlled the music.

Composer Pierre Bastien built the mechanized music-maker, which he named Mecanium, out of electric motors, acoustic instruments and Meccano girders, brackets and hardware.

Watch the machinery

What: Musical Machinery Performance with Pierre Bastien

When: 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Clowes Auditorium, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library central branch, 40 E. St. Clair St., downtown

What’ll happen: Experimental instrument builder and sound installation artist Pierre Bastien comes to Indianapolis from France for a unique performance that blends live trumpet sounds with screen projections of on-site, mechanical sound sculptures built by Bastien.

Cost: Free

Create your own

What: Musical Machinery Workshop with Pierre Bastien

When: 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday

Where: Big Car Service Center, 3819 Lafayette Road, Indianapolis

Why: Learn how to create your own mechanical instruments and orchestral contraptions in this hands-on workshop with French composer and sound installation artist Pierre Bastien.

Cost: Free

Bastien has shaped his career around envisioning, building and playing pieced-together musical machinery. His concerts are part performance art, part live-action engineering show. Large screens display the working parts on screen, letting people see how each sound is made.

“Slowly, I realized if I didn’t have my own style as an instrumentalist, thanks to the machines, I had a proper style in music. So by playing with machines, I’ve constructed some originality,” he said. “Thanks to the machines, I can play something more or less unique.”

Bastien will perform 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Clowes Auditorium in the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library central branch. He’ll lead a workshop on building mechanical music machines from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Big Car Service Center in Indianapolis as well. The appearance has been arranged by the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.

Bastien’s love for creating musical instruments started when he was a teenager, what he calls “rioting against his metronome.”

He was learning to play the guitar, and doing so, the tick-tock of the metronome helped him keep rhythm. That repetitive sound grated on Bastien’s nerves, so he attached pans from his kitchen, putting them on either side of the metronome.

“Instead of the tick-tock sound, which is anti-musical, it made a more ‘bing-boop’ noise that was much more pleasant,” he said.

More complicated machinery came a few years later when he was working as a professional musician out of France’s University of Paris-Sorbonne.

While he was helping his parents move, he discovered an old Meccano set, the vintage model construction toys. He was inspired to make a machine that would play music alongside him at his guitar concerts.

That machine would grow to become Bastien’s Mecanium.

“The main interest in doing this was to get an orchestra. When you’re a young musician and you make music, you don’t have an orchestra to begin with. A young musician plays with friends and colleagues,” he said. “But it’s quite difficult to impose your music that way.”

His creations grew more more complex and more bizarre. With a push of a button, a blower would turn on and buzz across long sheets of paper to make a particular sound. Gears and metal arms would push violin bows or pluck strings.

Often, he’d incorporate foreign instruments such as the Indian banjo or a lute from China.

“I was surrounding the instrument with what looked like a crane. The crane would beat the percussion instrument or would rub with the bow or pluck the strings of the instrument,” he said. “While I have plenty of traditional music instruments, I like the shapes and the tones of those other instruments.”

The music feels organic compared to many overproduced digital effects found in much of today’s music, said Shauta Marsh, executive director of the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.

The songs lilt and meander, following a loop of rhythm and tone but adding in enough unique aspects. Often, Bastien will play a pocket trombone or kazoo along with the machine’s performance.

“In some mechanical music, the aim of the composer is to play more than a human being. It can play 88 keys on a piano at the same time. It’s easy to play plenty of notes very fast and complicated more than a pianist would play,” he said. “Instead, my machines play less than a human being. They’re homemade, they’re reliable but don’t use too much technology. I’m trying to play music that’s not complicated, that’s understandable.”

His work also functions as modern art installations.

“Paper Organs” featured a series of organs connected to blowers. Every time an organ note would play, a different blower would turn on, forcing a piece of paper to shake wildly in the air.

The effect was a haunting musical performance enhanced by the crisp shaking of blowing paper.

Bastien has played in music festivals around the world, including World Music Days in Norway, Sound Symposium in Canada and the U.S.’s Flea Festival. His unique approach to music has earned him fans ranging from British singer Robert Wyatt, fashion designer Issey Miyake, the Trottola circus company and contemporary electro-artist Aphex Twin.

“What I notice is these little machines are charming, and people relate to them very well,” he said.

Spirit and Place Festival schedule

Friday

6 to 9 p.m., Playing in the Streets, Harrison Center for the Arts, 1505 N. Delaware St., Indianapolis, free.

Saturday

10:30 to 11:30 a.m., Musical Machinery Workshop with Pierre Bastien, Big Car Service Center, 3819 Lafayette Road, Indianapolis, free.

Noon to 2 p.m., Our Lives as Sacred Story with Carrie Newcomer, Christian Theological Seminary, Room 166, 1000 W. 42nd St., Indianapolis, free though online registration is encouraged at spiritandplace.org.

3 to 5 p.m., Musical Machinery Performance with Pierre Bastien, Clowes Auditorium, the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library central branch, 40 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, free.

6:30 to 8 p.m., Miracles, Myths, Lyrics, & Lies, Christian Theological Seminary, Shelton Auditorium, 1000 W. 42nd St., Indianapolis, $20 general tickets, $15 students and retirees.

Sunday

2 to 3:30 p.m., Bali Dream, Butler Studio Theatre, Lilly Hall 168, 4600 Sunset Ave., Indianapolis, $15 general, $10 seniors, $5 students.

2 to 4 p.m., Playful Painting Sunday, Joy’s House, 2028 E. Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis, $5 to $10.

2 to 4 p.m., Swinging My Feet, Indiana Interchurch Center, 1100 West 42nd St., Suite 125, Indianapolis, free.

2 to 4:30 p.m., The Wright Way To Play, Indiana Landmarks Center, Cook Theater, 1201 Central Ave., Indianapolis, free.

2:30 to 5 p.m., Let’s Dance!, Indianapolis School of Ballet, 502 N. Capitol Ave., Suite B, Indianapolis, $15

3 to 5 p.m., Dare to Have Fun in Church, Roberts Park United Methodist Church, 401 N. Delaware St., Indianapolis, donations accepted.

3 to 5 p.m., Moonlit Nigerian Square, The Athenaeum auditorium, 401 E. Michigan St., Indianapolis, free.

4 to 5:30 p.m., It’s More than a Game, The Athenaeum theatre, 401 E. Michigan St., Indianapolis, free.

Monday

7 to 8:30 p.m., Jazz Meets Klezmer, Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, 6501 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, donations accepted.

7 to 8:30 p.m., Messy Church, Roberts Park United Methodist Church, donations accepted.

Tuesday

6 to 8:30 p.m., Games through the Ages, Conner Prairie, 13400 Allisonville Road, Fishers, free.

6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Art & Play in Child Psychiatry, Indiana Medical History Museum, 3045 W. Vermont St., Indianapolis, donations accepted.

Wednesday

10 a.m. to noon, Playing as We Age, Pike YMCA, 7114 Lakeview Parkway West, Indianapolis, free.

7 to 9 p.m., Gender Bender!, All Souls Unitarian Church, 5805 E. 56th St. at Channing Road, Indianapolis, $10 general tickets, $5 students.

Nov. 8

11 a.m. to 3 p.m., We Play a Different Way, VSA Indiana, 1505 N. Delaware St., Indianapolis, donations accepted.

1 to 2:30 p.m., Age of Champions, Baxter YMCA, 7900 S. Shelby St., Indianapolis, free.

6 to 8 p.m., Drumming to the Beat of the Community, Franklin College, Napolitan Student Center, Forsythe Street, free.

6 to 8:30 p.m., Nurturing the Feminine with Play, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, 100 W. 86th St., Indianapolis, registration required at spiritandplace.org.

7 to 8:15 p.m., Ashes to Ashes, IndyFringe, 719 E St. Clair St., Indianapolis, $10.

7:30 to 9 p.m., An Evening with Amy Sedaris, Madame Walker Theatre Center, 617 Indiana Ave., Indianapolis, $25.

Nov. 9

6 to 9 p.m., Insert Coin to Play, Stutz Artists Association, 212 W. 10th St., B-110, Indianapolis, free.

7 to 9 p.m., A Paycheck Away, Farm Bureau Insurance Building, 225 S. East St., Indianapolis, donations accepted.

7 to 9 p.m., Faith, Fasting and Football, NCAA, 700 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, free.

7:30 to 9 p.m., FlipSide, Basile Opera Center, 4011 N. Pennsylvania St., Indianapolis, free.

8 to 9:15 p.m., Ashes to Ashes, IndyFringe, $10.

8 to 9:30 p.m., Bali Dream, Butler Studio Theatre, Lilly Hall 168, $15 general, $10 seniors, $5 students.

Nov. 10

9 a.m. to noon, Just Say Play!, Ruth Lilly Health Education Center, 2055 N. Senate Ave., Indianapolis, free.

9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Live the Game, Garfield Park Arts Center, 2332 Conservatory Drive, Indianapolis, free.

9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Spirited Chase, WFYI, 1630 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, $25 per car, $15 for two cyclists.

9:30 a.m. to noon, Telling a Story through Dance, Shortridge Middle School, 3401 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, free.

1 to 4 p.m., Horse Play!, Meridian Street United Methodist Church, 5500 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, free.

2 to 3 p.m., Bali Dream, Butler Studio Theatre, Lilly Hall 168, $15 general, $10 seniors, $5 students.

2 to 4 p.m., Swinging My Feet, Indiana Interchurch Center, free.

7:30 to 9:30 p.m., Laughter: The Universal Language, Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, 600 W. 70th St., Indianapolis, $15.

7:30 to 9:30 p.m., The Newest Recital in the World, Anderson University, York Performance Hall, 1100 E. Fifth St., Anderson, free.

8 to 9:15 p.m., Ashes to Ashes, IndyFringe, $10.

8 to 9:30 p.m., Bali Dream, Butler Studio Theatre, Lilly Hall 168, $15 general, $10 seniors, $5 students.

Nov. 11

11 a.m. to 2 p.m., The Great Pumpkin Fling Thing, Garfield Park Arts Center, free.

Noon to 5 p.m., Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day: Healing through the Humanities, Indiana War Memorial, 431 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, free.

2 to 3:15 p.m., Ashes to Ashes, IndyFringe, $10.

2 to 3 p.m., Bali Dream, Butler Studio Theatre, Lilly Hall 168, $15 general, $10 seniors, $5 students.

5:30 to 7 p.m., 17th annual Spirit and Place Public Conversation, Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Toby, 4000 N. Michigan Road, Indianapolis, free.

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