A fail-safe orchestra at one's fingertips
December 29, 2012 1:50 PM   Subscribe

"A composer's dream : a fail-safe orchestra at one's fingertips obeying ever so gently to 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" -Michel F. Côté. Watch him in action Live at Faster than Sound or enjoy a track from his album Mecanoid - Avid Diva.

Michel continues: "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 a mechanical instrument made of meccano pieces and recycled turntable motors. These hybrid and self-playing sound sculptures perform a series of short pieces, charming and hypnotic. "

His mechanical installations employ a diversity of objects:
"Fans and tracing paper, drums, blowers, thumb piano and vocal. In collaboration with Robert Wyatt." or "This ensemble is based on the same principle as Mecanium. But instead of music instruments, the robots make daily life objects sounding - a teapot, a comb, some toothbrushes, a saw, an ashtray, some scissors, a letter-scale and a hammer. "

Bastien noted in an interview with The Wire, "I like to combine a cello or a viola with a godje from Niger and a Javanese rabab: enthuses French musician and instrument builder Pierre Bastien. "It's like in a city, where all the different cultures blend with one another: you get a richer palette of sounds." He also "like[s] the idea of plucking objects from their original context and putting them to new uses," he says, "it's the same principle as sampling."

Mechanical Music is nothing new. From traditional orchestrions to Pat Metheny's take on them or even a banjo version, the concept has been around for quite a while. We've even managed to make mechanical birdsong. (previously.)
Far from merely being a novelty, many serious composers and musicians have experimented with mechanical music. See György Ligeti's Hungarian Rock or Continuum. Conlon Nancarrow also composed many works for player piano. (previously.) It is, however, nice to see a living musician make eminently listenable mechanical music that doesn't take itself too seriously.
posted by mingo_clambake (7 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
As much as I love the sound of a fine un-amplified (un crushed) orchestra, I'm surprised that there are not more composers fully simulating digitally either from samples or generated instruments. Good electronic pianos have a pretty listenable sound. Probably a lot more work than I can imagine but if you're writing a symphony, get it listened to rather than wait years for one performance??
posted by sammyo at 1:57 PM on December 29, 2012

sammyo the trouble is that a violin, for example, is loads more complex to sample than a piano is. Pianos are basically already mechanical and it's pretty easy to sample hammers hitting strings at different velocities. But with a violin you not only have to sample velocity, but also articulations and phrasing; the a player can connect notes together using portamento, legato, glissando, staccato, spiccato, pizzicato, col legno, con sordino, szforzando, semitones, vibrato, non vibrato, major trills, minor trills, and probably some things I've forgotten. A really good piano sample could get away with about (just spitballin here) 2,000 samples and sound quite real but a single violin would probably require about 15,000 samples PLUS a bunch of additional sampler scripting to determine when a given articulation should be employed. Now do that again for each instrument in each section of an orchestra and it gets pretty hairy.

That said it can be and has been done, it's just loads more expensive than a piano sample library. Film composers use orchestral libraries all the time for mockups, and sometimes even in actual production.
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:29 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can't believe you left out Ligeti's Poème Symphonique!
posted by kenko at 2:59 PM on December 29, 2012

What's that red mouthpiece he's using on his horn in the first video? It looks like a simple soft plastic tube that he squeezes between his lips to make a sort of double reed, but I can't quite tell.
posted by moonmilk at 5:33 PM on December 29, 2012

I'm surprised that there are not more composers fully simulating digitally either from samples or generated instruments

There are a ton, actually. Particularly in film music, which tends to be between 20% and 100% simulacrum. If you don't go to many live orchestra concerts you probably can't tell the difference, and even if you do, it can be hard, because everything's swathed in so many production and mastering effects.

Solo violin is still hard to emulate, but string sections are not. I think it was Paul Chihara (film & concert composer) who said that people are generally used to the synth string sound, and most even prefer it to the real thing.

posted by speicus at 9:41 PM on December 29, 2012

Oh, damn, I meant to post this too: fazil say's part-mechanized/part-live-performance of stravinsky's the rite of spring on piano (though I understand the mechanized part is based on a live performance as well)

Also Kenko: I'm sure I left out a bunch! Didn't want this to be one of those posts with a bunch of favorites but no comments, after all.

And sadly, moonmilk, I have no idea, really. Almost looked like a whistle with an attachment to fit on where the mouthpiece would normally go. Pretty sure whatever it is is not commercially available, but something he just put together/created.
posted by mingo_clambake at 9:42 PM on December 29, 2012

In other news, this is an awesome post. I'm fascinated by musical automata, and these are no exception. I'm also a fan of this mechanical songbird from 1890.
posted by speicus at 9:59 PM on December 29, 2012

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