Pierre Bastien (born Paris, 1953) post-graduated in eighteenth-century French literature at University Paris-Sorbonne. In 1977 he built his first musical machinery. For the next ten years he has been composing for dance companies and playing with Pascal Comelade. In the meantime he was constantly developing his mechanical orchestra. Since 1987 he concentrates on it through solo performances, sound installations, recordings and collaborations with such artists as Pierrick Sorin, Karel Doing, Jean Weinfeld, Robert Wyatt or Issey Miyake.

“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.” Bastien enacts this interplay with his Mecanium, a Heath Robinson-like contraption which plays all kinds of instruments at one and the same time: its bows, drumsticks and plectrums can beat an African drum or Indonesian gamelan, play a thumb piano, kora and harmonium, and bow a violin, while activating an entire string quartet. The mechanism that drives it is based on simple principles: intricate constructions built from Meccano parts and powered by motors taken trom old record players activate the bows and sticks by means of gears and pulleys. Yet Bastien’s bizarre contraption is more than just a hotchpotch of seemingly incompatible instruments: despite its apparent lack of sophistication, a Mecanium performance is a complex, emotionallv charged affair. This fragile, home-made orchestra executes elaborate and strangely moving symphonies, while the miniature pulleys and levers cast giant shadows on the wall behind them, and Bastien himself sits amid his mechanised instruments accompanying them on trombone, violin or musical saw.

Bastien’s childlike constructions are there to remind us that we shouldn’t take modern-day music too seriously. The Mecanium harks back to the tradition of the one-man band - a notion that’s become redundant in today’s technological age - yet paradoxically, its hypnotic rhythms are reminiscent of modern-day sampling techniques. “Rhythmic patterns are repetitive and change very little,” Bastien says, “and that’s something that machines are very good at Many musicians don’t like to be asked to play the same melody or rhythm for ten minutes, and with the Mecanium I have 75 musicians who can play 75 loops. I always wanted to play around with loops, just like Jungle musicians do today, but when I was starting out 20 years ago you didn’t have all the electronic equipment You have nowadays. When the bow plays an arpeggio on the violin and repeats it ad infinitum, it’s as if I’m looping a violin player.”