La machine fleuve

for 20 music boxes with bike transmission

70′ – 6h

In collaboration with Arno Fabre

The idea to make a piece for music boxes with a bicycle drive mechanism belongs to Arno Fabre. I got involved with enthusiasm, because immediately felt the level of rigidity of this medium – and I like it when the composition substance shows resistance.

A music box is a semantic trap, it is an instrument meant not for music as such, but for recollections of music, a toy making equal Ode to Joy and Ach mein lieber Augustin. I managed to avoid this trap when realised that twelve diatonic music boxes (they are mounted in the centre of the wall and are the main object of our performance) are one instrument.

Why are there 12 music boxes and not fewer, say, 8? Because the time scale of the piece demanded a broader sound field. Why are they 12 and not more, say, 18? Because it would have been difficult to manipulate such a number in real time.

All these 12 music boxes are tuned in C major, this is the only key in which they are fabricated. We put them in different tunes, each in its own way, together they cover different variants of all tones of the C major scale, both chromatic ones and microtones, this creates a strange nonregular gamut showing no traces of the original C major. Each card can be driven through different music boxes thus changing the height of pitch.

The sound of music box, its separate, so to say, sound pixel is the agent of ressentiment alluring one into the aforementioned semantic trap. This agent can be neutralised only by means of getting over the discrete nature of sound. As a result, the technical task or creating a long sound lead to elaboration of several structural levels.

Every note, i.e. a long sound, consists of minimum 4 rhythmical progressions. This has to do with the construction of a music box: the shortest distance between holes that allows to repeat the same sound is 8 mm. To asound one note, one needs a set of minimum 4 cards.

This set I called a vertical. It may consist of only one or several notes, up to six. Each vertical requires a separate set of cards. This set cannot be run simultaneously, because I have only two hands; it is also impossible to synchronise “entrance” of cards within the set, nor can one suddenly switch a certain set off or replace it with another one. Due to these restrictions, the verticals/sets change smoothly and the musical “now” becomes diffused.

Each of the verticals has 1 to 6 simultaneously sounding notes. The verticals are organised in different ways, each type is marked with a certain colour on the cards and also in the “musical score” (it is not a real one, rather a note scheme), which guides both performers. The consequence of similar verticals forms a section, and 7-10 different sections are united in a movement; there are 4 movements of about 20 min each.

In addition there are two groups of 4 chromatic music boxes each, organised in a completely different way. In fact, this is another piece being played at the same time. Each chromatic foursome is connected to a handle by a wire, so when I put the handle down/up, it starts/ends to play simultaneously (or in a slightly desynchronized manner) six-note chords. Here we have not cards but long Moebius ribbons, each of different length, so these chords never repeat exactly.

During my composer’s life I have been writing for diverse sound media, including for example an open-air event on a military installation with dozens of sound sources placed on more than a hectare terrain. But I have never before worked in the situation when the instrument’s physical specification would determine compositional process so rigidly.

Nevertheless, on the upper compositional level La machine fleuve can really be transformed, i.e. one can prolong verticals, connect them in different ways, change the sequence of sections and movements. We begin with a concert version, but it would be also possible to make an hours-long open-air event with changing performers, or a series of hyper-minimalist sound sets, as well as an interactive installation with a motor instead of cyclist, where the cards would be handled by the audience itself.

Video from avant-premiere, Toulouse, July 2014, Théatre Le Hangar

Audio from the premiere