French artist Pierre Bastien makes peculiar music that has multiple layers. The timbre is more often than not acoustic, quite percussive and repetitive, mirroring ethnographic recordings or exotica, yet there’s often something quite stilted and mechanical about the attack and construction – the feel is just a little off. It’s probably because he does strange things like constructing an orchestra called Mecanium – an ensemble of musical automatons, built from meccano parts and activated by electro-motors to play his music. Or at least that’s what he did on his 2017 album The Mecanocentric Worlds of Pierre Bastien.
Sonic Folkways is a little less uniform in approach, and whilst I have no doubt there’s some Mecanium on here, he also employs numerous other techniques and instruments. This includes strange horns, solo prepared trumpet as well as gongs, maracas, violin, drums and castanets amongst numerous others. There’s an odd off kilter lilt to the mechanized music, however he also seems to have improvised over the top of some of these pieces – or at the very least hired some very different kinds of session robots to round out the pieces.
It’s fascinating to listen to this music without knowing how it was constructed. It helps you to ignore any conceptual baggage and just hear the pieces on their sonic merits. Your mind does wonder though, as its so unlike anything else that you can’t help but consider what kinds of experiments led to this moment. In some sense it feels like world music from the industrial age, with perhaps the ‘Folkways’ in the title referencing the incredible ethnographic record label from the Smithsonian which captured important traditional, cultural and ceremonial music from around the world. For such a peculiar experimental work it’s quite remarkable that Sonic Folkways doesn’t feel out of place in such esteemed company.