Pierre Bastien

Blue As An Orange

"Thank fuck for Jac Berrocal," Brian Morton proclaimed in The Wire magazine last year, in light of the "absolutely perfect mess" he, Vincent Epplay and David Fenech concocted on their Antigravity album. An experimental jazz collaboration both dread drenched and miraculously cavernous, it was released on Blackest Ever Black, a label renowned for exploring – amongst a host of other things – the type of techno which shirks classification, functionality and main room coherency for reticent shadows and hardcore idiosyncrasies.

Blue As An Orange feels like, if not a companion piece to that work, then a loosely connected branch from the same sonic denomination. Accenting that link is Bastien’s previous collaborations with both Berrocal and Pascal Comelade, a kindred triumvirate responsible for producing a strange conception of modern French jazz often invigorated by disorderly electronics. Like Antigravity, Bastien’s latest arrives via Rabih Beani’s Morphine Records, a label initially dealing in turbulent and unpredictable dance music – the likes of Hieroglyphic Being and Madteo – and operating at a skewed distance from the usual fare. Since then Beani has reflected an even greater sense of ambition, releasing records by early electronics pioneers like Charles Cohen and Pauline Oliveros.

Like Cohen’s work with the Buchla Music Easel and Oliveros’ Deep Listening practice, Bastien has his own avant-singularity underpinning Blue Is An Orange. By his own admission, Bastien has been re-engineering everyday objects and instruments from an early age, unlocking the percussive potential from items which usually remain untapped, whilst reshaping existing musical instruments with eccentric additions. More recently, Bastien produced a live performance which exhibited his latest explorations in this area under the intriguing title ‘Silent Motors’. It’s a project which builds on previous forays, most notably his Mecanium orchestra, ‘an ensemble of musical automatons constructed from meccano parts and activated by electro-motors, that are playing on acoustic instruments from all over the world’ (as his official biography would have it). This time gears, paper and variously redesigned objects are utilised to create a layered mechanical symphony, an intricate series of sounds worthy of profuse onomatopoeiac descriptions that I’ll spare you. It’s more scaled back than his Mecanium work but no less ambitious, taking on the resemblance of a university music room and a back garden workshop brought together and alive by oddball ingenuity.

Blue As An Orange is the recorded result of the ‘Silent Motors’ concept and although the visual stimulus and gratifying display of motorized systems of motion and function is obviously absent, the strange resonances conjured allow imaginations to flourish in speculation. It’s hard to single out a specific instance in which there isn’t a fascinating micro-friction. Bastien combines what sounds like a dialled down domestic slant on Einsturzende Neubaten’s metallic rout and musique concrete’s spectral infinitesimal manipulations with woozy jazz waywardness, characterised by shades of soft organ, exotic harp-like strums, and soaring, often wistful lilts of trumpet. In this latter respect it’s like the smoky late night dejection of Miles Davis’ work on the ‘Elevator To The Gallows’ soundtrack clashing cohesively with a curious ethnographic obscurity from the Folkways archive, a combination perhaps most discernibly encapsulated on ‘Seven Eves’.

Considering the tools Bastien calls upon and their inanimate surface impression, it’s surprising the extent of warmth he extracts from them, in accordance with his reliance on more conventional resources. ‘Tin Unit’ blossoms from beleaguered brass – as if it’s first breathy emissions were the efforts of a shitfaced but virtuosic marching band – into busy atonal woodblock scales before finally shifting into a minimally backed, gorgeous series of string plucks.

The brilliantly titled ‘Gnostic Illicit Song’ is where Bastien treads into terrain redolent of Berrocal and Antigravity, where ghost imprints of improvisational jazz resound in an endlessly deceptive hall of mirrors, as if an ill-advised late night walk down some mysterious arrondissement has plummeted everything into a permanent aspect of double exposure. But where Berrocal, for instance, refits the mythological rock & roll cool of Vince Taylor into a reduced, astonishing noir mood piece on ‘Rock’n’Roll Station’, Bastien evokes the French surrealist tradition, remoulding jazz motifs with a mischievous sense of innovation.

This eye for messing around with the real and familiar is apparently rooted in Bastien’s enthusiasm for the work of Raymound Roussel, who’s labyrinthine proto-surrealist work ‘Impressions of Africa’ in one particular passage describes a ‘thermodynamic orchestra’. It feels like a fitting inspiration. Although Bastien’s work channels meticulously rendered mechanisms, drawing on scientific nous and engineering acumen, what these constructions produce places this simultaneously in the field of imagination and poetry; an especially unfettered imagination and a wordless, skeletal poetry manufactured from the seemingly mundane and everyday.

This idea, as signalled by the Paul Eluard-quoting title, becomes more apparent in the final throes of the record as earlier enigmatic displays like ‘Edo Ode’ and ‘Oho’ give way to moments of real beauty. ‘Moody Doom’ defies its title as an effervescently tender culmination. Wailing winter winds seemingly trapped in a vacuum are intermittent with percussive pulses and scratches and a swansong theme led by trumpet, as if this were the last sign off of an aged protagonist expressing some final gesture of reconciliation. Meanwhile the crepuscular organ and insect-like rustlings of ‘Snake Dins’ conjures an otherworldly aqueous environment of bioluminescence and eternal nightfall.

With this final expressive passage, it goes to show how far Bastien has come with his DIY instrumentation, his literary erudition and his surrealist inspirations. On Blue As An Orange objects aren’t objects, they’re rhythms in waiting. Thank fuck for Pierre Bastien.

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