Archive for the 'mechanical music' Category

Gilius van Bergeijk – Over de Dood en de Tijd

Gilius van Bergeijk - Over de Dood en de Tijd LP front cover
Gilius van Bergeijk - Over de Dood en de Tijd LP back cover
Gilius van Bergeijk - Over de Dood en de Tijd LP side 1

Gilius van BergeijkDutch saxophonist, electronic and contemporary music composer Gilius van Bergeijk, born 1946, studied with Kees van Baaren and Dick Raaijmakers. While teaching electronic music at The Hague Royal Conservatory since 1972, he also collaborated with Peter Brötzmann, Willem Breuker and the Instant Composers Pool. See the Wikipedia article for more info. Van Bergeijk’s trademark style of deconstructing pre-existing music and systematic use of a limited number of elements in his compositions is masterfully showcased on this LP, which pairs 2 emblematic works by the composer.

Over de Dood en de Tijd, or On Death and Time, after Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, is an ambitious work in 3 parts. In the 1st, noisy, distorted electronic sounds emulate voices trying to emerge from a chaotic background – this part is reminiscent of Dick Raaijmakers’ own, ultra-radical Ballad ‘Erlkönig’ from 1966. In the 2nd movement, starting around 7:50, contralto Geertje Kuipers and pianist Jan Sprij interpret the Schubert original song, while the composer meticulously edits the tape to alter the pitch of some notes, progressively creating a cyborg version of the song. The effect is subtle but quite unsettling. Actually, Over de Dood… is entirely based on this natural vs. artificial duality, as the 3rd part will again show. In this final section, starting at 20:40, the notes played by church organist Huub ten Hacken trigger crunchy, noisy electronic sounds superimposed over his playing. The electronic filtering is configured so as to completely deface the natural sound, replacing it with ugly, artificial noises Van Bergeijk’ calls “jubilant cracking”, supposed to destroy (musical) Time. All in all, the entire piece is masterfully realized and conceptually powerful.

In 1970, Van Bergeijk was commissioned to write a piece for the newly restored Busy Drone mechanical organ, or De Bezige Bij in Dutch, housed in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum since 1972. A musical deconstruction of Johan Sebastian Bach’s Double Concerto for Violin and Oboe, BAC was painfully punched on paper rolls by 2 assistants. It is a lively piece, basically emulating the 2 instruments of the original Concerto, while the organ playing is interrupted several times by a jazz drum solo and… castanets! From what I understand, Bach’s original score was submitted to aleatory procedures and parts of the score were scattered over the length of the piece while the square waltz form remained intact, thus creating an effect of familiarity and unfamiliarity at the same time, an aural illusion. It’s not Bach you’re hearing, it’s BAC, as “the last beat of each bar of all three movements was excised and put together in the same order to form a fourth movement” (from liner notes). There’s an analysis of BAC in Dutch on this page. Another short Van Bergeijk composition for the same organ appeared on The Busy Drone compilation LP on BVHaast in 1981. The sound of this organ is not perfect and a few hiccups can be heard on the BVHaast LP, adding to an already very lively and colorful sonority.

  1. Over de Dood en de Tijd (29:41)
    for electronic, voice, piano and organ
  2. BAC (15:25)
    for mechanical organ

Total time 45:06
LP released by Donemus/Composers’ Voice, ref. CV 8203, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1982


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Les Robots-Music – vol.1

Les Robots-Music - vol.1 LP front cover
Les Robots-Music - vol.1 LP back cover
Les Robots-Music - vol.1 LP side A

In the 1940s and 1950s, shortly after the emergence of cybernetic robots  like Grey Walter‘s electronic turtles Elmer and Elsie or Ross Ashby‘s Homeostat prototype, both in 1948, a number of animatronic robot orchestras were unveiled around the world.

Belgium was the playground of Zenon Specht‘s robot band named Trio Fantastique, active in Antwerp’s Robot Club and in Paris department stores in 1954 (see Billboard 1954 article below) and Lens, France in 1959 (see here). The owner of the Robot Club, Specht based his robot musicians trio on electricity-controlled, piano roll technology, with a repertoire that included anything from classical music to tango, jazz and popular songs. The band, consisting of guitarist Wink, drummer Blink and saxophonist Nod, performed at funfairs and department stores.

Trio FantastiqueTrio Fantastique, Billboard article, May 1954

In the US, after audio animatronics examples implemented in Walt Disney theme parks during the 1960s, Chuck E. Cheese‘s terrific Pizza Time Theatre orchestra opened in San Jose, California in 1977. Active between 1977 and 1984 in various Chuck E. Cheese pizza-and-arcade parlors, the Pizza Time Theatre was conceived by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and consisted of the following characters: Chuck E. Cheese and Helen Henny on vocals, Mr. Munch on keyboards, Jasper T. Jowls on guitar and Pasqually on percussion and accordion. Note, at the beginning, Chuck E. Cheese performed while smoking a cigarette.

Chuck E. Cheese’s main competitor was Aaron Fechter‘s Rock-Afire Explosion, an animatronic robot band playing rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll in Showbizz Pizza Place restaurants, active between 1980 in 1992. Created by Aaron Fechter and his company Creative Engineering, Inc. in Orlando, Florida, the life-sized characters wore animated latex masks and were partially computer controlled. They move in synch with whatever track is played but don’t produce sound themselves. Rock-Afire and Pizza Time Theatre eventually merged in 1984.


To no surprise, the French animatronic orchestra Les Robots-Music created by Edouard Diomgar during the 1950s are closer to the Trio Fantastique than Rock-Afire Explosion. An ex-POW in Germany during WWII, Diomgar was an engineer willing to raise money for his ex-POWs relief foundation (whose logo can be seen on the bass drum). During the 1950s and 1960s, he exhibited his robots trio at fun fairs, open air markets or train stations in France. The trio consisted of Ernest, a saxophonist, Oscar, an accordionist and Anatole, the drummer, each playing real, traditional instruments. Automatically synchronized, the bots’ movements are impulsed by photoelectric cells reading punch cards, sending information to arms and fingers via electromagnetic action. Most importantly, the robots actually produce music from their instruments, contrary to playback systems in US animatronic. Only the sound of the saxophone is replaced by what sounds like a mechanical Ondioline. Their repertoire includes everything from French musette accordion and popular songs, twist and rock’n’roll numbers from the 1960s, US musicals (#1, Leonard Bernstein) or jazz (#6, Sidney Bechet). On other discs – there were four LPs by Les Robots-Music released in the late 1960s and 1970s – they also cover waltzes by Johann Strauss or French operetta. Les Robots-Music were exhibited during an all-robot show in Berlin’s Museum für Kommunikation in 2007 – some pictures on this Flickr page.

01 America (2:04)
02 Frou-Frou (1:44)
03 Rock-Des-Robots (2:05)
04 Le Dénicheur (1:47)
05 El Bimbo (1:56)
06 Petite Fleur (2:05)
07 Coucou (1:44)
08 Chant Des Partisans (2:13)
09 Perle De Cristal (3:08)
10 Ramaja (2:18)
11 Elza (1:55)
12 Rock Around The Clock (2:11)
13 La Comparsita (2:20)
14 Gigi Lamoureux (2:13)
15 Enfants Du Pirée (2:06)
16 Mon Manège A Moi (2:07)

Total time 40:00
LP released by Disques Cobra, France, late 1960s


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Pierre Charial – Swing Valse Machine

Pierre Charial - Swing Valse Machine LP front cover
Pierre Charial - Swing Valse Machine LP back cover
Pierre Charial - Swing Valse Machine LP side 1
Pierre Charial punching music rolls (from record cover)

French street organ prodigy Pierre Charial has been championing mechanical music since the end of the 1970s and is now considered a National Treasure by the government (call him “Maître d’Art” since 2004). A classically trained pianist, Charial is particularly acclaimed for unearthing early barrel organ compositions by Mozart or Haydn and for his own music roll adaptations of classical, popular or contemporary music – he plays the Orgue de Barbarie, or street organ, on Ligeti’s Mechanical Music CD on Sony, where he adapted Continuum (1970) and Musica Ricercata (1951-1953). Charial claims the organ offers unlimited virtuosity thanks to the large number of notes the instrument can play at the same time, at any desired speed. Note the French Orgue de Barbarie is a little different from the barrel organ and exclusively uses paper or cardboard music rolls. Charial’s official website is Musique Mécanique Paris.

♫ This was Pierre Charial’s first LP under his own name (he had previously been credited as arranger and guest musician on a couple of discs). Swing Valse Machine was released on Parisian STIL label, famous for Scott Ross’ solo harpsichord LPs in the 1970s, playing Rameau and Couperin. And indeed, Charial’s technique and arrangements bears some of the clarity and refinement of these composers. The arrangements of film music and jazz tunes (Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, Gus Viseur, Toots Thielemans, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Antonio Carlos Jobim) are full of nuances and virtuosity, not necessarily expected from a street musician. The recording was brilliantly conducted by Michel Pierre (with help from electroacoustic composer Bruno Menny – see previous post) and birds can be heard in the background on some tracks, showing the recording session took place in Charial’s workshop, not in a regular recording booth. Some tracks include a deluge of notes that recalls Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano, but overall the music is pure magic and poetry.

01 Bluesette (2:52)
02 Nola (2:07)
03 Kitten On The Keys (3:12)
04 It’s A Raggy Waltz (2:46)
05 Dancers In Love (2:16)
06 A Bout De Souffle (Blue Rondo A La Turk) (2:58)
07 Children’s Game (2:23)
08 Huit Et Demi (3:45)
09 A l’Aube Du Cinquième Jour (2:03)
10 Rimes (Il Camino) (2:06)
11 La Valse Du Carrousel (1:49)
12 Dardanella (3:33)
13 Swing Valse (2:19)
14 Amours Et Printemps (3:48)

Total time 38:00
LP released by STIL, France, 1984


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Mechanische Musikinstrumente


  1. Wandspielschrank ‘Polyphon’ (2:19)
    [‘Polyphon’ music-cabinet]
  2. Reproduktionsklavier ‘Triphonola’ (4:41)
    [‘Triphonola’ player-piano]
  3. Reproduktionskïavier ‘Triphonola’ (6:55)
    [‘Triphonola’ player-piano]
  4. Schrank mit Sehwarzwälder Flötenuhr (0:58)
    [Cabinet with Black Forest ‘flute clock’]
  5. Polyphon im Mahagonitischchen (1:13)
    [Polyphon in mahagony table]
  6. Schweizer Walzenspieldose (2 :31)
    [Swiss barrel-type musical box]
  7. Wandspielschrank ‘Symphonion’ (2 :11)
    [‘Symphonion’ music-cabinet]
  8. Standuhr mit Spielwerk ‘Eroica’ (1:18)
    [Grandfather clock containing an ‘Eroica’ musical box]
  9. Schrank mit Schwarzwalder Flötenuhr (0:48)
    [Cabinet wiith Black Forest ‘flute clock’]
  10. Schrank mit Schwarzwälder Flötenuhr (2:34)
    [Cabinet wiith Black Forest ‘flute clock’]
  11. Wandspielschrank ‘Polyphon’ (2:26)
    [‘Polyphon’ music-cabinet]
  12. Schreibsekretär mit Uhr und Flötenwerk (3 :11)
    [Bureau with clock and mechanical organ]
  13. Wandspielschrank ‘Symphonion’ (2:06)
    [‘Symphonion’ music-cabinet]
  14. Flötenwerk (3 :15)
    [Mechanical organ-flute]
  15. Christbaumstander mit Musikwerk (1:28)
    [Christmas tree stand with musical box]

Total time: 37:41
CD released by Raumklang, 1997

A compilation of recordings made at the Museum of Musical Intruments of the University of Leipzig, this collection exemplifies the gorgeous and enchanting sounds of german and swiss 19th c. music boxes. These 2 people have a lasting yearning for clockwork-based music. It makes sense, then, complete recordings of Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano music were made by germans for Wergo label (there’s even a The recordings on the ‘Mechanische Musikinstrumente’ CD include mechanical noises, rewinding clockwork mechanisms, bellows pumping air, etc, all recorded in crystal-like hi-fi clarity. A 18th c. technology, barrel organs and musical steel tongues housed in music-cabinets underwent a revival at the end of the 19th c. and most instruments heard here date from 1880 to 1920. The player piano featured on tracks #2 & 3 replays/reproduces the performance of real pianists (Alfred Reisenauer & Elly Ney). The pianist is gone but the music remains for ever. The magic of ‘recording’ sounds also started in healthy, noble bavarian castles, rich enough to afford the expense. The instruments here play a mix of Händel, Chopin, Weber, Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Mozart, but the machines render them so weirdly that the original, inoffensive waltzes are transmogrified. Note: I purposedly ommitted the 4 readings in german tracks, since they actually came as an anti-climax amid the magical mechanical sounds.



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