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Piano Baschet-Malbos
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An eccentric new instrument
 

Amid the jungle of a bohemian redevelopment in a grey Parisian banlieue, something is winking at me through a glass wall. On a pair of spindly legs a curved metallic sheet is twinkling proudly. Understandably. It is the Piano Baschet-Malbos: sound sculpture, installation, heavenly body, floral tribute and the world’s newest instrument. Probably the only instrument whose very appearance will make you smile.

Piano Baschet-Malbos

The Piano Baschet-Malbos is as fantastical an instrument as you could imagine. From an ordinary keyboard sprouts a huge exotic head of stainless steel and polycarbonate cones. It’s like a piano come into flower. It’s almost mythological, as if, in the manner of Ovid, a tyrannous upright had had it off with a bunch of crocuses and produced a demigod.

It is a bit of a half-breed. The instrument plays and works like an ordinary piano, with black notes, white notes, pedals and hammers. But what these strike are not strings but metal rods, which reverberate into the metal and plastic cones that surround the keyboard like a halo, producing a sound that wobbles into the air with a rich, unruly force. It is a sound that is at once primitive and elegant, beguilingly unstoppable and crumbly. Its nearest sonic relation is the carillon bell. Which means it does a cracking impression of Big Ben.

We are sitting in the studio of its stepfather, Pierre Malbos, a piano-maker, who made the latest version of the instrument with the help of the original inventors, the French brothers François and Bernard Baschet, who built theirs in the 1960s. The first works written for it will have their premiere at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on Tuesday. There is huge anticipation. New instruments don’t come around often. Not like this.

I meet the sprightly inventor, 90-year-old Bernard Baschet, in his workshop, a converted barn in a village just north of Paris. We stand amid a lifetime’s work, an endless array of what look like sciencefiction props from a 1950s film set. He tells me how it all began: “I was listening to a lot of musique concrète in the 1950s. And I said to my brother: ‘We have pieces of metal, which are very cheap, and we are able to make sounds with it as in musique concrète; maybe we can do the same things and become very rich.’ ” Their mad constructions only made them poorer, and they were forced to create futuristic musical tapestries for science-fiction films and radio dramas.

Every now and again, mid-sentence, Baschet picks up a stick and starts to bang away at one of his creations, composing perfect little musical doodles. Many elicit an extraterrestrial rumble. Most clang, some whoosh, others sing. All have a complex disorderliness to them, something that has pricked the ears of many musical and artistic pioneers over the years, from Pink Floyd to Yehudi Menuhin, Alexander Calder to Jean Cocteau.

Baschet’s brother, François, started the inventing spree in the late 1940s when, on a spying assignment for De Gaulle in Latin America, he made an inflatable guitar to reduce his travelling load.

Together with his brother, he set up a workshop in their mother’s cellar in Paris and for three years embarked on investigations into the acoustic properties of musical instruments. When they emerged, they had invented the Crystal Baschet, a glass harmonica-like instrument that became their most successful invention, taken up by composers such as Toru Takemitsu and Jean-Michel Jarre, and most recently deployed by Damon Albarn in his circus-opera, Monkey. In 1965 they were asked to exhibit at MOMA in New York and the floodgates opened to tours and exhibitions around the world.

For each trip they had to disassemble and reassemble each instrument, and one recurring problem was that they kept losing things in transit. At a recording studio in America they lost the Piano Baschet. “It happened several times,” Baschet shrugs. So in 2000 Pierre Malbos, a family friend, decided to rebuild it.

Working with the few extant images of the instrument, and with help from the brothers, he resurrected it to such a high quality that the brothers renamed it the Piano Baschet-Malbos. The first composers to hear the new instrument were a couple of touring lecturers from Huddersfield University, who were at a barbecue next door.

“We were completely flabbergasted,” explains one of them, Pierre Tremblay. Every note rendered them speechless. He strikes a note, re-enacting the moment, “Wow”, strike, “wow”, strike, “wow”. Its tremendous sound-world transcended its superficially gimmicky appearance. It truly was an instrument. “It has amazing powers of expressivity,” he says. “It’s so rich.”

To Malbos, however, it was still just a sound machine. After all, no one had yet composed any music for it. The Baschets, really interested only in improvisation, had neglected that aspect, as had many contemporary composers because of the condition of the original, which, Tremblay says, the Baschets had constructed “like mad scientists”, crudely screwing stuff on to an old piano. Malbos’ re-creation, by contrast, was far more musically sophisticated.

Anyway, the 1960s weren’t ready for an instrument whose notes were so impure and untempered. Play anything that relies on traditional harmonic principles on the instrument and it will sound completely unintelligible. “Composers can’t have known how to work with this type of sound,” the composer Scott McLaughlin explains. “I think in the 40 years since, musical language has caught up with this instrument.” It’s an instrument that seems to make sense only in tandem with contemporary composition and is best heard solo or in chamber format.

But within this realm it can do a lot. On display at Huddersfield is a hyperactive piece of post-minimalism from Nick Williams as well as a much more expansive duet with electronic backing from Tremblay.

So what is its future? Could it be a success? Could it become a 21st-century piano? Maybe. It has its impediments: it is difficult to transport, tricky to play, virtually impossible to build speedily or cheaply and it still needs tweaking. But these handicaps are not unique. Many are also common to the piano, which took more than 100 years of tweaking to achieve the shape, form and sound that we recognise today. So we might have to wait a few more years before we say exactly where in the pantheon of instruments the Piano Baschet-Malbos will finally sit.

“It’s still evolving,” Tremblay says, explaining how only yesterday they hastily switched the pedals around to help the pianist. “But every composer who has heard it wants to compose for it. So it’s already successful, already stimulating ideas. But we’ll let you know in 30 years.”


 
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