Tunefully Yours

Martin Molin and his Marble Machine

In fashioning his musical Marble Machine, Martin Molin was unaware of the time it was actually consuming, so entrenched was he in the process. With 3000 parts and as many screws, 500 Lego pieces and 2000 marbles, the feat has been considerable. Approaching the work like a genuine amateur, he had no idea it would involve so many components and he most certainly did not build-in the margin of error that was sorely needed. It turns out, however, that Molin is addicted to the psychological state of flow. So it’s quite easy to see how he would have delved into a project that allowed time and space to vanish for hours on end.

Anna Sansom May 2016
Swedish musician Martin Molin has hand-built an ingenious music box, the Wintergatan Marble Machine, which uses 2000 marbles to play its drum, bass, vibraphone, and other instruments. From a design perspective, what is fascinating is that all the marbles, which run on 22 tracks, make the tunes and are therefore functional, not decorative. “When I designed the machine, I always had form over function in mind”, he says. “I wanted all the moving parts to be visible and the fingers that release the marbles to be as big as possible.” The aesthetically stunning machine is a labour of love that took 14 months to make. Its programming wheel is a 32-bar loop, made dynamic by an alteration in the harmony as the loop revolves. In his published video, the tune begins in E minor then goes into C major.
Molin based his design approach on moulage, a technique used in fashion that involves a design drawn on paper being placed directly onto a mannequin. “I took a piece of A4 paper and held it up against the machine, drew the part that I wanted, took it over to the piece of wood, and then cut that piece out with a chainsaw”, explains Molin, lead musician of Swedish band Wintergatan. “Then I went back and did it again.” Having created smaller machines before, he undertook the whole project himself despite getting stuck in a rut halfway through. “It was a process of trial, error, and failure, building everything over and over and over again because I didn’t have a blueprint”, he says. “When I was most stuck, I had to redo six months of work: in autumn 2015, I had to go back to where I was in May 2015.”

The desire to make a music machine using marbles grew out of Molin’s interest in marble subculture. Molin cites Matthias Wandel’s marble machine and another by Ronald Walter as inspiration. “I used the standard flip-flop element in marble machine culture, with one marble going to the left, the other to the right.” He drew other ideas from the self-playing, programmable, 19th-century musical instruments at Museum Speelklok in Utrecht (Netherlands), and from kinetic art. While the first music he made with the machine was entrancingly upbeat, next time he would like to make a “solemn, calmer, slower song, more thoughtful but still beautiful”, informs Molin. “I'm inspired by French composer Yann Tiersen, who composed the 2001 soundtrack for [the film] Amélie. Tiersen was inspired by Satie and by Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.” However, having identified problems with the machine, he laments, “It's not ready to use on stage yet because the marbles are going everywhere. I only tested it under perfect conditions – it was a beginner-engineer’s thinking. I didn’t build- in a margin of error.”
Molin is currently constructing a smaller music box with an electric motor “which is going to be beautiful” and will “play by itself, and we can play along with it on stage”. Wintergatan is previewing this new machine at Nordischer Klang music festival in May. After returning from the festival, Molin is going to set about redesigning his Marble Machine to make it easier to play. Intending to bring the number of marbles down to 500, he’s thinking about making a You- Tube video to ask for help in solving the problems. “I’ve received emails from engineers, and reading their suggestions has helped my thoughts to become totally clear”, he says. “I need to make the machine portable so I can travel with it. And there needs to be more consistency so that no marbles jump off and that only one marble falls onto the track at a time. I would still like for it to be Tim Burton-esque, but maybe I will have to make it look a little more boring and work better. However, I don’t want to compromise – the function is the beauty of it.” Wintergatan is in concert at Nordischer Klang music festival in Greifswald, Germany, on 12 May 2016.
This article appeared in DAM56. Order your personal copy.

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Anna Sansom

Anna Sansom is a British-born, Paris-based journalist who writes about art, design, and architecture for DAMN°, Frame, Mark, The Art Newspaper, Whitewall, Art Now and Noblesse (China).

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