Rotating devices rigged to play organs, a detail from “Elegy for John (Barry)”

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — Musicians throughout the ages have wrestled with the question of creative control, and in our modern age, some have found an answer in technology. The field of automatic music — which incorporates mechanical elements, as simple as a wind-up music box, or as complex as looping sequencers — officially formed in the late ’70s and flourished through the ’80s, with the rise of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) machines and Synthpop. Around the fringes of this electronic mainstream, musicians began working with microcontrollers — essentially little computers — and motorized mechanisms to compose and perform lush, inventive soundscapes.

This is fertile ground for a certain type of hybrid creative — part sculptor, part sound artist, part musician, part engineer — and the results of this movement range from the high-end, with kinetic sculptor and sound artist Trimpin’s MIDI-based sculptures and live performances, to the rather more analog creations of French musician and experimental instrument-builder Pierre Bastien. Somewhere between these two sources of inspiration, Frank Pahl places himself on the continuum.

In a solo show at 9338 Campau, in Hamtramck, Pahl displays some old favorites and a body of new work, showcasing the automatic instruments that he designs and constructs out of items he salvages from yard sales and junk shops. In addition to making music on his own, Pahl has composed numerous film scores, and is part of a band, Only a Mother, which he formed in the early 1980s.


Frank Pahl refers to one of his inspirations for a piece of “The Johnson Septet,” which he then demonstrates for a group of gallery visitors.

9338 Campau looks like a modernist practice space, with assemblages of small electric organs, amps, and deconstructed pianos standing in duos, trios, and quartets around the space — but merely looking at the instruments is missing the point. Each of the four groupings of instruments will at some point play a song, either alone, when activated by a switch, or accompanied by Pahl.

The opening night cacophony made it understandably difficult to discern individual sounds in a given piece. Gallerist Steve Panton, who recently profiled Pahl for Essay’d, discussed the acoustic effects of hosting Pahl in his gallery space thusly: “Like many galleries, it’s acoustically very live, but Frank’s combination of drones, toy instruments, and brass works really well in there. Having pieces turn on and off — either by audience interaction, or by design — means that the soundscape is constantly changing, but always within a certain atmospheric envelope.”

A revisit on a quieter afternoon provided a chance to take in the individual pieces, as well as discuss their making more in-depth with Pahl, who was on hand, generously turning in impromptu performances for delighted visitors. Despite Pahl’s careful calibration of his machines, and his deep familiarity with their tonal output, there is a looseness to the work, a kind of planned imperfection, and these performances bear a strongly improvisational element.

Switches activate tube amps, bringing the automatic music already in progress slowly to life.

Switches activate tube amps, bringing the automatic music already in progress slowly to life (click to enlarge)

At the gallery, Pahl activates one of the components of “The Johnson Septet” — three organs tuned together, projected through a tube amp — and then riffs alongside it on a keyboard. Terri Sarris, Pahl’s bandmate, partner, and documentarian (including of a film that profiles Pahl) spontaneously jumps to her feet and runs to back him up on a miniature piano, one of the instruments in the piece “Automatic Music Minus Two.” Pahl incorporates this new element casually, asking a member of his audience to push the timer on the organ to an extra minute to accommodate the new player, but later he explains to me how Terri’s input altered the arrangement he had planned in his head. Like any good musician, he says, “Frequently, when I’m playing with the organ, I’m listening for cues from the organ,” and that awareness extends to his bandmates and collaborators in “Only a Mother.”

These complex soundscapes defy easy explanation. Appropriated piano hammers bonk against a fireplace log in “Automatic Music Minus Two,” a chime on a rotating arm runs across a xylophonic arrangement of metal tines in “Automatic Tine Rod Box (for Terri),” and “Elegy for John (Barry)” spins out the theme from Midnight Cowboy in a slow, exaggerated loop that carries an unearthly and dirge-like quality. Says Pahl, about the elegy — a theme which recurs often in his work — “The Elegy for John, in honor of the great film composer John Barry. Though best known for his James Bond scores, I chose to base the elegy on his “Theme to Midnight Cowboy.” By slowing down the first two bars and letting the two chords overlap, the piece takes on a haunting, meditative quality. It was written to be accompanied by the Johnson [a one man band re-creation with Tim Holmes], which plays the first two bars of the melody.”

From everywhere, organs whine and tube amps hum and fade in and out of full volume. Overhead, two silent mobiles, made of wire brushes and rusty hay tines, are activated by disco ball motors which Pahl classifies as, “not the best for music.” The instruments, on the other hand, run on rotisserie motors, which, with their ability to run all day bearing the weight of multiple chickens, have the torque that can support the various contraptions that play the organs.

The shadows cast around the gallery by these mobiles, and other pieces, are deeply symbolic to Pahl. “In the case of the Elegies the real object is not present,” he explains. “The real object is the recently departed composer. The shadow stands in for the departed. In the case of the other work, the shadow is the aura of the materials that inspired the work ….The materials are scavenged from yard sales, flea markets, alleys and streets. Fifty to one hundred years ago they were in their prime and they have their own stories to tell and inspire. The shadows are memories, palimpsests.”


In front and behind the scenes of “Automatic Tine Rod Box (for Terri),” being activated by painter Kathleen Rashid

In the end, it is clear that Pahl is not seeking total control of his music, as one might expect of automated compositions. Rather, Pahl approaches these machine elements as collaborators. He muses, “Though my kinetic sound pieces are technically not automatons — automatons incorporate human likenesses — I am deeply inspired by the automaton builders Jacques Vaucanson and Wolfgang von Kempelen … The history of automatons and A.I. is an existential history, in that one can’t help but contemplate what it means to be alive. As we become tools to our tools, questions arise. What makes us human?”

It’s a question for the ages, and one with no pat answer, but in experiencing the creative output of Frank Pahl, one might argue that what he makes with these machines is ultimately a sound more alive and more spontaneous than a great deal of mainstream pop that is churned out, and his curiosity and joy in creation feels all-too-human.

Frank Pahl: new suites and themes continues at 9338 Campau (9338 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck, Michigan) through May 23. 

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....