“The marbles, you know, they behave like water. The nature of water is that it just breaks through everything. After 100,000 years it can make a hole in stone. The marbles act like that.”
The internet is no stranger to ridiculously complex attempts to make music with technology. But this might be one of the most purely spectacular attempts yet to take something which is now incredibly easy, and make it virtually impossible to comprehend.
The Wintergartan Marble Machine, built by Swedish musician Martin Molin and filmed by Hannes Knutsson, is a hand-made music box that powers a kick drum, bass, vibraphone and other instruments using a hand crank and 2,000 marbles.
The machine has to be seen to be appreciated: with dozens of beautifully carved wooden parts, tracks, pulleys and funnels for collecting and rerouting spent marbles, it’s a true work of art. And though marble machines as an art form of their own have a long and complex history, this might be one of the best.
A full making-of can be seen on the Wintergartan YouTube page, having apparently begun in Autumn 2014. Recently, commenting on its progress, Molin and his team wrote that “the closer the machine gets to be finished the harder it gets to finish it”.
“It is strange how that happens, when the finish line is in sight, everything slows down automatically except the avalanche of new unforeseen problems. We need to start making music now and spend less time picking up marbles from the floor soon soon soon. But it is happening. When it is finished, music will follow.”
Now more than a year since the project began, the completed instrument is sure to have its moment of viral fame online.
Molin tells WIRED the project was directly inspired by the existing marble machine subculture (“I stumbled over the marble machine culture — it’s a whole subculture — and was always interested in gears, and the future of gears…”) but with the aim of building more than a single-use demo box.
“Marble machines always make music, but I was thinking maybe I can make a programmable marble machine, that doesn’t make chaos but is actually controllable in the sounds it makes,” Molin said.
“I drew out the dimensions in 3D software,” Molin said, starting with an 80cm cube on which the machine was built. But after that the machine was made using a technique philosophically similar to that of moulage — or moulding clothes directly onto a fashion doll. Each piece was built by Molin, moulded and adjusted gradually, leading to its gloriously misshapen final form.
“The marbles, you know, they behave like water. The nature of water is that it just breaks through everything. After 100,000 years it can make a hole in stone. The marbles act like that, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing to try to tame them. They are just flooding every wall I’m putting up. … I’ll have to fix some escaping marble issues in order to tour.”
The machine itself is — as intended — programmable. Its central wheel is a 32 bar loop, and the key of the song can be adjusted while playing — in the published video, it starts in E minor and runs into C major for its second wheel. “In theory you could go on forever,” Molin said.
“It’s all about the grid,” he said. “I grew up making music on Midi, and everyone makes music on a grid nowadays, on computers. Even before digital they made fantastic, programmable music instruments. In bell towers and church towers that play a melody they always have a programming wheel exactly like the one that is on the marble machine.”
The plan is eventually to build new machines, some smaller in form, and perhaps others better tuned for touring — right now the Marble Machine has to be disassembled and rebuilt to move it. “I’m learning to plan the building a little bit better,” Molin says. “Then it doesn’t have to take so much time.”