15 Frank Pahl


Born Trenton, Michigan, 1958 / BA Wayne State University, MFA University of Michigan / Lives in Wyandotte, Michigan

As we enter the age of “the internet of things,” with its universal connectivity and planned obsolescence, what to make of an artist like Frank Pahl who uses almost theatrically non-standard ways to connect discarded objects into sound-making mechanisms? Is it a philosophical statement, or a practical strategy to achieve a certain sound? Pahl will say that “the proof is in the pudding,” meaning that the eventual sound has to be just right, but there’s clearly also more than a hint of subversive intent in the way he goes about it. In the end, it may be enough just to know that he is that rare artist who can juggle objects, media and concepts, and in keeping all the balls in the air at the same time, create a singular experience that exceeds the sum of the parts.

Since the mid-90’s Pahl has been creating Automatic Instruments. To visit his studio is to enter a world where salvaged rotisserie grill motors turn cams which in turn play vintage air-organs, and strikers that play various bells and chimes. Valve amplifiers warm up and turn on. Natural and electric light casts shadows through moving parts. The haunting melody could well be the theme from Midnight Cowboy, composed by one of Pahl’s heroes, John Barry – an appropriate reference since Pahl has composed over one hundred scores for theater, dance and short films.

Up to this point, Pahl was best known as a musician and composer, albeit a highly idiosyncratic one. Some key influences in the transition to his later “automatons” were his exploration of traditional one-man band configurations (for example his re-creation, with collaborator Tim Holmes, of late 19th century configuration The Johnson,) and meeting automatic instrument makers Pierre Bastien and Trimpin. Joining the dots he realized he could create a “one-man band without limits.” The fortuitous start of an MFA allowed him space to experiment, and the rest was history.

Pahl has often used the comparison between Trimpin’s daunting technical genius, and Bastien’s somewhat looser approach, to explain his own work. Clearly he gravitates more to Bastien, saying “his music is not precise, precise,” meaning that like Pahl, Bastien builds from unlikely components, but ultimately achieves exactly the effect he is after – by embracing imprecision. Pahl has also spoken of Detroit’s culture of “the economy of means,” or working with what you can find for (almost) free. There is a fine example of this in Terri Sarris’s film on Pahl, “Buzzards Steal your Picnic”, in which Pahl is shown working through the problems of building a small sculptural sound piece Homage to Painting from various cast-offs. The “painting” of the title refers to the use of a garage-sale paint brush to create the sound element of the piece, and the filmmaker cleverly uses Pahl’s delight in the tiny amount he spends on materials (in comparison to the eventual sale price) as a way to reflect Pahl’s obvious pleasure in subversively inserting his downriver blue-collar ethos into the rarefied world of the art gallery.

For someone who often professes a lack of motivation, Pahl has worked on some remarkably ambitious projects. Calantheon Canyons (2014) was a large-scale installation and musical performance created during an Airlift New Orleans residency in Shreveport, Louisiana. Over a period of one month, Pahl co-directed the construction and arranged the climactic musical performance. The resulting video (which can be found online) captures some of the magic of what was clearly a very special event. 1913 Revisited, constructed for a Detroit themed show at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, is based around three seminal events from that year: the global synchronization of time, the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, and Henry Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly line. Based on Pahl’s trademark kinetic sculptures and drone producing automatons, it is visually sparser but conceptually richer than earlier pieces, perhaps pointing to yet more layers in his future work.

Steve Panton, March 2015

Copyright 2015 Essay’d