How Sewing Machines Were Transformed Into An Orchestra

Using software, micro-controllers and sewing machines, Canadian artist Martin Messier offers us an experimental symphony.

What can a sewing machine do besides sew? In Sewing Machine Orchestra, Montreal composer Martin Messier sets up his own musical factory with a handful of old Singer sewing machines from the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s. 

As a new media artist, Messier uses everyday utilitarian objects to create electronic music with an unconventional twist. Rather than focus on one medium in particular, he grounds his practice in experimentation and electro-accoustic music, inviting the spectator to become a sonic explorer. 

“I’m interested in objects that can be manipulated and which have a sonic potential. When I came across the Singer sewing machine, I realized right away that it had that sonic potential,” says Messier, who is a member of the Montreal digital arts collective Perte de Signal

Sewing Machine Orchestra’s band of 8 vintage machines and stark lighting system have already electrified audiences at some of the world’s most prestigious international festivals, including Montreal’s Elektra Festival, Barcelona’s Sonar Festival, and France's Scopitone Festival. This month, he’s bringing his mechanical octet to the LAB30  art laboratory in Ausburg, Germany.

Taking a closer look at its physical workings, Sewing Machine Orchestra is as interesting practically as it is in theory. Using the wheel of each sewing machine as a potentiometer, an instrument similar to the knob that controls the volume on audio equipment, Messier conducts the eight machines together to produce a sound halfway between cacophony and melody, between old and new technology.

Messier relied on a combination of MaxMSP, Ableton Live, and Maxforlive, and homemade micro-controllers built by his friend and collaborating artist Samuel St-Aubin. The resulting clash of mechanical rhythms, flashing lights and the presence of the analog, vintage sewing machines invites a contemplation of the relationship between sound and the objects that make it, a recurring theme in Messier’s work. Multifunctionality is another.

“When you have something in front of your eyes, you tend to use it for one intended use only, neglecting its full potential. My idea is to push the imagination beyond its everyday territory,” says Messier.

Sewing Machine Orchestra will be presented this month at Ausburg’s LAB30 art laboratory, while Messier will spend the next months split between developing his solo work Projectors and his new collaboration with Nicolas Bernier, said to be one of their largest to date. 

Below, check out the fruit of Messier's labor:


Martin Messier : Audio performance, programming
Samuel St-Aubin : Electronic
Photos Crédits : Alexis Bellavance