Martin Molin has always been fascinated by complex systems. As a kid, he spent plenty of time building with Lego and Lego Technic. He was completely absorbed with tinkering around with real life functions such as working piston engines, pneumatics, suspensions, and gearboxes. These relevant moments of his childhood are what taught him the basics about construction.
Today, the 33-year-old Swedish musician, who plays in a band called Wintergatan, has moved on to creating things far more advanced than a Galaxy Explorer or an Excavator.
Inspired by automata art, woodworking, the marble machine subculture, gears, animusic and Matthias Wandel’s innovative and beautifully crafted wooden mechanisms, Molin was able to construct something completely out of this world. It’s truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen — stupendously strange and seemingly outside of time.
The first musical instrument he ever built was a music box. So it comes as no surprise that his latest, and possibly greatest, contraption to date also happens to be in that same realm.
Molin just spent the last 14 months (about nine hours a day) building a musical instrument called the Marble Machine, which plays both rhythm and melody with 2,000 marbles. He operates the machine, which is equipped with bass, percussion and a vibraphone, by pulling on a series of levers that drops and directs the marbles where he wants them to go.
The extraordinary instrument was made public on February 29, 2016, when a video of him playing it in the studio was published on YouTube.
“I am an addict to the psychological state of flow, where everything ceases to exist. There is no time. There is no space. For me, problem solving has the ability to immediately put me into flow,” Molin explains. “That’s why I think I came up with this machine. It’s like a problem solving feast.”
At first, he thought it would only take two months to assemble, but soon realized he was in way over his head.
Figuring out all the different complex parts that would be needed to make the machine work was quite the challenge. After finding the equation for the gear train on YouTube, everything else came together as a result of trial and error, like discovering how many marbles he’d need and to ensure only one marble gets dropped through the gates at a time.
“I was in complete denial about time consumption for the whole process. I was just going on and always thinking that I’d soon be done,” he said. “I spent months and months rebuilding, and then after six months doing many versions of the same thing I realized that the design idea just wasn’t good enough to start with. So then I was at a point where I needed to go seven months back in time and start all over. That is a very challenging decision to make. More practically, I had to try to control the flow of the marbles falling on various musical notes. Marbles in groups behave like water, always finding its way out of anything.”
Songwriting on the Marble Machine was a whole other dilemma, especially since compositions on the programming wheel, which the entire machine was built around, could only be a particular length.
“The programming wheel is limited to a 32 bar loop so the vibraphone repeats itself and plays the exact same thing over and over. The trick was to make this more dynamic by altering the harmony using a new bass line on the second revolution of the loop. I think this creates a somewhat captivating effect since a lot is happening but at the same time very little,” Molin added.
The Marble Machine demonstrates that an instrument can take on any dimension, even one that seems physically impossible. It’s also a reminder that an unyielding passion to be creative and imaginative can make engineering artistry come to life.
Although Molin wishes he could take his invention on tour, at the moment that’s not a possibility, as it would have to be disassembled in order to move it. For now, it will remain in the studio, but he hasn’t quite yet figured out its future home.