Michigan composer toys around with his music

Feb 16, 2017

Frank Pahl is a different kind of composer. What other people see as toys or junk, Frank sees as music-making potential.

“I didn’t grow to appreciate Tinker Toys until I was, wow, pushing 40,” he says.

Frank Pahl lives just south of Detroit. He builds music machines out of things you probably played with as a kid or maybe even have in your house today.

“It’s not a huge leap from any stringed instrument to this,” he says as he plucks the wires of a modified egg slicer.

Over the past week, Frank Pahl has been setting up his music contraptions in the Phoenix Theatre at Interlochen Center for the Arts. 

He’s composed music for Neruda’s Suitcase, a show where the living and the dead meet at an unclaimed luggage auction.

Frank calls his music machines automatons. They play chimes, air organs and bells in a predetermined sequence.

Frank Pahl designed an automaton out of Tinker Toys, Erector set parts, and small motors to play a zither.
Credit Dan Wanschura

And most of them are operated by light switches and foot pedals. He points to a couple of instruments sitting on a shelf.

“The instrument on top is playing the guts of a toy piano,” he explains. “And these are Tinker Toys and Erector set parts that are playing the zither.” 

When it comes down to it, Frank Pahl says his love of automatons is a bit self-indulgent. 

“I think on some level it’s a test for myself to see, ‘Can I pull this off?'” he says.


“I find it calming to to find the right motor and the right instrument, and the right lights to capture the motion that created by the merging of the two.”

You can see Frank Pahl and his toy automatons, Thursday and Friday during the performance of 'Neruda’s Suitcase.' He’ll also be doing some demonstrations with his automatons during Winterlochen, this Saturday.