Nerd Show and Tell: Folktronica Music Machines are Awesome!
Years ago, I discovered the Swedish “Folktronica” band Detektivbyrån, on Pandora. Little did I know that my new musical interest (and the making of the Marble Music Machine) was inviting me to peek into a microcosm of human flourishing.
I’m Mike. Welcome to my Nerd Show and Tell.
Detektivbyrån: Electronica Meets Folks Music
I love the surprise of new musical discoveries, and Detektivbyrån played a style of instrumental music I’d never heard before. At some point Detektivbyrån, were described as “Folktronica.” It sounded sort of Germanic to my ears — though maybe that’s not the best way to describe it since the band hailed from Sweden.
Maybe I could put it this way. Imagine melodic electronica meets accordion-styled folk music with. Add just a dash of early 2000s Seattle indie band vibes and viola!
Over a few years, I wore out all my Detektivbyrån releases, and they dropped off my radar for a while. But years later, I wondered what the group was up to. After some poking around online, I noticed that one of the musicians in Detektivbyrån had started another project called Wintergatan.
As I followed what Wintergatan was up to, I discovered their vibraphone player (among other instruments), Martin Molin, was building a “Marble Machine.” A contraption that is played using 2000 metal balls that drop onto various musical instruments like a vibraphone, drums, and bass guitar that make the music.
I was intrigued.
Martin Molin’s Marble Machine X Project
Molin was inspired to build his marble contraption after visiting the Speelklok Museum, where he saw examples of various music machines. To document his learning and creation of the Marble Machine, Molin produced numerous YouTube videos showing the history behind the machine’s engineering. The videos also highlighted the struggles he goes through to bring his vision to fruition.
Nearly a year after the debut of the Marble Machine, Martin announced his plans to make a new machine they could take on a world tour with them called “Marble Machine X.” A machine that would correct the mechanical limitations of the original machine.
Why Marble Machine X is Personally Meaningful to Me
The deeper my curiosity took me to explore Molin’s project, the more I realized it was much more than music, engineering, or art. To me, Molin’s struggle to create, and the invitation he extends to the online community to observe his process, was a sort of microcosm of a flourishing society.
Molins’ process reflects my own life’s drama in many ways. The drama to strive and create something that doubled as a catalyst for community building. Molin’s project touches on many aspects of how I value being in the world, but it also helps me synthesize the way I approach creative endeavors myself.
This may all sound high-minded, but hear me out.
Molin’s project has so many personally meaningful layers, and it’s hard to narrow them down. But here’s a starting point of five values to creation within a larger community that I resonate with.
Deep learning is self-motivated.
As far as what I’ve learned about Molin, he is learning engineering on the fly in real-time. When you watch someone else learn through trial and error, you see not only the failures along the way but the exhilaration and excitement when he solves problems and climbs a steep learning curve.
Molin undergoes all of this deep learning publicly, and undertakes the process of learning computer-aided drafting, parts engineering, and CNC machining.
This real-time learning maps to how I experience learning too. While I earned my undergraduate degree in computer information science and mathematics, most of what I do daily revolves around self-learning.
Sticktoitiveness is more potent than mere inspiration.
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase that “success is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration” or something like that? Well, the sentiment applies to Molin’s project, as he sticks to the vision despite the experience of failures along the way.
And while creative projects get their fuel from the excitement of inspiration, there are inevitable failures along the way that highlight Molin’s discipline and sticktoitiveness. He’ll put a lot of effort in one direction and hit a dead-end or roadblock. But then he pivots and moves in a new direction, which is the sort of rhythm most conducive to incremental learning.
I can relate to that, and I feel solidarity in his creative process to continue refining my own processes to learn new things.
Collaborative work is a catalyst for building community.
Molin doesn’t simply build the machine himself — he’s got people interested and involved community members worldwide posting prototypes via a Discord server.
At times, instead of building the wood or metal parts himself, someone within the Discord community makes the parts, which are steps often documented on YouTube, too. So not only is Molin creating content, but he’s working alongside other helpers and bringing them into the community to create content too. So, the thing that he builds ends up having the fingerprints of many contributors.
This, too, parallels the collaborative community-building aspects of many professional endeavors throughout my life. It’s fascinating to see a flourishing community working together for a common goal.
Inspired work always includes mind-numbing tasks.
Of the many videos chronicling the making of Marble Machine X, Molin touches on the domain of mental and emotional health by asking himself, “how do I do my work in such a way that is enjoyable and meaningful?” In one video, he discusses how internal and external goal setting to stay motivated can affect our feelings of satisfaction.
While he doesn’t claim expertise in the effects of dopamine on the brain, he discusses procrastination and maintaining attention during the dopamine detox of mundane, tedious, repetitive tasks, like building 38 of the exact same marble channels, so he can retain a feeling of ongoing accomplishment.
How the Marble Machine X Project Helps Inform My Own Work
Maybe it’s just me, but instead of feeling satisfied at the end of a workday, sometimes I feel frustrated or preoccupied. Molin addresses these kinds of matters thoughtfully, in a way that helps me identify those concerns in my own work life.
I make software that lives behind the scenes. I don’t even make the icons that you see; I write code that enables the use of those icons in many contexts. I’ve loved Molin’s music since I first heard it. He’s a brilliant musician.
But this Marble Machine X machine project is so compelling because of how much human experience and learning is built into it. This isn’t a pragmatic project where the only thing that matters is whether it plays a song. The machine itself is the song and the process of building the machine is the song.
What I learn from that can help me to be more effective and efficient in pragmatic projects, sure. But it also helps me appreciate how much goes into anything around me that someone cared about when they built it. It inspires me to care about what I build, too.
After drafting this article, but before publishing it, Martin returned to his YouTube channel from his Summer 2021 break with a huge update: cutting losses on the Marble Machine X, learning from the failures, and announcing plans for Marble Machine X-T.
Is that a disappointment to me, after three years of watching the build of the MMX? Am I less inspired? No way. This is the process. This is the learning. Keep going, Martin. Bravo.
Let Your Nerd Flag Fly!
So, what’s your thing? Let us know and bring your own Nerd Show and Tell to the Twitters. In the meantime, we’re giving everybody on the Font Awesome team a chance to share their inner nerd, too, so keep a lookout for more news on competitive dog grooming, extreme ironing, or creating tape art.
Just kidding. Sort of. But not really.
*Font Awesome doesn’t get any free products or kickbacks in exchange for blog posts. These are things we just genuinely find awesome and want to share.