For American television viewers of the 1970s, The Magnificent Marble Machine was a gimmicky, short-lived game show centered around a giant pinball machine. The strange NBC daytime series probably owed its existence to the Tommy-fueled popularity of pinball at the time and lives on mostly as an answer to trivia questions today. Four decades after that show’s cancellation, a Swedish band called Wintergatan have unveiled an even more magnificent marble machine: a fully-functioning, hand-cranked keyboard instrument capable of playing original music. The ungainly wooden contraption, a marvel of gears and pulleys, made its debut on Tuesday in a four-and-a-half-minute demonstration video on YouTube. Against a stark white backdrop, musician and composer Martin Molin performs his own untitled composition on this custom-built instrument, which uses 2,000 individual marbles. By manipulating various levers, Molin is able to make the marbles travel up convey belts and then drop down through chutes into metal keys, much like those of a xylophone. It’s quite ingenious, as well as fun to see and hear.
As one might well imagine, an undertaking like this was no lark. According to Wintergatan’s Twitter account, the marble machine was the result of “14 months of building.” A trailer on the band’s YouTube channel shows the labor-intensive process of making the instrument and getting it ready for its big worldwide debut. “To stop building and start filming was a big milestone,” its creator says. He also talks about bringing Swedish filmmaker Hannes Knutsson into the project in order to showcase the marble machine in the best possible way. The white background, made from “floor paint protection paper,” was Knutsson’s idea. For those who want to learn still more about the machine’s creation, there are YouTube videos documenting the entire process. What possible future an instrument like this could have is unknown, however, as very little has been written for it thus far. It does not look easily portable either, which limits its versatility somewhat.