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Aaron Taylor Kuffner, ‘The Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary’ (2015) at the Chimney NYC (all photos and video by the author for Hyperallergic)

For centuries, Indonesians have taken mallets to various forms of the gamelan, a traditional set of instruments assembled from an array of gongs and metallophones, often played to accompany dances. Throughout this month, an updated version of the ensemble is playing digitally composed scores, chiming away in a space in Brooklyn, 10,000 miles from the tradition’s country of origin. The Gamelatron is the world’s first completely robotic gamelan orchestra — a kinetic, site-specific structure created by Aaron Taylor Kuffner, who has rigged 27 Javanese gongs and mallets on five separate steel towers, programming them to play music that he digitally arranged. Tucked into the Chimney NYC, a one-room arts venue that opened in June, the structures border a simple rug and a number of beanbags to create The Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary, an unexpected oasis of sound.

On select nights, visitors are invited to enter the former warehouse and sit or lie at the center of the Gamelatron as the mallets strike the bronze instruments, filling the 20-by-20-foot space and its 26-foot-tall ceilings with patterns of peals that range from delicate dings to heavy, hollow tolls. The composition bounces off the brick walls, and even as it mixes with the noise of cars hurtling down the nearby road, the experience is immersive; one feels far removed from the city, enveloped by the soundscape and transported to a space of serenity.

Detail of Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s ‘The Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary’ (2015) at the Chimney NYC (click to enlarge)

“I think that there’s something about these tones and these pitches that affect our body, that we feel,” Kuffner said. “And we kind of forget that sound is in itself a physical force — it’s not just ephemeral. I think people’s bodies can perceive these sounds not just as an audio experience but as something more physical, and I think that’s why [gongs] have had an association with spirituality and the divine.”

Kuffner, currently based in Brooklyn, lived in Indonesia for a number of years and learned to play the gamelan himself. He’s since constructed multiple electronic iterations of the traditional instrument; the “Gamelatron Cemerlang” (Indonesian slang for “bling”) is his 29th such sculpture, with the only other active ones currently ringing at the Venice Biennale. Each is composed of rigorously handcrafted gongs Kuffner commissions from artisans in Indonesia, mostly made from scavenged copper smelted in backyard forges that the makers repeatedly heat and pound into shape. One can see the imprints of their tools on the surface of each gong, permanent marks of the efforts that went into the object’s creation.

The less-than-a-month-old sculpture at the Chimney NYC features gongs as heavy as 100 pounds and as light as just five. The sight and sounds of the cloth-wound mallet heads tapping them and rebounding without the aid of human hands form a scene of simple harmony, but it’s one that rests on intricate programming. Each time he installs a Gamelatron, Kuffner writes new material to fit the setting, using software to create digital audio sequences that a custom-made device transposes into electric pulses. These pulses then trigger levers that activate the mallets to create meditative musical arrangements; shifts in voltage result in a mallet striking a harder or softer blow. Similar to a jukebox, the Gamelatrons are equipped with a number of songs one can select by pushing buttons embedded in the sculpture, or even with a network-connected device such as a smartphone. In this specific installation, Kuffner has 10 written tracks that range from five minutes to 30, spanning close to two hours’ worth of material in total.

“Nine of those are pretty lively compositions, and one of them is kind of a long, sparse play, where I’m really thinking of the silence between the notes a lot, more than I am thinking of the melody within the composition,” Kuffner said. The results are all haunting and hypnotic, with the chimes seeming random even though they’re highly thought out.

Although Kuffner has modernized the gamelan, his compositions are still grounded in traditional Javanese music; he uses notes from the regional pelog scale to craft his scores. While most gamelan songs incorporate just five out of the seven notes, as another contemporary update, Kuffner uses a selection of six. He has also polished, for the first time, the 27 gongs so that they gleam and stand as flashy, golden disks. 

“I’m trying to create this other context for the gamelan to be relevant even in modern Jakarta,” Kuffner said. “So by making these instruments, which are kind of folksy, into these bright objects, it’s taking something that is seen as kind of backwards and turning it into something that’s really valuable and shiny and new and flashy.” An old ensemble that’s seldom played in Indonesia today outside of formal ceremonies, the gamelan, according to Kuffner, has little cultural context, especially to young generations. Planted in New York City and equipped with 21st-century technology, the Gamelatron reinvigorates this fading tradition, recontextualizing the ancient orchestra to create a new haven for contemplation or simple repose.

Aaron Taylor Kuffner, ‘The Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary’ (2015) at the Chimney NYC

Aaron Taylor Kuffner, ‘The Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary’ (2015) at the Chimney NYC

Aaron Taylor Kuffner, ‘The Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary’ (2015) at the Chimney NYC

A panel of buttons allows one to select specific songs

Aaron Taylor Kuffner, ‘The Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary’ (2015) at the Chimney NYC

Aaron Taylor Kuffner, ‘The Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary’ (2015) at the Chimney NYC

Aaron Taylor Kuffner, ‘The Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary’ (2015) at the Chimney NYC

The Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary continues at the Chimney NYC (202 Morgan Ave, Bushwick, Brooklyn) every Friday through Sunday from 6:30 to 9pm through October 25. Appointments may also be made by emailing Clara Darrason at contact@TheChimneyNYC.com.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

12 replies on “An Ancient Indonesian Music Tradition Gets an Electronic Update”

  1. Oh great, another tech obsessed brat appropriating music culture from an ancient tradition and rebranding it as his own, and even better! removing the necessity of musicians from playing their own instruments with their own actual souls and experiences. REALLY GREAT.
    “..it’s taking something that is seen as kind of backwards and turning it
    into something that’s really valuable and shiny and new and flashy”
    Shoot me now.

    1. Maybe you should try to experience the work and not take quotes out of context before you shoot yourself.

      1. Not everyone has the cash to pop over to NYC to check something out. Especially people from the field of music, who’s wages have been in steady decline for a decade or more..
        The quote is from the artist himself so it’s fair game. And it resonates a lot with the way he has made his installation and profiled himself in photos.

    2. Yeah, the “kind of backwards / really valuable and shiny and new” quote irks me a bit, too. On the other hand, he is bringing the sounds of gamelan to people (here, Brooklyn contemporary art types) to whom it might never occur to go to the Upper East Side to check out the traditional gamelan groups at the Indonesian Consulate.

      Those folks, likely as not, aren’t really aware that either the Consulate or the gamelans are even there, and they might just find out as a result of seeing this. (If the gamelan groups don’t have flyers at this exhibit, they should get some there pronto.)

      As for the “tech obsessed brat appropriating music culture from an ancient tradition and rebranding it as his own” charge —

      Rubbish.

      If it’s okay – and it is – for Indonesians to study and perform on Western classical music on Western instruments, and even to compose their own music for those instruments, then it’s okay for Westerners to study and perform on gamelans.

      As far as I can tell from this article, Aaron Taylor Kuffner isn’t trying to pass off his own compositions as traditional Javanese classical pieces or traditional pieces as his own music. He appears to be honest about what is and what isn’t his own work.

      And the “removing the necessity of musicians from playing their own instruments with their own actual souls and experiences” part?

      If he wants to use his money and time to create what is roughly equivalent to a player piano – why not? I think most of us agree that a player piano – even a Disklavier – just isn’t the same as a live pianist. But are you prepared to argue that the player piano should never have been invented? I’m certainly not.

      And Kuffner is certainly under no obligation to obtain visas for, fly to the US, feed and house a pack of Indonesian gamelan musicians. And if the members of the Indonesian gamelans in New York feel that Kuffner is robbing them of the right and opportunity to earn their living as musicians, I suspect that they can advocate for themselves far better than any of us can.

      1. Some Good points raised.
        Yes, That backwards comment is strange and I felt off about it. I emailed the artist. He said that it was intended from the context that in modern Indonesia Gamelan is often viewed by the younger generation as “old fashion or folksy”, or …backwards – maybe how people in the US might have viewed bluegrass at one time. By using the ironic name “Cemerlang” for the art work – which can be used in youth vernacular like “bling”, Kuffner is trying to turn that view of its head.

        Concerning the Gamelatron putting Gamelan players out of work. I am sure most musicians had a similar fear when the phonograph was invented. Kuffner says his artwork is not made for or used in the same contexts as traditional gamelan and therefore is not directly competing with it – rather his work is outside of the normal arenas and thus exposes people that would not have even heard of Gamelan to the tradition, which has helped increase its popularity worldwide.

        1. Exactly – the Gamelatron is not competition for live musicians; it’s for hours- or days-long installations in galleries or public spaces. You’re simply not going to get a group of live musicians to play gamelan nonstop for the entire set of hours, day after day, that a gallery or public space is open. The players would cost too much, they eventually get tired, and they have to take breaks to do things like eat, stretch their legs, and pee.

        2. Good points. I just wish that Kuffner hadn’t chosen bluegrass for an analogy and that he (and you, if you’re Claire Voon, and your comment reads as if you might be) hadn’t used the word “folksy”. It’s very misleading about the kind of music that Javanese gamelan is. (The analogy might work for Sundanese or Balinese gamelan, but Balinese gamelan, at least, is still very relevant to the Balinese today.)

          Bluegrass really is “folksy” in the way that most Americans understand the word. It developed more or less naturally out of ordinary people’s culture in an established community/society. And most people take “folksy” to be the opposite of, say, “high-falutin’.” Bluegrass is definitely not high-falutin’.

          Javanese gamelan exists to be high-falutin’.

          Yes, there are ensembles in the villages, but the traditional music that Kuffner is drawing on, with all that shiny, expensive metal, was developed at and for the palaces and courts of sultans. (A gamelan costs way more than a couple of banjos and a washboard.)

          As the last paragraph of the article indicates, gamelan music is for formal ceremonies and the like. It accompanies particular (classical) dances and the traditional (very complex) puppet theater. There are particular pieces for weddings, welcome and farewell to an event, and so on. There’s even a special piece for when the sultan enters the room, and the musicians are supposed to immediately stop whatever they’re playing (or otherwise doing) and perform it.

          So our analog for (Javanese) gamelan would be classical music – more specifically, pieces like Handel’s Water Music and Coronation Anthems (like “Zadok the Priest”) and Mendelssohn’s and Wagner’s wedding marches and church organ music. And ballet scores and such. It’s particular music for particular occasions; people associate it with those occasions and expect to hear it. Otherwise, except for a small group of devotees, most folks just forget about it. Just like classical music. /:-|

          1. I think that Kuffner’s point was that young Indonesians view Gamelan as folksy in the way young people may have viewed Bluegrass as folksy – not that Gamelan in its origin is folksy. The ceremonies that gamelan is historically part of have become less a part of modern Indonesian life and often can be viewed as old fashion. I think you make a great point though that a better analogy is to western classic music which also struggles to be relevant and does not have as integral of a cultural context to modern life as it once did – though like Gamelan has die hard fans. I think the artist sees these installations as a new context for gamelan to exist separate from its origins that might be more inclusive. But that is just my speculation. It is a very nice artwork to experience.

          2. Would like to expand on this by refuting the article’s suggestion that all gamelan is ” An old ensemble that’s seldom played in Indonesia today outside of formal ceremonies.”

            Sure, gamelan is not as relevant to modern Indonesian society as it once was, but its by no means rare, nor restricted to formal ceremonies. I live in Java and spend my time studying traditional music here, and have encountered gamelan all over the island, even when not necessarily hunting it out. It is definitely still part of life for Javanese and Sundanese people (moreso in Bali as well), especially in the villages.

            By the way, for those interested in the real state of traditional music in Indonesia, you may be interested in my website, Aural Archipelago (www.auralarchipelago.com), in which I share field recordings, photos, video, and information about traditional musics all around the country. Many of these musical forms are indeed becoming rare, but despite this Indonesia is a country that is absolutely brimming with music.

  2. It seems worth mentioning here that New York has (and has had for more than 30 years) a Javanese gamelan ensemble (not electronic) based at the Indonesian Consulate, which has a set of instruments originally sent over for the 1967 World’s Fair.

    Gamelan Kusuma Laras – http://kusumalaras.org/

    There’s also a Balinese gamelan based at the Consulate:

    Gamelan Dharma Swara – http://www.dharmaswara.org/

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