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The Gongs of Gamelatron

A conversation with the instrument creator, Aaron Taylor Kuffner

by Emily Sause

June 29, 2018

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Walking through The Assemblage NoMad, one is greeted with myriad aesthetic elements: walls textured with moss and mushrooms, and nooks and crannies adorned with plant life and natural artifacts. But it’s upon reaching the mezzanine sound meditation room that one can find vibrant color and instruments not typical to a coworking space: kalimbas, rain-sticks, chimes. The most unique: the Gamelatron, a set of seven gongs mounted on the wall, that are struck by a hammer — but no hand. The sculpture is the brilliance and brainchild of installation artist Aaron Taylor Kuffner, which he hand-hammered in his Brooklyn studio.

It’s hard to characterize Kuffner’s craft as one thing or another; he is equal parts machinist, composer, sculptor and engineer, a jack-of-all-trades in the realm of sculpture and sound. Gamelatron, the company Kuffner founded, evolved out of his transition away from working in the electronic music scene. Like many soul-seekers, that evolution first led him to lands unknown — in Kuffner’s case, Indonesia.

On a journey with no clear objective, he explored the beaches and jungles before finding resonance among artisans known for hand-pounding the instruments of gamelan, a musical ensemble of primarily percussive instruments, and an emblem of Indonesian tradition.

Out of all the metallophones and percussions in the ensemble, Kuffner took particular interest in the gong. Unlike traditional instruments that tune to an external standard, the gong tunes to itself. For Kuffner, this was resonant; an ineffable parallel to draw toward human’s own capacities for inner tuning.

Kuffner’s interest in the gong led him to the communities working to preserve the gamelan tradition, and the people who forge these self-tuning instruments. He found himself pouring base metals under the guidance of seasoned instrumental engineers and their tradition. To create gongs for gamelan, the artisans utilize salvaged metals and pour out masses of copper and tin, then hand-pound them into sound catalysts — Kuffner likens the process to “making bread in slow motion.”

After years working with the craftsmen to learn their trade and absorb their knowledge, he returned to the US deeply impacted by this work, and with a newfound skill. He linked up with Eric Singer to build the first version of the Gamelatron.

The Gamelatron in The Assemblage NoMad sound meditation room; one of only 45 Gamelatrons in the world. All photos by: Ludovic Baussan

The name combines Gamela, an homage to gamelan, and tron, in reverence to the technological backend that roboticizes the function of the instruments.

While the Gamelatron has taken on many forms since its inception — including a massive installation at the base of the Man at Burning Man 2017 — there are two codified elements which form the backbone. First, a suite of industrially designed robotic mallets strike gongs so they play on their own in a seemingly ghostly manner; and second, a physical computing system with dedicated software to bring customized musical compositions to life.

By establishing these two elements, Kuffner is able to ascend into a playful dimension of adapting his creative offerings to be of highest service. By engaging in spatial play, perception play and experience optimization, he exercises his versatility as an installation artist by focusing on the adaptation of his artwork to fit into people’s lives.

The Assemblage NoMad houses two of only 45 Gamelatrons in the world, offering a mindful, mid-day break from work or moment of solace for the community. We caught up with Kuffner to learn more about what it means to be an installation artist, designing for different environments, and the path of the creative process.

The Assemblage: Many of your installations exhibit themes of spatial play; how do aspects of the environment impact the way you install your art?

Aaron Taylor Kuffner: Where you are in the space matters for the composition. I allow myself to be influenced by the acoustics and the intention of the space, who’s there and why. That way, it’s not just about sound, but a fully embracive experience. I try to let the visual and sonic elements foster an environment that can elicit a strong response within your body and psyche. In a way, it’s a covert therapy device geared toward making an experience. It’s not just about sound and it’s not just about what the piece looks like. Rather, this work merges all of these things in order to elicit a response. I evaluate what matters based on the degree and quality of the impact I have on people. My artwork is an offering to be translated into energy for people to use in their lives. That’s tacit in my head.

TA: How does your creative process serve different people, to create universal impact?

ATK: My compositions are non-linear; there is no start. There is no end. I’m not worried about when someone enters the room or when they leave it. It’s more about the dose they get when they are there. I ask myself,

“How can this aid in a better life, a life that’s full of noise?”

“How can I sometimes frame silence, rather than fill silence?”

In this way, I like to challenge the traditional boundaries of how art is perceived as this static thing on the wall. There are these cross interests — Eastern philosophy, design, architecture, sound — that function as different hooks to engage people. It’s inclusive and inviting.

TA: Your artwork has many layers of dualities: east vs. west, ancient vs. modern, robot vs. human. Can you speak a bit to these subtexts of globalization?

ATK: Yes, it’s all about toeing these dualities. In a broad stroke across the surface, my works are often gold, mirrored, and shiny with modern design. Yet there are layers underneath, a subtext beneath the art that re-contextualizes tradition. Here is this really ancient thing, reminiscent from something on the other side of the planet, with this really modern thing.

It’s not a total fascination with the ancient or exotic, but a way to say that all of these things are part of our ‘now reality’. How do we responsibly integrate those things as a part of our lives, not like vacations from our lives? How do you make this a part of who you are, where you are, and allow it to gain access to your normal life? All these contrasting forces really tell the story of where are we in human history. The story of where we are is in all of the objects around us. These stories really indicate ‘now’. The integration of these stories, however subconscious, shows us that there are some things that are native and tacit to being human. Feeling the reverberation of the gong is one of these things.

You don’t need to be a yogi, you just need to be paying attention.

There is something universal and spiritually affirming behind the energy of the gong’s reverberance. Feeling this reverberance isn’t just an Indonesian thing or an Asian thing — this is a human thing.

Many tribal and native religions in Indonesia all incorporated gongs. In fact, many churches in Jakarta have gongs. But these modernized compositions are re-contextualizing that tradition. In Indonesia, the Gamelan is arcane much like Western classical. These sounds seem to exude a pomp and circumstance that doesn’t resonate with the mainstream.

So now we [humans] have to figure out responsible ways to integrate our full knowledge set — be it old, new, or somewhere in between — and really use that set in an integrative way to tap into what is to some degree primordial. I try to appeal to that primordial instinct of how we absorb and soak in this sound, and what it means for us.

TA: How do your compositions activate that primordial instinct?

ATK: One of the ways I trained as a composer was through listening. The same way that maybe a photographer would. A photographer couldn’t go and move the Chrysler Building over to the left a little bit to set up the shot. But rather, they would use their vision, their ability to crop and see….to create the art, to create the composition. I challenge myself in a really similar way. I challenge myself to listen.

The game has always been to sit, be quiet and listen. But rather than just hearing what’s there, this game calls you to mix it…I want the listener to be creating the composition in their bodies the same way that I would take whatever sound field is in front of me and turn that into music, into a composition. It’s through this dedicated listening that I’m trying to give inlets to people. I’m just putting a bunch of ingredients out there, and you’re gonna cook it inside.

TA: What contributions are you brewing up now?

ATK: I’m inspired to create more permanent public pieces, and to find the liminal space between a spa, movie or museum. It’s not just about entertainment for me. People are hungry for experience and I want to create ways for people to engage with art in constructive, nurturing ways. I’m currently working on these Body Phones — like headphones but full body phones. They’re made with gongs about five feet in diameter, and you sit inside two of them. The gongs are tuned to a very low frequency, about 38-39 Hz, and I’m creating these minimal compositions based on the way in which the waves oscillate, using that oscillation as the tempo.

TA: What has the path been like, to find yourself here?

ATK: It’s been a long path and the only linear part is me following what’s interesting to me. If this is going to be my livelihood, my vocation, I want it to be as fun, as interesting and as challenging to me as it possibly can. I want to trust that whatever I’m interested in has some kind of validity, and I should incorporate it. I don’t limit myself to one form or one medium which allows me to pursue all of these things without feeling tangential. But rather feeling like it’s all leading to the same place.

Can you spend all day doing the things that you love, making the biggest contribution that you can to your community and your society?

It’s a luxury to be able to do that. I feel lucky that I’m capable of doing things, and that my mind has been malleable enough to do things in multiple arenas. That I’m not necessarily a specialist. I’m lucky that whatever I’ve been able to learn and the skills I’ve been able to gain are transmutable.