Most robots are programmed to do crummy jobs like vacuuming and cold calling. For tech-savvy sculptor, DJ and composer Aaron Taylor Kuffner, that's like using a sports car to haul dirt. He programs robots to play Indonesian gamelans.
A gamelan is an array of brass bells and gongs that is traditionally played by a drumming group. It's essentially a Southeast Asian percussion orchestra. The resulting music ranges from hypnagogic to brilliant. Since launching The Gamelatron Project in 2008, Kuffner has created dozens of robotic gamelans, which he calls Gamelatrons, for museums, private collections and public spaces around the world.
“I take traditional Indonesian gamelan instruments and retrofit them with mechanical mallets,” says Kuffner from a sprawling terrace at The New York Hall of Science where he exhibited a Gamelatron at this year’s World Maker Faire New York. “I build the sculptures that hold them and then I write compositions for them that get fed to a network that turns the compositions into little electrical pulses that go out to these robotic mallets and create kind of a ghostly musical automaton.”
Kuffner programs his Gamelatrons using a MIDI controller and does all of the machining, welding and tuning in his Brooklyn workshop. The actual gongs and bells, however, are made in the traditional manner in Indonesia.
“There’s only a few families that still know the craft and the mastery of making specially tuned bronze objects,“ says Kuffner. “Over the years I’ve become closer and closer with them and they’re one of my biggest allies in the project.”
Kuffner trained as a painter and sculptor before moving to Indonesia to study sacred music and gamelan playing. In 2008, while working as a DJ and sound engineer in New York, he met musical roboticist Eric Singer, who was mechanizing musical instruments as part of his League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots. In what Kuffner calls a "peanut butter and chocolate moment," he approached Singer about robotizing a gamelan.
"We worked together closely at the beginning of this project," says Kuffner. "Now, eight years later, I've made many of them and augmented them in all different ways, but the path was really started by collaborating with (Singer)."
The MIDI-controlled gamelans Kuffner creates as part of The Gamelatron Project range in size from small instruments consisting of four or five gongs to room-sized installations of more than a hundred chimes, bells and gongs. Each plays an original composition that he writes specifically for that instrument.
"There’s no reason think (different Gamelatrons) are in the same scale, nor is there any reason to think that they would have the same instrumentation," says Kuffner. “Sometimes I have huge installations where the acoustics of the space become part of the instrument so I have to write compositions that adapt and respond to the environment that they’re in.”
Much of Kuffner's joy in the project derives from creating signature sound environments that heighten people's awareness and create a unique sensory experience of a space.
“It’s kind of the Tibetan sand painting of it all,” he says. “Once an installation comes down, those songs might never be used again. They’re written just for that space.”
Current Gamelatron Project exhibitions include Gamelatron Urban Sanctuary at The Chimney in Brooklyn, N.Y., from Oct. 2 - 25, and Gamelatron Empat Bunga and Gamelatron Kebangkit at The 56th Venice Biennale, Palazzo Grimani Museum, Italy, which started May 5 and ends Nov. 22.