The banging of the gongs
For many folks here in the West, there's only one real-life musical association with gongs. It dates back to arena rock, when the drummers for acts like Rush or Emerson, Lake & Palmer performed on expansive drum kits, perched for the entire performance in front of giant gongs that remained silent — at least until the end of their really long solos, and at which time the musician would leap up, seize a Thor-like hammer, and strike the gong! Possibly several times!
Alternately, in Java, Bali and Indonesia, whole musical ensembles have for centuries performed gamelan, which is indigenous orchestral music written for and performed on several varieties of gongs and sets of tuned percussion — all of which are struck with mallets and percussive tools. The music is hypnotic, soothing, dissonant and lovely, and serves in a treasured religious, aesthetic, and societal capacity.
The idea that gamelan could be reconceptualized for postmodern times and Western audiences is something that fascinated American artist and composer Aaron Taylor Kuffner. Employing computer algorithms and mechanical and techincal innovations to the form through kinetic sculpture, he emerged with something called Gamelatron, a fascinating installation of which, "Encountering Resonance: Aaron Taylor Kuffner's Gamelatron," is on display at New London's Lyman Allyn Art Museum.
The exhibition starts with a simple introductory section using video and wall-mounted signage, then leads through a series of chambers. In each are three to five of Taylor's Gamelatron installations. They are similar looking but distinctive, ranging in size and involving anywhere from one to several bronze or steel gongs of various shapes and dimension. They in turn are mounted to "sculptural armature" that looks somewhat like brass plumbing pipes in an exposed architectural cutout. All the instruments are retrofitted with automated mallets; each has been tuned to a specific note in a scale and activated electromagnetically by a computing system that transcribes original gamelan music composed by Kuffner.
The pieces are fascinating to look at, fusing the gong's implied cultural antiquity with a sort of sleek, space-age industrial look. What's more evocative, though, is to take in the visual while absorbing the activated sounds of each installation. Some are on automatic repetition; others can be activated by the visitor by pushing a variety of buttons. A few are close-quarter concepts where a guest can take a seat, as in an airline cockpit, and listen close-range to the soft pingings and tones from gongs on three sides. Others are massive wall hanging units that chime independently — the mallets operating with a sort of invisible power that brings to mind player pianos.
Gradually, in toto, the rhythms get more complicated, and the respective melodies coming from the various sites become more intricate — and there's an overwhelming aura of dissonant beauty. Perhaps the best Western comparison would be windchime recordings or ambient/New Age meditation compositions. Indeed, by original design, the music and performance thereof has a pretty, meditative repetition that soothes and invites mental contemplation. Other than to inspire intellectual marvel in the visitor over Kuffner's devotion and ingenuity — which in fact he might consider counterproductive to his purpose — to walk through and LISTEN to "Encountering Resonance" is a guaranteed exercise in lowering blood pressure and refreshing the mental attitude.
The exhibition is augmented by short intructionals at video stations throughout. They alternately show gamelon performances in their native countries; present comprehensible demonstrations of music and performance theory; and explain how the gongs and instrumentation are historically manufactured in the context with Kuffner's work.
That the exhibit landed at the Lyman Allyn is a bit of providence. As each of Kuffner's Gamelatron installations are site-specific and require years to conceptualize and build — they're not cheap. However, Sam Quigley, executive director of the Lyman Allyn, is himself a well-known authority in Asian and Indonesian music who earned a masters in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University — where he learned to play the Javanese gamelan.
"I hadn't met (Kuffner) until recently, but I have long been an admirer of not just his work but the whole iceberg of possibility it sits atop," Quigley says last week by phone. "I first became aware of gamelan in 1972, and it moves me in a way I can't fully explain. When I heard about Kuffner and what he's done, I was fascinated by the possibilities. But it's a very expensive and laborious process. When we did finally meet, Kuffner was happy to meet a kindred spirit and offered to retrofit an old installation from 2013.
"He recycled some of the material from that installation so we could afford it, then was kind enough to put a lot of sweat equity into the project. He knew the client was into this, and it says a lot about him and the kind of person and artist he is that he would make the effort on our behalf."
Kuffner, now based in Brooklyn, spent many years in Java and Bali and immersed himself in the cultural and spiritual significance of gamelan. Not only did he learn the various modal tunings central to the music, he became adept at performing the various instruments and developed his own notation system. He either makes the components for each installation or commissions them from master craftsmen in Bali and Java. Kuffner also writes the compositions, and each is unique to a specific Gamelatron show.
"Aaron visited Lyman Allyn several times and personally installed the exhibit," Quigely says, "and we could not be more grateful."
Quigley says it's been rewarding to see how guests are reacting to ""Encountering Resonance."
"The therapeutic quality invites a sort of contemplation that also seems to preclude the average, tour-the-museum experience," Quigley says. "People are getting lost, so to speak. The music and the installations seem to have a physiological effect on the human body. I couldn't begin to explain how it happens, but several patrons have commented on it in a very positive way. What more could one ask for in a museum experience?"
If you go
What: "Encountering Resonance: Aaron Taylor Kuffner's Gamelatron"
When: Through May 23
Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat., 1-5 p.m. Sun.
How much: $12 adults, $9 seniors, $5 students; free for members, New London residents and children; credit or debit cards only.
Safety precautions: Masks required regardless of vaccination status
For more information: (860) 443-2545, lymanallyn.org
To see a video on "Encountering Resonance," go to theday.com.