The year, according to Javanese Mythology of the Saka era, was around AD 230. Legendary King Sang Hyang Guru needed a signal to summon the gods. How exactly it happened, we do not know, but an elegant solution appeared: The gong. Not one gong, but multiple gongs to send complex messages. The Gamelan, so the story goes, was born.
Gamel: "strike or hammer". The suffix "an" makes the root a collective noun. Gamelan.
Today, Gamelan is the thriving indigenous music of Indonesia, most readily found on the islands of Java and Bali. The word refers more to the set of instruments than to the players. This may include metalophones, xylophones, drums and gongs, bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings. Vocalists also may also perform. There are hundreds of different types of gamelan ensembles, differing in size, instrumentation, tuning proportions, cultural role and place of origin. Altogether, each gamelan orchestra is a distinct entity. The instruments are built and tuned to stay together and it is rare that instruments from different orchestras can be interchanged.
Musically, gamelan is known for its uniquely tuned relative scales (called "Pelog" and "Slendro" which bear no resemblance to the relationship of the notes in the western and western tempered scale), its interlocking melody lines and graceful merger of percussion and melody. In Bali there is a specific caste of people who have, for generations, been responsible for making and tuning the instruments. (These people have built and tuned the instruments that make up the Gamelatron.)
In Java, the cultural significance of Gamelan music has dramatically changed over the last centuries. It is less common than it once was in the daily life of the cities and villages but still plays a prominent part of an honored tradition in the courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta in Central Java.
In Bali, in contrast, the music remains woven into the Hindu traditions of daily life. The music is understood as having the power to bring harmony, protection, spiritual insight, ease and understanding. Hundreds of orchestras entertain and serve a ritual function in rites of passage and in all matters of the local temples. Young children learn to play at a very early age and almost all the music is transmitted by ear. There is both an extraordinary liturgy of classic compositions and an ever expanding oeuvre of new work by young and old. The music is often woven together with dance, puppetry and storytelling. Every village has a set of instruments that, on special occasions or a night that the villages feel called to gather, will be played and heard far out over the rice fields.
ABOUT THE GAMELATRON ROBOTICS
The Gamelatron features sets of classic instruments often presented in ornate frames or sculptural mounts outfitted with custom robotic counter parts. We have hand-machined out of architectural aluminum casings and levers that hold mallets. MIDI* sequences are fed to proprietary MIDI decoding microprocessors which send pulses of electricity to solenoid electromagnets. This actuates the levers to move the mallets and strike the instruments. Settings can be scaled to accommodate velocity sensitivity and to map different MIDI notes to any actuator. The Gamelatron in its largest incarnation used 170 different actuators. The first designs for the robotic striking mechanisms and MIDI decoding micro processor were developed by Eric Singer and first used by Aaron Taylor Kuffner during an Artist in Residency at the League of Electronic Music Urban Robots in 2008. Over the last 6 years Kuffner continues to augment designs and enlist industry experts as the project evolves. Most recently John Taylor and Joe Joe Martin of Lumigeek have produced custom hardware and software solutions implented in new gamelatron pieces.
*MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is an music industry-standard protocol that enables electronic musical instruments to communicate and synchronize with each other by sending event messages and digital musical notation.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIDI