Every now and then, I stumble upon a singular artist whose work has somehow managed to remain largely undocumented and entirely under the radar all but the most devout underground music fans. Aaron Taylor Kuffner is the latest visionary to fall into this category, as his Zemi17 project has been around for a quarter century now and he has only just gotten around to releasing his full-length debut. Notably, Gamelatron Bidadari is quite a departure from Zemi17's previous two EPs on The Bunker's house label, as Impressions (2014) and Zipper (2016) were an attempt to integrate Taylor Kuffner's techno past with more natural and timeless sounds originating from his time spent studying gamelan in Indonesia. On this latest release, all traces of Zemi17's dancefloor past have disappeared to showcase another side of Taylor Kuffner's unique artistry: the Gamelatron project that he co-created in 2008, which is billed as "the world’s first fully robotic gamelan orchestra." Since the project's inception, Taylor Kuffner has built more than 70 site-specific kinetic sculptures and provided his signature "immersive, visceral experience" to more than a million people across the globe. The Gamelatron Bidadari captured here is but one of those sculptures and originally debuted as part of an exhibit entitled "No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man" at The Smithsonian's Renwick gallery. While a lot of site-specific installations understandably do not translate terribly well to home listening, this one is a delightful exception, as the resultant recordings feel like an ingenious twist on a timeless favorite, taking traditional gamelan music into an even more loopingly hypnotic direction than usual.
It admittedly took me a few listens to fully warm to Gamelatron Bidadari, as I quite like Zemi17's earlier beat-driven aesthetic and Taylor Kuffner's kinetic installations unavoidably suffer the same curse as every modular synth album: once an artists comes up with a killer patch or loop, it is damn hard to evolve beyond the inherent lattice of repeating patterns, resulting in a lot of motifs that play out for a few minutes, then simply fade away before they wear out their welcome. To his credit, however, Taylor Kuffner navigates that predicament quite well within individual pieces by adding and subtracting countermelodies and seismic bass throbs at well-chosen moments. In fact, there are a handful of pieces that I would not mind hearing stretched to album length. In general, the longest pieces tend to be the most compelling. In "The Ring Is Satu," for example, an insistent metallic pulse blossoms into a simple four note pattern that leaves a resonant, quivering, and eerily beautiful vapor trail in its wake (a feat later enhanced further by the nimble insertion of a chiming melody in the spaces between those sustained tones). Elsewhere, Kuffner revisits that approach on "Contours" with an increased sense of spatial depth and stronger shades of melancholy and subtly dissonant harmonies (as well as a steadily snowballing intensity).
The closing "Serra Tone" is yet another highlight, as it feels like a limping and blearily drugged-sounding variation of the formula, though it ends far too soon for my liking at just over three minutes. That said, it makes an excellent finale for quite a unique and inventively crafted whole. If I had not heard this album, I could imagine myself grimacing at the spectre of cultural appropriation and the mechanization of ancient, spiritual music, but my ears came to a very different conclusion: Taylor Kuffner clearly understands and appreciates gamelan music on a deep level and Gamelatron Bidadari feels like a legitimately inspired and ingenious twist on an old favorite. For one, Gamelatron Bidadari sounds absolutely wonderful, as the various gongs and metallophones invariably have a rich and resonant tone. And, while it does not matter in an album context, the elegance and simple beauty of Taylor Kuffner's melodies is mirrored by the physical appearance of the sculptures, which resemble trees with roots and branches (appropriately, “bidadari” can be loosely translated as "forest nymph”). Of course, building a group of machines that competently play gamelan music together is one thing, but doing it in a way that still feels sacred and in harmony with the natural world is quite another and Taylor Kuffner fucking nailed it. Experienced in an album-sized dose, Gamelatron Bidadari feels like a meditative and immersive spell in an enchanted forest of massive, psychotropic wind chimes, which is definitely not an experience that I can get elsewhere.
Sounds can be found here.