Intriguing instruments: Live music on auto-pilot

A mix of contemporary and traditional percussion instruments.

Musical instruments differ from culture to culture, but they all share one common trait: they almost always require a human operator. One-man bands exist, but a man can only operate so many instruments before he runs out of appendages.

Even electronic music is not exempt from this, requiring the performer to be on standby and transition between sets. So, it seems that a man cannot be separated from his instruments, not if he wants to keep the music going.

Well, as it turns out, if you can get machines to do your bidding, you don’t need to be around your instruments, and you get the benefit of overcoming a lot of physical limits. Just add more machines!

“Intriguing Instruments” is a performance by Aussie percussionist-composer Robbie Avenaim. It’s where small contraptions replace the human touch. Actually, it still requires Avenaim’s input, but the machines do the heavy lifting after that.

“I wanted to work with different things in electronic music, but not what we usually find today. For me, it was trying to find what I could do with machines, to accompany me as a percussionist.”

Avenaim’s relationship with percussion instruments started at the young age of 10, when he got into playing the drums. From age 16 onwards, he has sought to learn from drummers, composers and conductors from around the world.

Starting from Australia, his quest for knowledge has led him to America, Zimbabwe, and most recently, a short stint in Israel.

Based on his observations in New York, Avenaim co-founded and organised the WHATISMUSIC? Festival, with the aim of fostering a rich experimental music ecosystem in Australia. He served as its curator from 1994 to 2012.

SARPS (“Semi Automated Robotic Percussion System”) is Avenaim’s name for his mechanical modifications; a modular set up that sits on existing percussion instruments.

Birthed in 2007, the set up allows Avenaim to explore a greater vocabulary of sounds, as well as expand the role of percussion instruments in music.

Robbie Avenaim, the man behind “Intriguing Instruments.

The set up is designed by an engineer, while another engineer is in charge of Max MSP programming (a visual programming language for music and multimedia).

SARPS is then controlled through Avenaim’s notebook, a mixer and a MIDI pad controller. You have your usual timed drum beats, but you can also get a bit of randomness thrown it, thanks to what he calls an “EMS”, or “electronic motorised stick”.

Avenaim adjusts the timing for each individual unit, and lets the motorised components do their thing while he can go out and leave the installation be.

For his stint in Penang, Avenaim had a fair bit of local reinforcement as a local university loaned him a set of traditional Malay instruments for use in his performance.

So his show comprised of a mix of contemporary drums and traditional instruments like the gendang.

Getting up close and personal with SARPS.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to use local instruments) so much, but it would be a great thing to do. If I go to another part of Asia, I can explore more instruments.”

That said, not everyone is fond of what Avenaim is doing, and he has had his fair share of let downs, even in Penang.

“I had a show scheduled elsewhere, but they cancelled. They thought my music was too ‘eccentric’ and might not draw an audience.”

“Percussion is simple – one hit, one sound, one idea. If you can do something more interesting, even better. You don’t need to say too much as small suggestions in percussion make big strides.”

For future iterations, Avenaim is looking to incorporate emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) into his performances.

Avenaim tunes SARPS with a notebook, adjusting the timing of each instrument.

SARPS is in itself a continuously evolving solution (now in its seventh year), so it comes as no surprise that Avenaim is leaning towards the next step in technological advances.

It has its fair share of obstacles, however. “At the moment, it’s taking a long time, because I don’t have the resources.”

“I don’t claim to innovate anything, but I think just by using the technology today, you are moving forward.”

When you think about it, we’re all musicians setting our own instruments. We painstakingly configure and tinker to get the best tune, then wander off to the great beyond as we present our final symphony to an audience, reverberating through generations to come. Food for thought.

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