Symphony, Mechanical

If a percussionist isn’t around when his instruments make sounds, is it music?

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 (and orifices). 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 get machines to do your bidding, you don’t need to hawk around your instruments, and you get the benefit of overcoming a lot of physical limits. Just add more machines!

A mix of contemporary and traditional percussion instruments.

“Intriguing Instruments” was a performance/installation during the recent Butterworth Fringe Festival. Done by Aussie percussionist-composer Robbie Avenaim, it’s where small contraptions replace the human touch. Actually, that’s not quite true, as it still requires Robbie’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 find usually today. For me, it was trying to find what I could do with machines, and to accompany me as a percussionist.”

Robbie Avenaim, the man behind “Intriguing Instruments”.

Robbie’s relationship with percussion instruments started at the young age of 10, when he got into playing the drums. From 16 onwards, he has gone and sought to learn from drummers, composers and conductors from around the world. Starting from Australia, his quest for knowledge has brought him to America, Zimbabwe, and most recently, a short stint in Israel.

Based on his observations in New York, Robbie then 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.

Getting up close and personal with SARPS.

SARPS (“Semi Automated Robotic Percussion System”) is Robbie’s name for his mechanical modifications; a modular setup that sits on existing percussion instruments (Robbie’s forte). Birthed in 2007, the setup allows Robbie to explore a greater vocabulary of sounds, as well as expand the role of percussion instruments in music.

The setup is designed by an engineer (with a little bit of Arduino programming), while another engineer is in charge of Max MSP programming (a visual programming language for music and multimedia). SARPS is then controlled through Robbie’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”.

Robbie tunes SARPS using a notebook, adjusting the timing of each instrument.

Robbie adjusts the timing for each individual unit, and just lets the motorised components do their thing while he can just head out and leave the installation be. We actually conversed with him while he was away from his installation, which had already gathered quite an audience.

I’ve got a small orchestra, and I can create some new music.

For this round, Robbie got a fair bit of local reinforcements – a local university loaned a set of traditional Malay instruments for use in his installation in the 2015 George Town Festival. So his show in BFF comprises a mix of contemporary drums and traditional instruments like the gendang. “I haven’t had the opportunity to do it (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 the instruments.”

That said, not everyone is fond of what Robbie is doing, and he has had his fair share of letdowns – even one as recently as during the Butterworth Fringe Festival. “I had a show elsewhere, but they cancelled. They thought my music was too ‘eccentric’ and might not bring an audience… They only told me when I arrived here (in Penang).”

Robbie’s “small orchestra”, all ready and set to perform.

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

For future iterations, Robbie is looking to incorporate emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) into his performances. SARPS is in itself a continuously evolving solution (now in its seventh year), so it comes as no surprise (to me, at least) that Robbie 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 using the technology today, you can apply them modestly.”

After the interview, I continued to explore what BFF had to offer (which you can read in a previous article). I returned later to find the machinery still moving, but the musician was absent. There was still a small crowd, but I wonder if any of them ever saw the person behind it all…

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. ◆

The George Town Festival is sponsored by the Penang State Government and supported by Tourism Malaysia.

George Town Festival is now open to proposal submissions for George Town Festival 2016. For more information please visit: