SSL Interview

Dale Gorfinkel and Robbie Avenaim talk about their Vibraphone duo. An email discussion with Jim Denley, January/February 2019.

JD: Why and how did SSL form?

DG: I first started seeing Robbie play in Sydney around 2001/2002 and had a great deal of respect for him. The vibes was my only instrument at this time and I’d been trying to extend the possibilities of the instrument and find my own language on it. My sonic exploration was in part influenced by the experimental community in Sydney, of which Robbie was a key figure.

Robbie came over to have a jam, I think towards the end of 2004. Despite being kind of intimidated by the prospect of playing, once we started, I felt that he was a deeply sympathetic listener and player. I had some crappy drums and cymbals at the house and I remember being surprised how he was able to make them sound so rich and resonant. It was that afternoon that he told me that he had previously done gigs on vibraphone and had once covered his instrument in vibrators. Knowing Robbie now, I wonder if that jam session was already part of his ploy to form a vibraphone duo. He’s quite a forward thinking guy.

RA: When Dale told me he played the vibes and used motors to create tones, I took one step back and thought, what were the chances of meeting a vibes player that not only used motors as an extension of the instrument but also with a surname like Gorfinkel had to be a fellow Dead Sea Pedestrian. At the time I was using vibrators as tools to create sonic resonances on the same instrument. What were the chances of meeting someone like that in the Australian improvised music circuit?

DG: After then, Robbie became a supportive figure, friend and mentor. My brain has been significantly expanded by our discussions on music and musicians, modes of improvising, and all sorts of crazy of ideas. Why this? And why not that? Not long into our collaboration he said to me ‘wow, you’re so far gone!’. I think that was Robbie’s influence on me: I had no idea what was normal anymore.

We were playing gigs around 2006-2008, including The NOW now, Impermanent, and Articulating Space in Melbourne. In 2007 Robbie also organised for us to work with Ernie Althoff on Vaucanson’s Duck, an exhibition of automated sonic contraptions at Bus Gallery. We also had guest performers come in every night over a series of 10 nights. I mention it because these were all really formative experiences for me personally and for our duo. We started thinking about presenting music beyond the normal constraints of just performing with two vibraphones. I think that was part of the thinking behind the name Sonic Systems Laboratories, but we also just needed to come up with a name for our duo album and that’s what was decided. We were really encouraged along the way by you, Jim, especially when you asked us to make an album for Splitrec. The recording process was long but we learned a lot from it, including figuring out what might also be possible in a live setting.

JD: And tell us about the 2 vibraphones — what sort of techniques of playing and listening are you using on the CD and you did a recent gig — have things changed?

RA: At first i used the basic vibrator on the instrument, i mean basic as the electric-powered devices which pulsates or throb, used to stimulate erogenous zones. I placed them between the notes/bars of the vibes to freely rattle or on the bar itself by using a cock ring to stop it going anywhere — rudimentary but produced hypnotic bell like continuous textures. But it fatigued me endlessly searching for different types of erotic vibrators — I realised i needed to build my own.

The first prototypes built were light aluminium tubing chassis, inserting inside was a small 3v motor with counter weights attached to the motor. When powered it produced a harsher sound than the plastic chassis that were commonly used for the domestic market. I also built a switching box i could turn 8 vibrators on and off. This setup gave me a fair bit of flexibility than i originally had, not to mention not having to continually buy batteries, i was now using 12v power to run them all. This primitive system gave me the option to quickly determine what groups on notes i wanted to use and instantly mute or unmute the motors. 

DG: The track on the CD consists of a mix of both of our individual techniques for playing the vibes. I had created continuous bow mechanisms which consist of a wheel attached to a DC motor. The wheels gently rub up against the aluminium vibraphone bars to create quite a pure continuous tone without attack or decay. The first part of the CD features this technique. I developed this technique in response to the electronic music that I was interested in, particularly Sachiko M and Alvin Lucier.

RA: The recording process was very simple as we decided from an early stage to use my standard (A=442 Hz or A=440 Hz?) Vibraphone and Dales prepared tuning of the bars. Dale at the time was drilling holes to change the individual bars tuning. We both agreed this would be a better option then using the two standard tunings. Whilst recording we discovered this created mixed clustered harmonic textures and extreme dense dissonant frequencies that added to the sound we were looking for.

DG: Between us we could create some interesting microtonal relationships. With the continuous tones I felt that the listening attention could be directed to the psychoacoustic phenomenon at play, especially the combination tones, frequency beating, and the interplay of harmonics.

RA: It was just a matter of finding appropriate positions to place the microphones to capture the sound, but the options were endless, the sound was so overwhelming that it didn’t matter where we put the microphones.

DG: The wheels could also be placed on the top side of the vibraphone bars to create high frequency harmonics. When we used this technique at gigs people thought that there was electronic feedback going on, which I thought was great because I’d also been influenced by people like Peter Blamey and Matt Earle who were playing feedback systems with no-input mixing desks. For us, using this material was I think the most radical way to start a vibraphone album.

RA: It was like being trapped in the feedback itself. During the recording process we would simply experiment with ideas and record what sounded, what we thought to be a unique texture. These ideas were all recorded on several tracks, then Dale and i would discuss what combination of tracks to use to create movements in the composition. This process also assisted us to better understanding what the hell we were doing as well. The process was a type of vibrotherapy for us.

DG: The vibraphone is quite an unusual instrument. It’s a product of the industrial age when people tried putting motors on everything. What defines it as a vibraphone is it’s electrically powered rotary mechanism which opens and closes the resonators under the bars, giving a pulsing quality to the sound. This is volume modulation or tremolo. As an aside, some people say ‘tremelophone’ would be a more accurate name for the instrument since ‘vibrato’ is frequency modulation. The speed of the tremolo mechanism can be varied and I found these rhythms interesting, particularly in conjunction with the frequency beating caused by microtonal tunings. To be honest, this mechanism has never worked on Robbie’s vibraphone!

RA: We have always both been open minded to new approaches on the instrument adopting different tools and contraptions including kinetic methods in performance contexts. We both have the ability to play the instrument conventionally with mallets, so having all these mechanical and kinetic influences around us really influenced how we would play. This is a strong part of the sound as well. We imitate and compliment a lot of the ideas set up by the gadgets. I see it as more of an ensemble than a two piece. 

DG: I had also been exploiting this tremolo mechanism to get a range of mechanical sounds. This included, amplifying the sound of the vibraphone motor itself, placing mallets, pingpong balls, and other objects on the rotating fans. The second part of the track on the CD features more of these mechanical sounds. These tied in really well with one of Robbie’s inventions which he called e-sticks. Modelled on the motors inside a vibrator, Robbie attached a counter-balance (usually a 50 cent piece) to a motor and then attached that to a long chopstick. This turned the whole stick into a vibrator. He could then create mechanical sounds by placing that device onto the body of the vibraphone.

Robbie’s vibrators becomes the feature after about 20 minutes.  Our listening was focussed on the tones and harmonics they produced and the subtle variations in mechanical rhythm. I had been getting away from using mallets on the instrument because I thought mallets were too conventional, but actually Robbie had developed an incredibly subtle mallet technique which placed the attention on the resonance of the vibraphone bars rather then the attack. By playing extremely quietly with sometimes fast ever changing rhythms it could be difficult to perceive that the tones were being struck at all. He had developed this technique from listening closely to the rhythms of the vibrators as they bounced on the bars. So the idea behind this was that the mechanical devices could teach us a new ways of playing, new modes of listening, and new forms of music.

Towards the end of the CD there are some particularly low tones. These were produced by a few aluminium vibes bars that I had made that were more than 1 metre long. Other deep tones were produced by holding contact microphones directly onto Robbie’s e-sticks and using induction coil mics (telephone pickups) on the vibes motors. During the recording process we experimented a lot with microphone positioning. We had different mic placements for different techniques and this was a way of dissecting the instrument, and showing people the possibilities that we were hearing in it. To me, the recording was a compressed way of listening to the vibes. All of its sounds could be equally present.

Perhaps because we’d spent so long in the recording process, I became a bit bored with listening to any music in the stereo speaker format. After making the album and breaking away from preconceived ideas of the vibraphone, the interesting part for me became the unique way in which the vibraphone diffused sound in a space. I think for Robbie, he had a particular interest in the dense harmonic/melodic possibilities. So coming to a live performance setting, I had felt the limitations of PA systems whereas I think Robbie saw amplification as an aid. Since we had also come up with numerous other sonic contraptions, I also saw a lot of potential in our collaboration beyond just using two vibraphones, particularly spatialised works that moved away from having a couple of performers in a stationary spot up on stage. In the past decade or so, we have explored those other possibilities but mostly separately or in other collaborations.

RA: We recently played after a long hiatus, kind of reunion show. It was outdoors in a newly constructed amphitheatre. It’s no surprise to us both, but we just took of from exactly where we’d left off. We’ve developed more as musicians, but the sound and approach was like it had been preserved from the past. 

DG: I think having had the chance to pursue other creative impulses, it was really great to wheel two vibraphones together again in 2018 and appreciate that as being its own thing. Have things changed? Hmm…other than some small technical things, I’m not really sure! I think I’d like to play more to find out.

JD: Both of you mention that SSL being mistaken for feedback was a plus. SSL sounds surprising, it blindsides us and transforms our perception of what vibraphones sound like. Is this sonic transformation necessary for music to really sing? And beyond the sound, what of the structure in the CD?

DG: Questioning the pursuit of extended techniques and instrument modification is a very valid one. In short, no it’s definitely not necessary for music to really sing. There are also plenty of people pursuing instrument design/re-design and still making boring music. Personally, there were many reasons which led me to explore the sonic potential of the instrument. I had been playing the vibraphone since I was 14 years old and I defined myself as a vibraphone player. Somewhere along the path of playing jazz vibraphone I became quite frustrated. I was heavily influenced by other instrumentalists such as saxophone players who had such a large palette for inflections of pitch and variety of tone, yet I felt so limited by the minuscule amount of sonic and expressive variation found in striking a vibraphone bar with a mallet. Why did the vibraphone always sound so ‘nice’??!! I began experimenting with mallet techniques, for instance I would play a single melody line using both hard and soft mallets and used a technique to slightly ‘bend’ the frequency of a pitch. I would also continually adjust the tremolo speed even within a melodic line. These were mostly things that I hadn’t seen or heard other vibraphone players do — probably because there aren’t many people who play it! So going down a path of re-tuning, preparing, and extending the instrument and developing a personalised ‘sound’ on the instrument was a way of finding an expressive voice on an instrument which was entwined with my identity and which I had felt limited by.

Robbie was mainly a drummer, so his relationship to the vibraphone was quite different to mine. These sonic languages were developing at the same time as I was absorbing musics other than jazz and I was also wanting to improvise with musicians who thought about their music and structured it differently. There was (and is) a challenge to being open enough to let those new sounds, techniques and technologies guide us to a different way of playing, listening and structuring sound. For instance, I think using machines suggests possibilities for the music which we wouldn’t have considered if we were using our bodies to play the instruments. They suggest different ideas of rhythm and duration and a different idea of gesture. For example, I thought it was odd (and funny) that someone would invent a Theremin, an instrument that is capable of playing all the ‘in-between’ pitches, but then want to play Beethoven on it.

I guess Robbie and I were aiming to be perceptive to the different structures as suggested by these different sounds and techniques, and conversely we also developed these techniques in the pursuit of different sonic structures. I remember feeling challenged though, because our first CD also aimed to show people what was possible with the vibraphone, and I thought it was an epic task to fit everything into a single track.

Perhaps the following anecdote will shed light on the structural thinking behind the SSL album and the effort to quieten conventional notions of gesture in the music. In finalising our album, Robbie and I would sit down on the couch with the intention of listening critically to the track and noting anything that needed changing. At the end of the track we’d slowly open our eyes, turn to each other and then smile wryly as we came to the realisation that we’d both fallen asleep sometime during the track! The third time this happened, Robbie says, “you know what? I think it’s a good thing!”

RA: Sounds like feedback but is it feedback? Interesting question and theres a good answer, but I’m not going to bore the reader as the physics of sound it’s not my expertise. Information about fundamentals, frequency etc, won’t better help you understand our process. This project is completely intuitive. The transformation was instinctive to us both. These are our principles, and if you don’t like them… well, we have others.