Sunday, May 10, 2009

ERGODOS Day 2: Gamelan Sekar Petak

As you know, Gamelan is this type of music from Indonesia that involves people banging away at bamboo xylophones and what look suspiciously like upturned pots and pans. The various instruments meld together to create an overall sound that sounds almost electronic, despite being played on acoustic instruments. While we use Gamelan to describe this type of music, and also the type of ensemble that makes it, I have the idea that out in Indonesia the term actually just denotes one of the instruments.

One of Gamelan's special features is that it is the only non-Western music to transmit serious influences into classical music. This might say more about the nature of Western classical music than about the intrinsic worth of Gamelan. Some other non-Western forms of music have the kind of structure and complexity than makes them akin to classical music, but they are heavily based on improvisation by solo performers (I am thinking here of Indian or Arabic music). This makes them unappealing to those weaned on our classical music's traditions of one person composing for others to play. With Gamelan, ensembles play pre-existing pieces of music, with relatively little scope for improvisation, so it is that bit more conceptually familiar.

Tonight Ergodos was giving us Gamelan based music, and had brought over the Gamelan Sekar Petak orchestra from York to play it for us. Unlike the Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh concert, this was in a backroom of the National Concert Hall (something that looked suspiciously like a small UCD lecture room). The programme started with a stroke of genius, a conceptual piece called 'Anyone Can Play', credited to Jody Diamond. One of the festival organisers invited random members of the audience to come onstage and play with the crazy Gamelan instruments in any way they could. This led to a veritable stampede of music students, the survivors of which got to bang away in a manner that evoked the Langley Schools Music Project, until a member of the orchestra came up behind them, tapped them on the shoulder and said "Thank you". Once the impostors had all been disposed of, the orchestra launched into a Javanese Gamelan piece about the joys of fishing.

After that, the orchestra played a number of pieces composed for Gamelan by various composers. These were all enjoyable, but a fundamental problem emerged. Basically, the best music for Gamelan seems to be traditional Indonesian compositions, and the modern compositions tended to be most interesting when they were most closely aping the sound of traditional Gamelan. The Javan pieces sound like nothing else in the world, while crazy modern compositions played by a Gamelan orchestra sound not that different to crazy modern compositions played by the more usual Western ensembles. This led me to think that a concert where a Gamelan orchestra played loads of Javanese tunes (with a couple of Balinese ones thrown in for the weirdos who prefer that school of Gamelan) would be far more enjoyable than one based on new compositions by Whitey.

One of the modern pieces I did especially like, however, was Jody Diamond's 'In the Bright World'. This was partly an arrangement of the American folk tune 'Wayfaring Stranger', and it featured beautiful vocals from local mezzo-soprano Michelle O'Rourke. It also went into a Gamelan workout towards the end that sounded very like one of the pieces from the Nonesuch Explorer series record The Jasmine Isle: Gamelan Music.

Gamelan Panda

No comments: