Friday, January 06, 2006

beta (gong bangs)

Right before the Christmas holidays, I had the rare opportunity to check out a Balinese gamelan recital at the Indonesian consulate, thus reliving my own time spent playing with a gamelan (though my experience is with the more subtle seductive everflow of the Javanese strain). Now, I could waste my time talking about how the orchestral gamelan music of Indonesia (a bit redundant, as the word gamelan merely denotes ensemble; my program also notes that the four Indonesian words to enter into English usage are amok, orangutan, gong, and uh...ketchup) broke open whole new vistas for European composers and musicians as diverse as Debussy, Harry Partch, Steve Reich, Lou Harrison, Aphex Twin, and Four Tet, but why not just hijack John Fahey’s explanation from How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life instead?

“Gamelans are large ensembles of idiophones and metalophones. Instruments which you hit…as far as I’m concerned, there is no music more beautiful than Gamelan music…I could tell you lots of things about gamelans. But I don’t want to waste time. One thing, though. Gamelans are not tuned the way Western instruments are tuned…they are not built so that they are exactly in tune…and so when you hear a gamelan, all the ‘phones give off a shimmering effect…the tonality is strange but quite beautiful and very soon you find yourself seduced by the tones.”

First coming across Golden Rain in the mid-90s connected my high school love of Sonic Youth’s dissonant looming blooms to the mathematical patter of Steve Reich and breakbeats. Finding out that my alma mater was soon acquisitioning the largest, most complete orchestra of five-tone and seven-tone scaled instruments for a Javanese gamelan in the United States had me lined up to play in the ensemble the first day of the semester, nevermind that I was neither a folklorist nor musicologist and had to fight to get into the class (for the record, the ensemble also included future members of Charalambides and Black Lipstick). I just wanted to learn for myself how such music can be created, to see the mechanics behind the magical spell, to be in the room with those immense four-foot cast iron gongs and to feel the vibrations of the struck metal as it permeated the entire room and buzzed my body. To constantly remember that music is first and foremost a vibration.

Gamelan was described in our concert program as comparable to only two things: “Moonlight and flowing water; it is pure and mysterious like moonlight and always changing like flowing water.” As beginners, we learned that the music is a division of labor and is segmented into quarters like most Western music, the instrumentation in different ratios: sixteenths, eighths, while the bulk of the metalophones play quarters and gongs bong on the one.

Simple mathematics and deceptively easy to hammer at (how could this not have arisen out of the industrial revolution, I wondered) but as Fahey notes about the tuning, the bowls, pots, and gongs ring out with slightly-off frequencies, a roiling effect created as tones merge and shimmer. As we worked, my master (Rasito Rasito, we called him, unable to pronounce his three other last names) would slowly draw one section to flow faster, while another would slow their pace ever so slightly, giving a tidal motion to the proceedings as we slid to and fro. Even only playing one note per measure on the kemong (which nestles at the midway point between gong hits), I found it excruciatingly easy to get swept downstream by the undertow and constant flow of the gamelan, quickly caught up and disoriented in the coruscating sound.

As an untrained musician, or at least enough of one to quickly unlearn whatever I picked up on piano and guitar in just a few years, what struck me (ha!) about playing gamelan and instruments like the saron demung is that it's not just about striking a note but erasing it before you strike the next in succession. As the mallet comes down on the next note, your other hand snuffs out the previous one. It’s very tidy, the gamelan is, one hand creating, the other destroying. Think “Erased De Kooning.”

Stuck to the recordings, and the academic rote-practicing of gamelan, the role of the music in Indonesian society was lost on me, and seeing the Gamelan Dharma Swara perform with dancers showed what other nuances were previously lost on my ears, or what is lost without the eyes and body. Female dancers perform intricate though minute variations with their fingers and foot placement, and eyes denote turns in the rhythmic patterns. That boom-bap that you always hear in the Balinese variant on the gamelan, with sudden explosions of percussion are sparked off by the widening of eyes.

While the consulate does offer workshops for outsiders (re: offays) that are hypnotized by the sounds of the gamelan and want to participate, I demured from taking up the mallets again. Not that the concert experience wasn’t a pleasant one (it was, though the complimentary dumplings served tasted like mothballs and the gooey orange sweet tasted salty instead), but I get lost in the noise just crossing the street these days.


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