Fitzcarraldo Goes to Bali
“Opera in the jungle”—this was the goal of the protagonist of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo who maniacally tried to pull a steamship over a mountain in Peru. He wanted to build an opera house, to bring the “expression of our deepest feelings,” or at least western civilization’s best effort at it, to the Amazon. This summer I did something much simpler, much less ambitious, and even less necessary than Herzog’s “conquest of the useless.” But Fitzcarraldo kept coming to mind. I had written an opera, and I wanted to premiere it in Bali—not exactly the jungle, but close. We performed on the steps of a temple to Saraswati, the goddess of art and culture, under the stars, in the center of Ubud, very near the spot where the events the opera depicts—Colin McPhee’s memoir A House in Bali—had taken place.
Why bring an opera to Bali? Good authority has it that no Western opera had been staged there before. This may well be the case, and given the forces involved in A House in Bali—the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a 16-piece Balinese gamelan, three opera singers, and four traditional Balinese singer/dancers—one could argue that this record is still intact: it’s some distance from La Traviata. But in Bali, unlike Fitzcarraldo’s Peru, it’s hard to see this as a problem. Bali has long had its own “opera,” in the form of arja, a parallel tradition to our own, and in its 19th-century glory very much a gesamtkunstwerk. Furthermore, the Balinese—along with myriad other Indonesian cultures—have been incorporating outside influences, instruments, and ideas into their music for centuries.
So the question really is: why perform this opera in Bali, particularly once the economy went south and our funding shriveled? The subject itself demanded it: Colin McPhee left Bali in 1938 in part because, as he said, “I will always remain the outsider.” He never came back, though in his absence he became woven into the fabric of Balinese culture, deeply influencing not just Westerners like myself, but also many Balinese scholars and musicians, in a variety of ways. In Bali, heroes and ancestors are enshrined in house temples, inscribed into paintings, and invigorated anew through performance. I felt McPhee deserved the same treatment. I think of myself as one of McPhee’s spiritual descendants—part of an ongoing line of Westerners who follow in his footsteps, a composer coming to Bali to study gamelan, and then spending the rest of my life figuring out what it has to do with my own music. So from the beginning this felt like dharma, a duty I needed to at least try to fulfill.
On top of that somewhat romantic conceit, there were pragmatic reasons: we needed to rehearse for the upcoming U.S. premiere, and it made more sense to bring ten Western musicians to Bali than to bring twenty Balinese musicians to America. And it seemed like it’d be fun—putting three opera singers and the Bang on a Can All-Stars in a room with a full Balinese gamelan and four Balinese actor/singers—and then on an open-air stage in the tropical night. What could possibly go wrong?
In the United States, Colin McPhee is frankly marginal. His music is lovingly revived on occasion, but to be honest, after Bali, he never got his career—or his life—back on track. He couldn’t seem to fully recover from his seven years in paradise. Most conductors were not interested in the overt exotica of Tabuh tabuhan, his 1936 “toccata on Balinese themes.” For the most part, they still aren’t. And possibly McPhee wasn’t either. He spoke frankly of losing his desire to write music while in Bali, and even his most beautiful post-Bali piece, the 1947 Suite in Six Movements, was “composed” somewhat passively, centering on a two-piano arrangement of Balinese transcriptions he had made during the 1930s. These are fleshed out by three other transcriptions, all delicately orchestrated in a proto-minimalist manner. But were these compositions or arrangements, and when would McPhee give up this Bali nonsense and get back to business? It’s a question he himself clearly struggled with, as evidenced by withdrawn pieces, long periods of writer’s block, and a smattering of enigmatic attempts to square the circle, to reconcile Balinese modality with modernist angularity. Various plans to return to Bali fell through, and he barely completed his magnum opus, the encyclopedic Music in Bali, only months before his death in 1964.
In Bali, though, McPhee looms large. He was the trailblazer, the first Westerner for whom distant admiration of gamelan was not enough: on the basis of a few scratchy 78s (remastered and released by World Arbiter on the CD, The Roots of Gamelan), he abandoned Paris and a promising compositional career, hopping the next steamer for Singaraja. (He was accompanied by his wife, anthropologist Jane Belo, though she is unmentioned in his book.) He wanted to document the music, which he considered doomed. “A thousand forces are at work to destroy it,” he wrote. As for the Balinese, they were “caught in a net, which is now being slowly dragged in.” Was he prescient or just pessimistic? Balinese gamelan thrives, not just in Bali but worldwide, and the distinctiveness of Balinese culture itself is a major draw for thousands of tourists annually. This may well have been exactly what McPhee feared. The Bali he knew is largely gone, or at least a lot harder to find, overrun not just by surfers and scholars but by modernity itself. While working on the opera we made the mandatory pilgrimage to the site of his house, in the village of Sayan, a few kilometers west of Ubud. When he built the house in the 1930s, the villagers had profoundly mixed feelings about having a Westerner in their midst: as soon as the house was complete, they barricaded him inside it. Now it’s a trendy emigré neighborhood, and on McPhee’s land sits a luxury hotel. After closing night, we coincidentally held the after party right next door: the view was to die for. That being said, though, this ‘famous’ view of the Ayung River—where McPhee first spotted Sampih (the boy he later adopted and schooled) bathing, and which was subsequently coveted by the Japanese ‘tourist’ Sagami at the climax of McPhee’s memoir—now overlooks guided rafting tours and the Four Seasons Resort, along the banks of the same river.
Even by his own account, McPhee’s reasons for leaving Bali in 1938 were ambiguous, a combination of factors that left him in a state of unease. War was in the air, and Sagami’s “friendly” visit creeped him out. Lèyak (ricefield ghosts) had been spotted in the vicinity. The music was changing in ways McPhee wasn’t sure he understood or approved: “[M]ore and more the new kebyars seemed to resemble each other, seemed intended only to dazzle and bewilder.” And his protégé Sampih was getting moody and unruly, “aware of his charm” and “in need of discipline.” Not mentioned in McPhee’s own writing was the Dutch colonial authority’s crackdown on “immoral behavior”—homosexuality, to be exact. Scores of white men were being rounded up, including his good friend, German painter Walter Spies, who was arrested only days after McPhee’s departure. The idyll was over; it was time to go home.
He never came back. But many of the musicians and dancers he encouraged and supported—Sampih, composer Wayan Lotring, Madé Lebah, and Anak Agung Mandera, among others—played key parts in the artistic revival of the ’50s and ’60s, forming the core of the famous Dancers of Bali who took Broadway by storm in 1952. The tour captured America’s imagination, and can be argued to have begun the modern gamelan movement in the United States. He did reunite with that group in New York, screening his 1930s film footage for them at the Museum of Natural History, but this reconnection also meant suffering through news of Sampih’s brutal murder, back in Sayan Village later that year. McPhee himself died 10 years later, never living to see the fruition of so many of the seeds he planted in Bali: the set of instruments he himself designed being featured on Nonesuch’s Gamelan of the Love God in 1972, his encyclopedia becoming a required text at the National Arts Academy in Denpasar, and this itself being emblematic of a new Balinese conscientious toward classical, archaic forms, many of which were near lost before McPhee set out to find and document them. Finally, the memoir itself, A House in Bali, is to this day prominently displayed in tourist bookshops all over the island. You can even buy it in the airport, though it’s hard to know how McPhee would feel about that.
Western composers with a commitment to Balinese music all live in McPhee’s shadow, and we all know it. He is our totem, our object lesson. In my own case, it was 1979, exactly 50 years later, and LPs rather than 78s, but the effect was the same: I started planning my trip from the first stroke of the gong on Music from the Morning of the World. When I arrived, my first kendang teacher was Madé Lebah himself, McPhee’s driver and musical scout, who told loving tales of his adventures with McPhee, searching for the ancient angklung and up-to-the-minute kebyar. But he also pointed out that he never once saw McPhee touch a gamelan instrument, and that things stopped being fun whenever McPhee started to drink. “Waktu dia minum, langsung saya pulang.” ( “When he drank, I’d go home.”)
But wait—did McPhee really never touch a gamelan? That can’t literally be true. But there’s something important about the idea: McPhee had no roadmap, no guidance for his methodology, and no exit strategy. There were no American gamelans for him to return to in 1938, no ethnomusicology departments for him to join. (When Mantle Hood began both at UCLA in the late 1950s, he immediately hired McPhee.) With the notable exception of Carlos Chávez, who commissioned Tabuh tabuhan, most of his cohort seemed to be waiting for him to get over it and return to planet Earth. McPhee internalized this conflict and never seems to have resolved it—it’s played out overtly in enigmatic late pieces like Transitions and the Third Symphony—but he seems to have spent a lot of time not writing music. Even those of us in his debt don’t want to end up living his life. He’s both a role model and a warning sign, a path to follow, but only up to a point.
Still, I’ve walked that path, even when it seemed a tightrope, following a musical course that is not necessarily bi-polar but certainly bi-hemispheric, if you will. Oscillating between the pull of two small islands, Manhattan and Bali, between Bang on a Can and Gamelan Galak Tika, I’ve long realized that I had no easy way to describe what connects the disparate musical worlds I inhabit, or to even be certain that there is a connection to describe. Like McPhee, I found more than I bargained for in Bali; also like him, I didn’t immediately know what to do about it when I returned. But because of him, I knew what not to do.
For years there was a part of me that hoped that every gamelan piece I wrote would be my last, that I’d be able to sum things up and move on. At a certain point, as my involvement with Balinese culture rounded the quarter-century mark, I began to revisit that sentiment. I continued to find depth and meaning in the sound and sensibility of Balinese music, not to mention in the musical juxtapositions themselves, what McPhee described in a different context as “jangled dissonance, merging to form constantly surprising harmonies.” For me, these map all too well to the various kinds of concords and discords—cultural, political, personal—that are implicit in the cross-cultural encounter. So I looked for a larger, all-encompassing project that would allow me to grapple with all these issues, musical and emotional, cultural and personal, on a broad palette. So when the idea of an opera about McPhee was presented to me—my mother actually dreamed it and called me on the phone, but that’s another story—I knew I had to do it, and I knew it had to be performed in Bali, before it was performed anywhere else.
The European settlers in Fitzcarraldo consider the indigenous people barbarous, people who “don’t wash their clothes…and can’t seem to be cured of the idea that our everyday life is only an illusion, behind which lies the reality of dreams.” But Fitzcarraldo understands— “I find these ideas most interesting; I myself specialize in opera.” This marks him as an eccentric, a madman. How could any cultured European find anything to admire in indigenous life? Of course, for westerners in Bali, the situation is entirely reversed. We stand in awe of Balinese culture, its refinement, its history, its pervasive presence in everyday life, and we’re baffled when friends back home don’t get it or even appreciate it with sufficient ardor. Even in America, for anyone who pays attention, it’s difficult to remain oblivious to the virtuosity and elegance of Balinese performance. More difficult to grasp is what it provides for the Balinese: a constant reification of purpose and space, a sense of what happened here which, once understood, is extremely difficult to forget.
Many forms of Balinese theater—including the classical wayang wong (‘human puppets’) and masked topeng— concern babad, stories of Balinese historical figures, heroic kings and prime ministers. These stories are presented to a people who not only believe in reincarnation but know who they were in their past lives. So these dramas aren’t about ancient Danes and Greeks, they’re about your friends and neighbors—they’re about you. A topeng dancer doesn’t play a role; when he dons the mask he becomes the character. By comparison, method acting is like playing dress up in the attic, or possibly an attempt to recapture this essential aspect of the dramatic impulse. Etched into this embodiment—on an almost molecular level—is the synergistic movement of dance and music, so entwined in energy and purpose that, until modern times, the Balinese didn’t bother distinguishing between them. As McPhee himself wrote for a New York Times preview of the Dancers of Bali tour of 1952, “In Bali dance and music are interwoven in daily life like gold threads in a fabric.”
The word bali means “offering”—which is to say that for the Balinese, life itself is devotional, with art simply one of the means. Performance—in the right context—cleanses and sanctifies, a notion that seems vestigial in all of us, any time we invest ourselves in a live performance. Sanctifying the moment, reanimating a historical character who has been whittled to his essence through similar performances over decades, centuries: this to me connects to Wagner, and before that to Sophocles. This is not manifest in any particular performance quality—in affect, rhetoric, implied ethic, whatever. There’s not necessarily any correlative there, no essential overlap in the ways these very different cultures do things.
The emotions and ideas that are expressed in Balinese theater are specific to Balinese culture in general, to the specific character being portrayed, and to the individuals doing the portrayal. But there’s a wholeness and an honesty to the presentation: we are seeing a representation of the complete package, who this person is or what this situation is to the performer. In writing A House in Bali, I imposed the same standard on myself, at least made my best effort at it, using my own artistic language to present the full picture of McPhee as I understand or interpret him. In this opera his virtues and his flaws needed to be drawn in high relief.
I initially went to Bali only for the music, having had my own conversion experience in 1979 with a recording, Music from the Morning of the World, while restocking LPs in Festoon’s Records in New Haven. I was at the time only dimly aware of—or interested in—other aspects of Balinese culture other than gamelan. What drew me had nothing to do with cultural context and everything to do with the abrupt, syncopated accents, precise and seemingly nonchalant, that by comparison made Le Sacre seem utterly passé. I spent the following summer as an ex-post-hippie in Oakland, playing with the newly-formed Gamelan Sekar Jaya, and while I furiously devoured interlocking rhythmic patterns, I silently realized that I was bored stiff by the endless dance dramas and masked dances these patterns were accompanying in performance. The dance itself I could admire for all the obvious reasons, but the drama made no sense to me whatsoever. And this didn’t really bother me.
But days after my first arrival in Bali, in 1981, I was taken to a new dance drama based on the puputan, the ceremonial mass suicide of the royal families that ushered in the colonial era in the early 20th century. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember much about the event beyond that—not the location, the occasion, the title, etc. Nor do I remember the composer, the performers, or the choreographer. I do remember it as my first experience of real Balinese ramé, the noisy business that’s the mark of a successful event: the standard Bali crowd scene, goat saté and coffee stands, plastic tschatkes for the kids, the smell of kretek cigarettes, etc. The crowd didn’t seem to be paying too much attention to the performance; they tuned it in and out as they liked— “hearing but not hearing,” as McPhee put it—but the performers didn’t seem to mind. Because Balinese performance is devotional—in the temple, for an unseen, divine audience—the rapt attention of mere mortals isn’t that high a priority in almost any circumstance. This in itself was liberating to me, coming from the western concert world and the inner demands a respectable classical nerd places on oneself. Unforgivable not to follow the progression of a piece with rapt attention from beginning to end! Even a moment of spacing out proves one’s unworthiness. It was a relief to be rid of that burden, even more when watching an extended dance drama in a language I didn’t understand. Here one could flow with the event; it made no demands on the psyche in that way: we were all present, with the music, and attention would be paid when attention was captured. So there was no need to be bored or frustrated as I might have been had I been sitting in a chair, watching an incomprehensible performance, and most likely simply meditating on jetlag, mosquito bites, and other ontological topics.
When my attention was captured, the extended moment redefined all my ideas about music and theater. This was the climactic moment itself, when the members of the Badung court approached their adversaries, the Dutch army. The music had reduced itself to a single note ostinato, on-off-on-off, over a short gong cycle and intense, highly syncopated drumming. The dynamics tracked directly to the emotional pitch of the confrontation itself: soft until the dancers went into a frenzy, then surging quickly to fortissimo as each individual dancer turned his or her magical kris knife on him or herself. Nothing would change except the volume, which would just as quickly return to pianissimo. Let’s be clear: this music was not “interesting” in any way I would have ordinarily used the term up until that point. It’s not the passage one would choose to talk about in a graduate seminar. A transcription would have shown 4/4, no melody or harmonic movement, nothing irregular. Why would one travel across the world to study that? (In fact, one of my revered composition teachers at the time, now sadly deceased, had before I left asked me, “It’s not all in 4/4, is it?”) But it worked, in a way that made the calculated connotations of that verb seem trivial. It cut through everything, went straight to the heart of the matter, the primality of the gesture itself. I was overcome by this sheer directness, this lack of ornament within this highly ornamented musical rhetoric—no tragic tune, no Adagio for Strings, a continuum between sound and story (they were one and the same), between history and the present moment. As I later learned (cf. Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theater State of Nineteenth Century Bali), it was likely that the actual participants in the historical event, having elevated themselves into a trance state, would have been in similar dress, moving in a similar manner, to the sounds of gongs and drums. So what was happening, while highly stylized, was very much a reenactment, almost an embodiment.
I saw this, I admired it, I got it. It stayed with me as something to strive for in my own work. And yet, like McPhee, I was still a bystander, feeling it, but also watching the Balinese feeling it more. Or at least believing that was the case because, really, how would I know what “the Balinese” felt? But even the awareness of that likelihood was a kind of buffer. Westerners always experience Balinese performance at one remove—in Bali, on site, we are the outsiders; but even in America, every few years, when one group or another tours, these performers are the exoticized other, cordoned off and framed. We can observe but we can’t truly participate, even when we’re in the center of the action. Don’t get me wrong, there are frames aplenty in Balinese performance—strictures about appropriate context, what can and cannot be done where, when and for whom—but it’s different somehow; the frames are so ingrained that an individual has freedom of movement. The screen of the wayang delineates front and back, but the viewer can watch from either side of it. More to the point is that direct spiritual link. I believe McPhee craved it, for his own music and for his own life. He witnessed it, and for a time got inside it, built a house in the thick of it. For whatever reason, he couldn’t completely give in to it. It seems he never recovered from having to give it up, or not being able to make others understand. Or maybe I’m projecting this onto him because I crave it, too. In either case, that story—his story, which in this way, at least, is also my story—was the one I wanted to tell in this babad, this living history. I wanted to tell the story of my own artistic ancestor, presenting my understanding of him as fully as I could: his accomplishments, his failures, his strengths, and his very human weaknesses.
McPhee’s presence in Sayan caused a near-riot: at one point the villagers barricaded him in his house, essentially for building violations: making his driveway a little too wide, digging up shrubbery that didn’t belong to him. Like most people in the world, the Balinese have in general preferred outside influences to enter by osmosis and accrual, rather than by abrupt imposition. Until the 20th century, Bali was relatively isolated from outside influence, but we know that its music changed as instruments and ideas seeped over from Java and China. (Don’t make too much of this, but as more of the 1928 recordings are unearthed, it is reasonably argued that early kebyar was influenced—at least slightly—by the look and sound of Dutch military bands.) Once McPhee was accepted in Sayan, his neighbors were more than happy to accept his patronage and artistic advice, and this marks a moment in which there begins to be nascent cultural exchange, albeit in an advisory, behind-the-scenes context. The two signal international Balinese performance events of the 20th century, the kecak dance and the 1952 Dancers of Bali tour, also had their Svengalis. Each was the brainchild of a Western émigré, Walter Spies and John Coast respectively, both of whom can rightfully be considered co-creators.
Still, until the 1980s, the performers of Balinese music and dance—and this will probably seem tautological—were Balinese musicians and dancers. There were a handful of Balinese gamelans in America, but we kept mostly to ourselves until 1985, when Michael Tenzer led the Bay Area’s Sekar Jaya to the Bali Arts Festival. That performance, televised island-wide, created a genuine stir in Bali, just by the fact that we were playing gamelan at all; this genuinely shocked many people. Not just bagaimana (‘how?’) but kenapa (why?!?!). Why would these Westerners, who could have chosen to do anything, choose to do this? That moment, too, has passed. By now, most Balinese have figured it out: we find their culture pretty special. So today, in Bali 2009, the cross-cultural as such barely raises an eyebrow. While we were there this summer, the Arts Festival presented director Lynn Kremer’s Mimpi, with dancers and actors from Bali and America, and music for gamelan and cello by Desak Madé Suarti Laksmi; just down the road, at the Purnati Institute in the village of Mas, the Kronos Quartet workshopped a new work for strings and Javanese instruments by Ruhayu Supanggah.
Still, putting two tenors and a lyric soprano in front of a bunch of teenaged gamelan boys, and doing so within earshot of the Ubud market on a daily basis, felt like virgin territory. Our intrepid lead singer, Marc Molomot, more or less literally stepped off the plane from New York and into rehearsal with Gamelan Salukat, the group of young men that Dewa Ketut Alit had assembled to learn the music. Thankfully, Marc understood immediately that the ongoing laughter and imitations (15 Balinese boys singing “Figaro” during every break in the rehearsal) was a form of fascinated flattery. I’ve been prone to such behavior myself, and in fact, before this piece I’ve never been particularly comfortable writing for the operatic voice. I should confess here that I’m not really an opera lover, though I’ve had my share of epiphanies in the opera house. Before this piece, like a sizable contingent of my cohort (and you know who you are…), I had found the trained Western voice to be alienating, artificial, something that is ultimately not part of me or my music. This is not to say I didn’t have admiration for particular singers or hadn’t been moved by particular performances—when Fitzcarraldo puts Caruso on the Victrola, I feel it, believe me. But it didn’t seem part of my own musical vocabulary. On the other hand, the Western voice that does speak to me—the voice of pop music—also doesn’t sit very easily on the written score. Those of us in this position are, I think, continually looking for neutral territory—early music singers, for example—or for that holy grail, the pop singer who reads, a cross between Caruso and Cobain. Or, as in my case, up until a few years ago, we just avoid the subject, and don’t write much for voice. But for this project, in this context, for reasons I didn’t at first understand, I found myself strangely comfortable with the artifice of the lyric tenor, far more than I had in other pieces, where I had tried to place the trained Western voice in its indigenous environment, i.e., accompanied by Western instruments.
The Western singers were only half the story: the Balinese characters in the opera sang in their traditional style, an equally rarefied, specialized, and expressive practice, but in a completely different way—as far from Fischer-Dieskau and Beverly Sills as are Tom Waits and Bessie Smith. Vocal music is central in Balinese musical culture, as it is in the West, though you wouldn’t know this from reading McPhee, who turned a blind eye to it: singing goes almost completely unmentioned in all of Music in Bali. In conceiving the opera, I felt immediately that the juxtaposing these two vocal styles was at the heart of the matter. This felt necessary on every level—culturally, dramatically, and formally. And it was this juxtaposition that cut through my own complex relationship with operatic vocal style. Putting it together with an equally florid style that was utterly different, removed the burden of believing either to be somehow “natural” or inherently expressive, instead making their very artifice—their respective culture-specificness—the source of their beauty and power. It would make them—in the best possible sense— strange, as strange to the audience as McPhee must have seemed to the villagers of Sayan, and vice versa. The idea being that in hearing a lyric tenor with a gamelan, or a Balinese kekawin with an electric guitar, the orchid-like flamboyance of both might just be revealed.
Many of the real Fitzcarraldo aspects of the operation all had to do with production, but I’d rather not dwell on any of that now. In short, the economy hit us as it hit everyone else, leaving my original collaborators, who had midwifed the piece tirelessly and nobly, and who at times probably believed in it more than I did, sidelined and out of the picture. This all went down in late April, less than two months before the scheduled trip to Bali, which as mentioned was necessary if for no other reason than to prepare for the U.S. premiere in Berkeley this September. No Bali, no Berkeley. So I called in every marker I’ve garnered over my professional life—you don’t need to know the details, but suffice it to say every member of the production was approached on bended knee. And they all agreed to come along for the ride, in every case at some personal sacrifice. Two angels swooped down from heaven to close the funding gap, and Christine Southworth (of Ensemble Robot) and Kenny Savelson (of Bang on a Can) took over the production reins. Suddenly, the trip was back on, and we figured that if we were going to go to Bali to rehearse, we might as well go forward with the performance, in front of Saraswati’s temple, even without such niceties as sets, lighting, or a production crew.
Every day in Bali brought new surprises, the good outweighing the bad just enough for us to keep going. Anne Harley, the soprano cast as Margaret Mead, agreed to stage the piece and serve as general ringmaster, and she somehow found a way to reconcile a tight production schedule with the Balinese concept of jam karet (rubber time). Rehearsals could apparently only be planned on a day to day basis, and even then in the broadest possible increments, “late afternoon” as opposed to a specific time. A temple ceremony or tooth filing could throw one of our drivers out of commission for three days at a time, and we’d only be informed of this when he didn’t arrive for a pickup, and then only if he left his cellphone on. One of my favorite Balinese words is buung (not happening) which can be more or less invoked at any time, for any reason. It’s a complete explanation, and one need delve no further. What happened to lunch for the cast? Buung. Why didn’t that videographer show up on opening night? Buung. But these were more than offset by all the things that went right, all the extra efforts that we really had no reason to expect.
The biggest hero by any measure was Dewa Ketut Alit, himself a brilliant composer, who led the gamelan and taught them to play the two-hour score by memory in my absence. They learned it over the spring from mp3 files, using transcription shareware, which I had convinced Alit would be more useful than the Radio Shack cassette deck he had planned on using. I had heard they were “having trouble,” which could have meant anything. So I arrived in Bali not knowing what to expect, and hoping they’d at least have learned some small fraction of the score. But they had learned three quarters of it, and that they knew better than I did. This kind of thing goes a long way, at least for me. It carried me through the discovery that the curator of the space—the scion of the Ubud royal family—had forgotten we were even coming, and that on being reminded he’d asked if we’d mind terribly if a novelty act—a deaf Balinese dancer, unheard of, and I’m sure quite wonderful in the right context—joined the cast for “just one number.” Or when we found out we had no sound system or generator, and that three of our four Balinese performers had double booked the dates. Or the medical situation: our soprano being hit with what seemed to be swine flu; our violinist arriving and getting Bali belly within 48 hours, our intern/accompanist/prompter’s infected blister rendering him unable to walk for several days. And don’t get me started on the strange coin-sized sores that began covering my own body during the second week. The gamelan rehearsals were the saving grace: whatever else had gone wrong at any particular time, those three hours each day made it all worth it.
Christine and I arrived in early June, spending our afternoons and evenings in rehearsal with the gamelan and our mornings in searches and negotiations for music stands, stage lights, props, etc. The Western singers trickled in one by one and we began staging the piece in a house we had rented for them, overlooking a still-unrafted gorge in very remote village of Sebali, as remote from present day Ubud sprawl as McPhee’s house had been from the tiny village 75 years ago. The house was equal parts gorgeous and dangerous: amazing what you can do without an enforceable building code. The living room simply opened up onto the gorge without a railing: one missed step would literally result in a fatal plunge, though this did make the singers admirably surefooted in performance.
While staging took place in Sebali, gamelan rehearsals continued in the central Ubud home of Cokorda Putra, a musician relative of the royal family who had also loaned us his instruments. The sound and tuning of the set was unlike any I had ever heard in Bali, and Cok Putra explained that they had been designed by his father, “using a guitar and a trumpet.” I never quite figured out what that had entailed, but I did realize immediately what it meant: however I felt about the sound, this was the set we were using. And it was, in fact, gorgeous, unusual, voluptuous, and resonant. It was also a good minor third away from the tuning I’d had in mind, and with different interval sizes to boot. I had written the piece assuming some degree of variation in the tuning of the gamelan, but presumed that I’d be able to find a set that was more or less in the ballpark. This was partly practical, as there’s no standard tuning in the tradition. The prevalent modes are more like families than formulae, recognizable by traits, resemblances, contexts. The only way to ensure a certain tuning is to insist on it, to build your own instruments a la Partch or Lou Harrison, or else be prepared to take the same set with you anywhere you go. This wouldn’t be a huge expense for, say, the Metropolitan Opera or a major festival, but for us small-timers, it’s out of the question.
Cok Putra clearly loved these instruments, and, given the avuncular interest he’d taken in the project, I knew even looking for alternatives would have not just insulted him but broken his heart. He came to every rehearsal, sitting quietly on the edge of the pavilion. When we rehearsed at night he came in his pajamas. Compared to this, throwing the entire tonal scheme of my opera into disarray was a small price to pay. So I just chalked it up to the magic of Bali. Using these instruments was fate, it would either sound much, much better or much, much worse, and I’d just have to wait with everyone else to find out.
Tuning is, of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room any time you combine gamelan with Western instruments. It really is fitting square pegs into round holes, and even should a composer or performers choose to ignore the resulting discrepancies, I can assure you an audience does not. I say this from experience. We all “know” that Western tuning is a compromise, a conscious sacrifice of modality in favor of modularity, but I myself never really understood what this meant until, years ago, I gave rudimentary piano lessons to Nyoman Windha, a Balinese composer who was then in residence with Sekar Jaya. At that time he was largely unfamiliar with Western music, though he’s since received an M.A. in composition from Mills College and written very beautifully for his own hybrid ensembles. But this was first contact. I explained transposition to him, demonstrating it by plunking out an approximation of pelog, which I then modulated into a variety of different keys. “I get it,” he finally exclaimed, “You have a dozen pelogs, and they all sound equally bad!”
The tuning problem does, however, have the virtue of salience; it’s right there on the surface, not possible to ignore. I have my own ways of dealing with it compositionally, in my mind it’s almost a jiu jitsu thing, leveraging it to the music’s advantage, even when a monkey wrench is thrown into the equation. More on that in a moment. But equally intriguing are the deeper discrepancies, the parsing of time, the shaping of a phrase, and, most of all, what it means to play as an ensemble. In all of these areas, good Balinese gamelans need bow to no group on earth, anyone can hear this on dozens of recordings. But they seldom play “steady time,” nor do they try to. Kebyar is like a Chopin ballade on speed, played in unison by a group of 25. Time flows, moving with the moment. In my opera I called on the Bang on a Can All-Stars to lock in with this, and they rose to this challenge; but I also called on the young gamelan players to do the opposite, to lock into David Cossin’s rock-steady drum grooves, or to accompany Todd Reynolds’ violin, and this proved to be equally daunting challenge. They had an easier time playing interlocking parts in a breakneck acceleration than in staying in a medium 4/4 lockstep. It’s not technique, but rather sensibility: from their point of view, why would a group choose to play metronomically, to actually aspire to automatism?
I had designed the music to reify the dramatic course of the piece: two separate types of music, which gradually come together, find a temporary synthesis, and then diffuse. I also felt it important to establish each ensemble autonomously, to not have the Western instrument be part of the gamelan or vice versa. Over the course of two hours, I tried to find appropriate ways to conceptualize and realize the relationship between the two ensembles, the two cultures. I hoped this would make the juxtapositions—narrative and musical, technical and expressive—clear and meaningful.
It so happened, however, that the music we first rehearsed together on that first full day was from smack dab in the middle of the opera, where everyone is playing all at once, on more or less equal footing. Imagine that moment when the car radio is on scan and you hit on something that sounds utterly incomprehensible, utter chaos, and five seconds later you realize it’s an Abba tune, only this time it was Ives’ Fourth Symphony, and those five seconds never ended. We slogged through, and everyone put their best face forward, but as the composer, hearing my work complete for the first time, I was dying inside. Cacophony! I had worked for years for this? I had put my faith in the gods, trusting them to have assigned us Cok Putra’s gamelan for a reason, and the gods had let me down. Clearly I had offended them, or more likely they were just onto me. In any case, this was going to be highly embarrassing, a very long week.
Maybe it didn’t sound quite that bad to the musicians, maybe they were being polite, or paying attention to something else (their own parts, for example). No one seemed as freaked out as I was, and in any case, it wouldn’t have been the first time they had played crappy contemporary music. So the moment passed without incident, and though I was broken inside, beyond suicidal, I proposed that since we were just getting to know each other, maybe we should just play through the first three scenes, where, in turn, the All-Stars play alone, accompanying McPhee, then the gamelan plays alone, accompanying two Balinese dancers, and then the two groups finally start to play together as McPhee’s house gets built on stage. What followed was quite possibly the most inspiring 30 minutes of my life, watching each group play for and react to the other. And by the end of it, to my ears at least, the two tunings together sounded great.
You need to understand: I didn’t come to gamelan 30 years ago with the idea of composing for it. In fact, it was the opposite: I came to gamelan to get away from composition altogether, at least for a certain portion of every day. Again, in this there’s a McPhee parallel. He returned to Paris in 1932 and could write no music—this was a problem. But when he came back to Bali shortly thereafter, he no longer cared, he didn’t want to write music anymore, and this only became a problem after he came home and tried to resume his career. In my case, it was neither so binary nor so problematic, but I recognize the syndrome. If you’re a composer, you probably know what I’m talking about. Almost all of us, at least as far as I can tell, experience or at least remember experiencing that anxiety—dare I say it?—of influence. We start writing music for whatever reason, there can be many, but in our culture the composer is the genius, the great man, you’re either Beethoven or you’re wasting your time. And you don’t get to find out until it’s too late. And at a certain point, you realize what a ridiculously high mountain you’re trying to climb, and every moment in front of the computer (or, back in the day, in front of Judy Green vellum) is imbued on some level with stress. You’re desperate to get over it, get beyond it, get back to what made you write music in the first place, whatever that was.
What’s more, once one is in this state, even listening to music becomes burdensome, part of that matrix. What can I learn from this piece? Is my music better or worse? Why didn’t I think of that? Do I deserve to be in the same club as this guy? Have I earned my membership card, or am I just a poseur? But with gamelan, I had no such worries—here was the coolest music I’d ever heard, and it had nothing to do with me! No one expected me to live up to it, to aspire to it, to outdo it. I was free to experience it, learn from it, without feeling any pressure to subsume it into an expression of my own hoped-for genius. Of course, this is the inverse of the alienated outsider feelings I described above—in a way, you can’t have one without the other—so I’m not complaining or extolling, it’s just how it was.
As a result, I studied gamelan for close to ten years before I began to compose for it, mostly in combination with Western instruments. I did this not primarily because I felt the need to hear this combination of sounds—though that would certainly be reason enough—but because after those ten years of blissful apartness, in that respect at least, I began to realize that Balinese music—the sensibility issues discussed above—had seeped into me, at least to some subjective degree. I had spent a lot of time with this music, more than I had spent with Western music when I began composing at age 14. How much longer could I avoid this and still feel that I was bringing everything I had to the table?
Musically and programmatically, I wanted to explore issues of identity and difference, personal and cultural. I wrote Aneh Tapi Nyata for Sekar Jaya to bring to Bali in 1992 because I wanted the group to have a piece that truly demonstrated who we were—Westerners who played mandolin and flute, electric guitar and cello as well as Balinese gamelan. After the 2002 Bali bombing, I wrote Ngaben (“Cremation”) for gamelan and orchestra as a meditation and memorial. I wrote Shadow Bang to provide a vehicle for Balinese puppeteer I Wayan Wija, so that American audiences could possibly experience his artistry directly, in a Western context, rather than filtered through the frame of exoticism and otherness.
This desire to bring musical worlds together extends inward, to the experience of the collaborators themselves. I have played with the All-Stars since 1992, but none of them had been to Bali. They’d all listened to gamelan, of course, but they hadn’t really listened to it, because it didn’t have anything to do with them. The members of Gamelan Salukat know some Western music—they live in the world and hear it on the radio, some even play guitar or drums or whatever—but they similarly hadn’t ever thought of this music as having anything to do with them directly. Sitting in a room together, on a 90-degree day in the center of Ubud, with jackhammers outside the window (they wanted to get the building done before the premiere, a nice touch, given the story of the opera), playing two pieces that were composed to bookend one another, these two amazing ensembles listened to each other in a way they had never listened to these respective types of music before. And something happened, something we all felt. We connected; the room vibrated. Being the composer and instigator, I like to think that this has something to do with what I wrote. But it doesn’t really matter, I’m happy enough to have been there to witness it.
In a way, everything after that was gravy. Certainly there continued to be ups and downs, unsolvable crises and more divine intervention. There’s a melodrama to production week that seems to be universal; it doesn’t matter if you’re doing a high school musical (or doing High School Musical for that matter) or putting on an opera in Bali. Watch Topsy Turvy or Shakespeare in Love—you’ll get the general idea. Then the performance happens, and if one is open to it, one can seize the moment and feel the vestigial magic, that connection to the sacralized moment that is so present in every moment of Balinese life.
Before the first performance, the entire company went to the temple together to pray and be blessed by a Balinese priest. This is a kind of “Simon Says” situation, but even without a specific god to pray to, it’s a moment of togetherness and meditation. Its meaning is malleable but tangible: the temple itself was also our dressing room, and before the second performance, as I shot the breeze with the temple custodian, I noticed our lead dancer, Dewi Aryani, who among other things had danced for Robert Wilson and made several music videos, slipping off to a corner to pray on her own—nothing unusual about that, but I also noticed our cellist, Felix Fan, slipping off to another corner with his wife Amaty to do the same thing.
Conducting my own music, as performed by my favorite musicians, in a space that had so much to do with the shape of my adult life, and that happened to be a temple to the Goddess of Art to boot, one would have to be pretty hard on oneself not to find this a peak experience. The only thing that could possibly ruin it—as with every outdoor performance—would be the weather. And like an admonishing finger from above, a cluster of storm clouds literally circled around the island on both performance dates, always within site but never directly overhead. I was assured by Nyoman Catra—the master masked dancer who had cofounded Galak Tika with me in 1993, and who had restaged the crowd scenes at my behest two days earlier, an old hoofer if there ever was one—that it couldn’t possibly rain. All I could do was take this on faith: even with a drop of rain we’d have risked electrocution and had to cancel. And five minutes before curtain, I saw a drop on the plastic cover sheet of my score.
But Catra was right, or the gods had made their point with the circling clouds. On both nights the rain held off until literally moments after the performance, just long enough to clear the stage and cover the electrical equipment. On the last night we all rode up to a cast party, hosted by new friends in a ‘villa’ on Sayan ridge itself, a stone’s throw from McPhee’s house site. Staring across the river, where McPhee himself had seen the lights of the lèyak demons, Nyoman Usadhi, the 13-year-old who played McPhee’s protégé Sampih, saw the lights of the Four Seasons Resort. “Is that a hotel?” he asked…
Composer/clarinetist Evan Ziporyn is a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, with whom he has toured the globe since 1992, as well as the Founder and Artistic Director of Boston’s Gamelan Galak Tika, a group dedicated to new music for Balinese gamelan, which he has studied for almost 30 years. His music has been commissioned and performed by the Kronos Quartet, Wu Man, the American Composers Orchestra, the American Repertory Theater, Maya Beiser, So Percussion, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, with whom he recorded his 2006 orchestral CD, Frog’s Eye. Since 1990, he has composed a series of cross-cultural works, combining gamelan with saxophones, guitars, electronics, Chinese and African instruments, and full orchestra.