Michael Tenzer—Underleaf (Excerpt)
Initially putting on Let Others Name You, a new disc of compositions by Michael Tenzer, is somewhat disorienting and perhaps a great way to fool people at your next dinner party. Although born in New York City, this former Yale prof (now based at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver) writes music that is solidly grounded in Balinese gamelan traditions. If you don’t listen carefully to that first track—Unstable Center (2003) which also sports a Balinese title Puser Belah—you might think that someone at a pressing plant mixed this disc up with one of those amazing volumes of Balinese field recordings from the Nonesuch Explorer Series. However, a deeper listen reveals weird twists that don’t quite conform to the harmonic and structural details of a traditional gamelan piece. But, somehow like George Rochberg’s later string quartets which revisit 19th-century chamber music on Rochberg’s own late 20th-century terms, Tenzer creates a music that is steeped in the old in order to eke out something totally new. A musical response to the horrific terrorist attack that occurred in Bali on October 12, 2002, which claimed over 200 lives, Unstable Center uses an appropriately more chromatic and rhythmically erratic sonic palette. It reveals that the gamelan is as capable of contemporary expression as any other medium, and it’s exciting to hear that it can be as adaptable as, say, a string quartet, without losing its spirit and essence.
In fact, Tenzer, like a whole host of North American composers—e.g. the Canadian Colin McPhee (who was the first), Lou Harrison, Barbara Benary, and Evan Ziporyn immediately come to mind—has found a way to make viable contemporary American music using a gamelan. Two earlier, even more traditional sounding gamelan works of Tenzer’s—Banyuari and Situ Banda—have previously been issued by New World Records on their 1995 CD, American Works for Balinese Gamelan. When you think about it, it’s not as much of a stretch as it might seem. After all, a gamelan is no less indigenous to our shores than a string quartet or a piano. Speaking of pianos, the subsequent track, Invention and Etude (2004) is a solo piano piece. While its sonority clearly returns us to the potential comfort zone of Western contemporary classical music, for lack of a better term, it is also something quite other, being inspired by the rhythmic structures of South Indian music. Resolution (Tabuh Gari) (2007) for small orchestra and Balinese drums is perhaps the most initially Western piece on the disc, but the presence of those drums, foregrounded as they are in gamelan music, adds a somewhat disorienting element to the proceedings.
But before that seeming possible rapprochement with Western hegemony in the early 21st century, there’s the completely unmelted pot of Underleaf (Buk Katah) (2006)—a composition which, if you listen carefully, might totally blow your mind. It begins sounding like one of Philip Glass’s manic early hardcore minimalist pieces, think Part Three of Music in Twelve Parts, but something is not quite right. Ah, it’s a gamelan playing that stuff! But wait, there are all these other non-gamelan sounding instruments. Sounds somehow electronic and strangely out-of-tune, like one of the weirder tracks from Wendy Carlos’s Beauty in the Beast or Easley Blackwood’s Twelve Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media. But it’s actually all done live on acoustic instruments by musicians from Vancouver reading from a score playing brass, winds, and piano, alongside a Balinese gamelan which learned the parts the traditional way, by rote and ear. The two groups of instruments don’t quite fit together and Tenzer continually creates tensions between the two which drive the point home. Call and responses with intervals that don’t match up are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s no doubt that this piece could belong to any other tradition than the tradition which simultaneously embraces and rejects all traditions—new music!