The Asian Connection

Villagers wade into the ocean in pursuit of a magical music coming from the waves. Thought to be a gift from the sea god, the music comes from gamelan instruments, which are carried from the water and first played when a bird from heaven teaches several melodies to the Indonesians. With colorful tales like this, who wouldn’t be attracted to gamelan?

Gamelan is a word that refers to an ensemble whose core instrumentation consists of metallophones and gongs. Found in different forms throughout the Indonesian islands, the specific orchestration and size of an ensemble is not standardized. Gamelans vary widely from large, ornately decorated, bronze-keyed orchestras of a palace to smaller, simpler, iron-keyed sets in the countryside. The instruments that comprise a gamelan are housed together, and are usually owned by a royal court, local village or club. In the United States this translates to gamelan ensembles found primarily in universities and some consulates. Dennis Murphy‘s doctoral dissertation on how to build a gamelan, also generated and inspired a variety of homemade versions. And so Indonesian arts in America–which include dance and puppetry traditions along with music–have developed without sizeable immigrant communities or popular media to encourage its transmission.

American musicians have different reasons for playing gamelan music. Some are drawn to the sonic beauty and hypnotic effect of its rich overtones while others appreciate the structural devices such as colotomic patterns or stylistic characteristics such as interlocking parts. Many enjoy playing the traditional repertoires from the islands of Java and Bali; others prefer to create their own pieces.

Lou Harrison has been involved in playing and composing gamelan music for many years. “Absorbed as I am in the beauty of gamelan, in learning and playing, murmuring new pieces for it all the time, I am also aware that others, many others, join me in this very happy love.” Harrison is “gloriously grateful that I came to it in time to enjoy for the rest of my life.”

In a 1983 issue of EAR Magazine dedicated to Indonesian Arts in America, Marc Perlman wrote: “I am interested in the American and European new music scene, but I never had the slightest desire to compose new music for gamelan.” He considers himself a “purist” and is focused on playing traditional Javanese gamelan. Others share his view and many universities use their ensemble exclusively for traditional musics.

But Western composers have been inspired by gamelan music since the time of Debussy and there is an active American gamelan tradition in which new pieces are composed and performed regularly. Some of Harrison’s pieces for gamelan were recently performed for choreographer Mark Morris. Morris–who uses only live music – employed the Gamelan Son of Lion, who specialize in new American gamelan music to play Harrison’s pieces on their homemade gamelan, at times mixing with a trumpet and harp soloist at the BAM Opera House. In addition to Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell and Harry Partch were strongly influenced by the music of Indonesia. And Virgil Thomson, Mantle Hood, and Alan Hovhaness have also written for gamelan ensembles.

Traditional and homemade gamelans built from various materials such as steel, aluminum, saw blades, and hubcaps have been used by composers Philip Corner, Daniel Schmidt, Peter Zummo, David Doty, Tom Johnson, Peter Griggs, Barbara Benary, Daniel Goode, David Simons, Patrick Grant, Kent Devereaux, Ingram Marshall, Evan Ziporyn, Jody Diamond, and Paul Dresher, among many others. The Gamelan Son of Lion ensemble in New York functions primarily as a composers’ collective and members bring new pieces to weekly rehearsals.

Sometimes gamelan music inspires compositions without use of any gamelan instruments. When composer Skip LaPlante returned from Indonesia in 1991 he wrote a piece for six kinds of metal objects. “I had lived in the culture of gamelans; I knew about metal in new ways.” He incorporated four large refrigerator drawers, functioning as gongs along with a variety of metal pipes. “There is nothing ostensibly Javanese about this piece, other than the title, ‘Ijo.’ But something Javanese is fused into it. It could not have happened unless I had just had the experiences I had,” explains LaPlante. For Daniel Goode, (who has played with the Gamelan Son of Lion since its inception in the ’70s) gamelan music wasn’t so much of an influence as a counter-tradition, which validated his compositional direction. “It gave me permission to go the way(s) I wanted to go in music compositions as a counter-authority to European/American theory,” says Goode.

For many, the sounds of the gamelan remain exotic, but as growing numbers of Americans play and compose for the instruments, they also serve as a broadening sound palette for musicians. Composer Barbara Benary, who is the artistic director of the Gamelan Son of Lion explains. “I believe my compositional frame of reference draws on just about everything I’ve learned. I choose and adapt for specific situations whatever instruments, scales, and musical forms seem to work best, without thought about continent or century.”

This is evidenced as she casually picks up a Chinese bowed erhu to blend in a new American work for her homemade Indonesian gamelan. Benary will perform with her ensemble on June 4th at Greenwich House in New York City.

While Americans are not usually performing on the Indonesian percussion orchestra in their traditional context for ceremonial occasions, court entertainment, or all-night shadow plays – the gamelan continues to inspire American performers and composers across the nation.

(The American Gamelan Institute, formed by Jody Diamond in 1981, facilitates the connection of groups in the U.S. and other countries that are working with various aspects of Indonesian arts. Their website includes a national and international directory of gamelan ensembles with contact information.)

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