Wednesday, December 09, 2009

American Gamelan Music

An important aspect of my musical past is playing Javanese gamelan. This musical culture has had a major impact on my musical life, both as performer and composer.


bonang barung, a gong-chime instrument from the Javanese gamelan

I began playing Javanese gamelan in 1979, with the University of Michigan gamelan group Kyai Telaga Madu (Venerable Lake of Honey), directed by Judith Becker. I played with the gamelan ensemble in Ann Arbor through 1985, when I received a Fulbright grant, as a composer, to go to Indonesia to study gamelan. During the year I lived in Java, I studied much more than the traditional music; I also made many concert recordings, which I am gradually digitizing from cassette, studied batik, gathered materials including numerous books on the arts and poetry; and I got involved with the new music for gamelan scene at the school for the traditional arts in Surakarta, where I lived. I got to know several students and professors, and attended many concerts of new music and dance. When I got back to the US, I stayed involved with gamelan for several years, eventually playing with the gamelan ensemble at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, directed by R. Anderson Sutton. I eventually entered graduate school at UW-Madison, in ethnomusicology an folklore/anthropology; I was the gamelan Teaching Assistant for awhile, too. Nothing improves your own ability at something like having to teach it to others. Eventually, I moved to another city, and became less involved in performing gamelan. But all those years of being closely involved with this music left a permanent mark on me as a composer/performer, and I can trace elements in my own music compositions, as well as my style of jazz improvisation, directly to gamelan's influence.


street scene, Central Java, 1986

On one level what was really going on, at that time, was that when I had finished my Bachelor's of Music in Composition at the University of Michigan, I was wrung out and burned out and exhausted with Western music. The one thing they cannot teach you in music school is inspiration: so mostly they teach you music theory, history, and performance practice. As composers, several of graduated feeling musically constipated (the only way to describe the feeling), having had so much theory shoved down our throats that we didn't know where to begin writing music anymore. Gamelan saved me by taking me away from all that; by being completely different; by being an entirely different musical culture with nothing but positive interest for me; by being a place to turn while my composer's mind rested. I eventually learned to play jazz, and to improvise in general, and that is what eventually brought to composing for Western instruments again. I began by writing for jazz groups, and then in grad school I began composing notated music again.



Balungan is a magazine publication of the American Gamelan Institute, an organization devoted to the promotion and support of gamelan music internationally. There is, for example, a directory of gamelan ensembles, and a Gongcast podcast (available via iTunes).

Balungan used to be published more regularly, but only occasionally at present. Each issue contains articles about aspects of the traditional music, it's theory and performance practice; reviews and interpretative articles; and also scores. New music for gamelan, both within the traditional styles, and more experimental new pieces alike.


bedhaya dance, Central Java, 1986

Back issues of Balungan can be downloaded as PDFs. In the December 1986 issue of Balungan you can find a field note I wrote about my experience of studying traditional gamelan music in Surakarta, Central Java, in 1985-86. You can also find the score for my gamelan piece NightWaters, which I wrote while living in Java. I wrote a couple of other pieces for gamelan that year, and a book of poems, Solo Journey (some of which can be sampled here).

A recording of NightWaters can be heard via the Music page of my own website.

As I wrote in my introduction to the score of NightWaters when it was published:

The mood of NightWaters, as it was felt during the process of composition, is of the deep rain forest soon after the night rain has ceased; water still drips from the trees and all the leaves, pooling on the ground; frogs are chorusing; the air is thick and heavy with humidity; smells of flowers and rich decay fill the night. But also within the possibilities of "night waters" are: the moonlit ocean, light rippling on the far horizon and dancing on the crests of the waves; the silver night reflected from the shallows of a quiet stream, water ringing on the stones of the riverbed. A sense of eternally flowing, quiet waters.

You can listen to NightWaters here: NightWaters    

Or download an MP3 of NightWaters.

(I plan to post more of my gamelan music, both original and traditional, new music and gamelan-influenced music, on my website soon.)

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I can't say I have any great experience of gamelan music. I think I have something by Lou Harrison kicking around, not sure if it's Javanese gamelan or American and doubt I could tell the difference. I listened to NightWaters – pleasant enough but the hiss drove me mad and I only got about half way through.

I agree with your point about teaching and I used to get my students to help each other all the time rather than waiting around till I was free: "If you can't explain something then you really don't understand it," I'd tell them, "so by asking each other for help you're really reinforcing the teaching." The bottom line was there wasn't enough me to go round and I had to use every resource I had.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Sorry about the hiss, although some of that is night-insects in the distance, not tape hiss. This was recorded in typical javanese pavilion called a pendopo, which typically has a long cantilevered peaked roof, a stone floor, and is open on all four sides; or at least three sides, if it's attached to another building. The sounds of the environment are always part of the context for Javanese gamelan music. I have more than one recording made during my year there when the music was almost overwhelmed by sudden rains falling on the roof and the grounds all around; the musicians keep on going, as it's all part of the context, and what they're used to.

So, more than half of the hiss on the recording is environmental noise: insects, etc., which are louder at night, when this was recorded.

11:30 AM  

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