Ordinarily student ensembles are not reviewed, especially in New York, where there is so much professional music going on. But when I heard the Gamelan Group of Livingston College at the Kitchen on May 1, I knew very soon that this was going to have to be an exception. The ingenious homemade instruments, with their tin can resonators, made a wonderful sounding gamelan. The process of a group performing these metallic percussion instruments struck me as an unusual healthy form of music education, and at the same time, I found the resulting music much more listenable than that of most student ensembles. And perhaps most impressive, the ensemble blended Indonesian traditions with current Western ideas quite successfully.
As more and more Western composers and groups have incorporated eastern ideas into their music, I have become increasingly aware of the possible pitfalls. We’ve all heard pieces of cultural imperialism, in which Western musicians patronizingly import a few exotic tunes the way colonial exploiters imported tea and bananas. Sometimes Eastern instruments or compositional ideas are imported with only a superficial understanding of how they work, as when one hears Indian melodies without the essential Indian drones in the background. And, of course, attempts to turn, say, koto music into piano music, always end up paradoxical. When composers don’t know much about the music they are borrowing, they are often insensitive to its basic needs. But when they know a lot, they tend to make literal transferences, and that doesn’t work either. Barbara Benary and her ensemble have managed to steer around all these problems and evolve a repertoire that flatters both Javanese and American traditions, fusing them into something unique that everyone can be happy about.
Much of the success of the evening had to do with Benary’s two compositions, both of which employ improvisation. In ‘Convergences,’ individual musicians repeat patterns of various lengths until they ‘converge’ with patterns of different lengths played by other players. There is a fair amount of freedom as to when a player begins what pattern, and the musicians seemed to be enjoying the game-like process involved in playing the piece. At the same time, however, the texture was always a steady rhythmic rippling, very much as in traditional Javanese compositions.
In Benary’s ‘Braid,’ the musicians maintained steady intertwining rhythmic patterns, but with some freedom as to which pitches to strike within these patterns. The result was a complex series of little changes that could be considered contemporary American minimalism, but again, the atmosphere and means of playing the instruments was strictly Javanese. I had the feeling that Indonesian listeners would have been able to follow what was going on about as easily as I could, and might have enjoyed it just as much.
A cross-cultural approach coming from the other side was provided by Ki Wasitodipuro, a gamelan master from Jogjakarta, who had spent time teaching in California. Here the actual music was strictly traditional, with a thick texture of intertwining parts that could only have been written by one who grew up with the intricate techniques of Javanese music. But there was also a vocal line, and even without understanding a word of Wasitodipuro’s language, it was easy to discern that the text had something to do with the ‘freeway’ and his California experiences.
The remaining work on the program was Philip Corner’s Gamelan-I, a meditative piece containing long silences. The work began with single strokes every 64 beats on a large gong, which, incidentally, was the only instrument that didn’t sound much like its Indonesian equivalent. Gradually the smaller instruments chimed in with parts that sounded every 32 beats, every 16 beats, and so on, until the music was rippling right along. Eventually it opened back up for a slow ending. The piece is not a slave to its arithmetic, though it certainly reflects a contemporary Western formalistic kind of thinking. But it also has a ceremonial austerity that seems to reflect Zen Buddhist traditions, a performing style that reflects Corner’s ‘Metal Meditations’ for other metallic instruments, and a steady multi-leveled texture that comes straight from Java.
Benary is not the first one to build a Western equivalent of a gamelan. I understand that a musician who graduated from the world music program at Wesleyan University, as Benary did, constructed a gamelan at Goddard College, using milk cans for resonators. In John Grayson’s anthology on ‘Sound Sculpture,’ William Colvig describes how he built a gamelan with Lou Harrison, using a design similar to Benary’s. I hope other Westerners are putting together gamelan ensembles, too, because this medium has much to offer, and it produces a kind of music that Westerners can handle without years of specialized practice.
Granted, Benary’s ensemble was not always as together as those Indonesian groups that have been playing in gamelan orchestras all their lives, but their playing was not at all bad, and they did appear to genuinely enjoy what they were doing. I think there’s something about the teamwork of a gamelan, and the sumptuousness of that sound, that draws people together in a special way. And when diverse cultures come together at the same time, the result is most satisfying.