sense how the
C’ has been con-ducted with a
little by little
breaking the beat up
faster and faster
as it shifts from one and
two to three and four and
five until it starts to
trip along in sixes.
Corner achieves a kind of ultimate simplicity and clarity in this charming and vital piece, and the performers of Gamelan Son of Lion made the rhythmic transitions quite smoothly. But this was by no means the only reward when New York’s own gamelan presented two programs at the Kitchen on February 29 and March 1. The 10 players in the ensemble have grown into a tight musical group over the course of the past few years, and they have accumulated a fascinating repertoire that exemplifies many purely Western values but also makes use of many Asian ones.
One of the hardest things for Westerners to understand when they first confront gamelan music is why, since the music involves a number of people playing a number of metallic mallet instruments and gongs, the gamelan is considered a single instrument, rather than a group of instruments. To think of such assemblage this way is to devalue the importance of the individual musician in a way that jars our Western sensibilities. Yet it is most appealing to watch a community of musicians playing together on what really is a single instrument, and the New York group has maintained that attitude, working together much as Indonesian villagers might. Most of the individual parts are relatively easy to play, and the musicians take pride in executing simple figurations precisely, eschewing those ego needs, so common in the West, to emphasize the fast and fancy. They also adhere to the traditional Indonesian scales, pelog and slendro.
On the other hand, only ‘Bubaran Robert’ by Lou Harrison relied heavily on specific Indonesian modes and techniques. At least a few of the members of Gamelan Son of Lion understand Indonesian practices as well as Harrison does, and could turn to authentic textures if they wanted to. But in general they have avoided working with the specific content of Indonesian gamelan music, which is so intricately intertwined with Indonesian dance, mythology, and religious practices, that it is difficult for non-Indonesians to fully grasp. Instead they have chosen to play their homemade gamelan in their own homemade ways, and their recently composed repertoire reflects heavy doses of Western rationality and a general minimalist orientation.
Barbara Benary, who built the gamelan and began the group several years ago, contributed ‘Hells Bells,’ in which a five-note pattern is shifted into different orderings according to the change-ringing principles devised by the English bell ringers a couple of hundred years ago. Superimposed on this system is another system by which the notes of one scale are gradually interchanged with notes of the other scale. Daniel Goode contributed ‘Random Numbered Clangs,’ in which short motifs are sequenced together according to the table of random numbers. William Hawley contributed an antiphonal piece in which two groups of musicians mirror each other’s music.
Several members of the ensemble have produced pieces they call ‘45s.’ These are all short works, and the basic implication of this generic title is obvious. But 45 is also the sum of all the digits from one through nine, and the ‘45s’ usually play games with numbers as well. I particularly like one ‘45’ devised by Jon Child in which everyone strikes four-mallet chords, ticking away their own sequences of one-through-nine rhythms.
There were several other pieces which I didn’t grasp very well or don’t remember very well, and which were perhaps just not worked out as well as the ones I’ve mentioned. By and large, however, I found the repertoire quite stimulating, and I was glad to see so many musicians contributing to it. Everyone in Gamelan Son of Lion, which also includes Iris Brooks, Michael Byron, Peter Griggs, Cathy Merritt, Evan Schwartsman, Holly Staver, and Rosali Winard, seems to have a creative role, and one senses a special kind of cooperation within the group. Gamelans do that to people.