Historically, there’s a tradition of western composers not only studying the music of Indonesia but visiting Bali or Java and keeping the influence in their works. In the late 1920’s a Canadian living in New York, Colin McPhee, was exposed to the gamelan (a tuned percussion ensemble) music of Bali by a gramophone recording. The music became a passion for McPhee, he spent five years in Bali in the 1930’s and the music became a powerful force in his music. In modern times minimalist Steve Reich studied gamelan in the early ’70s and King Crimson guitarist/original member Robert Fripp showed an obvious gamelan/minimalist influence on the 1981 album Discipline. While Fripp and Reich probably didn’t go there, they obviously heard recordings. The two cd’s reviewed here are also by western composers who have traveled east and brought the gamelan vibration home to live on in their music in the west.
The Terrain of Possibilities
The influence of Bill Alves studies show up in the cyclic patterns in his compositions. In Redundant I, highly manipulated samples of soprano Eve Vazana’s voice rotate past the listener and return. Bending Space has a highly ritualistic meditative quality a beautiful timeless moment. The composition The Terrain of Possibilities uses just intonation tuned samples of various Indonesian metal instruments, Korean chimes, piano, various percussion instruments and voice for a rhythmically driving work full of drama. Other musical influences are present too. Spectral Motion was inspired by the polyrhythms of West African drumming ensembles while the techniques of English change ringing informed Redundant I,.
Time Auscultations as well as the other remaining tacks on the album move forward with the drive of gamelan while displaying Alves command of timbre: with the exception of The Question Mark’s Black Ink where Vicki Ray, piano and Mark Nicolay, percussion perform with tape, all of the works on the album were realized on the Synclavier II computer music system. The samples seem to be optimized for the tunings. Very much an electronic music album as well as being influenced by gamelan: a beautifully fascinating CD.
Patrick Grant’s time in the east manifests itself in an amazingly relentless clock-like drive. Unlike the Alves cd, the Grant album is entirely acoustic. On the first track Fields Amaze Grant’s piano, percussion and gamelan is assisted by Barbara Benary on gamelan and David Simmon’s percussion. This composition – a well as the rest of the cd – rocks – in the sense that the dynamics are relatively flat and the timing is solid. A Visible Track of Turbulence seems to draw on early 20th century Euro-American chamber music with it’s instrumentation of flute, clarinet and piano – and of course stylistically too. Relative Segments for flute, clarinet, viola, cello, piano and keyboards reinforces the impression that Steve Reich and Phillip Glass also seem to be an influence. In Everything Distinct; Everything The Same piano, percussion and gamelan show an obvious debt to the Indonesian metal instrument ensemble. This cd is also stunning.
In response to my inquiry about the tunings on this cd, Patrick Grant replied:
The pieces on this CD that were referred to in the article
are in two different tunings, nothing too fancy. The first
works in various modes of Gb natural major and the second
is in a combined pelog and slendro taken from Barbara Benary’s
gamelan. The latter results in a scale that has 10 tones per
octave of varying widths. Octaves are not perfect in that they
all have a 5 cent stretch (i.e. c to c’ = 1205 cents). On the
electronic keyboard I have tuned the two unused keys enharmonically
to their nearest neighbors so they could be used for some
quasi-bariolage effects. Thanks for asking.
Originally published on line at Juxtaposion Ezine.