Perfect Sound Forever

I Like Gamelan Too


PC performing "Buka Bunga/Flower Prelude" with student group from STSI, the conservatory at Denpasar, during a concert of "creasi baru" (new music) August 18, 1988"

by Philip Corner
(August 2012)


ED NOTE: In this January 2011, the composer explains his kinship (and that of other composers) to this very unique music.


I love "Pusparwana." Everyone's image of the voluptuously mysterious Orient, whether sounding from the Paku Alaman in Yogya or the Mankunegaran of Solo, the awaited arrival not only of the prince but another world "inviting to beauty" as the name of one of the gamelan ensembles has it, which would be true for all of them.

Jody Diamond is a dear friend and the director-founder of the American Gamelan Association. I joked with her, "you can go to Jakarta and perform at a wedding ceremony but you have not even heard all the Beethoven symphonies!" She put on for me a recording of what turned out to be "Soo Je Chun", the most ancient piece in the "Ah Ahk" repertoire of the Korean court. "My favorite piece in the whole world!" I blurted out. She was amazed that I 1) knew what it was, and 2) liked it. But it was an unintended benefit of the U.S. Army which sent me to do compulsory military service in Korea (well after the fighting, fortunately).

I used to equally include "Eten-raku" (Japanese Gagaku repertoire) among the pinnacles of sublimity. And then I heard "Baba Layar"! Let us also make space here for "The Unanswered Question" of Charles Ives. Now I would include the whole genre of gending bonang as participating in the highest degree of musical expression. The austerity of these pieces, no longer quite so mysterious, remain equally voluptuous. How that is accomplished is a miracle.

I love the idea of 64 and 128 beat measures! And you cannot just put the weakest student on that last gong punctuation--as we found out in Lou Harrison's class at Mills College. If the gong agung is not just right, and right on, the whole music grinds to a halt... you, everyone playing, can actually not physically go on. I loved sitting there waiting for that right moment, and practicing to not just count up the beats but to hear the whole music and strike when it must--by feeling, by knowledge. One almost feels as if the whole orchestra is playing out of your mind. It is.

A mention should be made of the rhythmic detail of putting the point of definition at the end of the time-areas instead of at the beginning. A seemingly small detail, but profoundly informative about the music itself. A shift of the mind repositions where the accent is. But it is not really an accent, that is the point. Lou himself admitted that he could not hear it that way; and I found that without constant attention, it would slip back into the Western way of thinking. As an example of how easily the essential can be misunderstood, I mention those California gamelans whose music remains clearly downbeat oriented but is notated so that the first beat comes before the bar... which creates much confusion in the reading. The effect of a goal of motion gradually moved towards and gently punctuated--not accented!--is a wonderful feeling of non-compulsive purpose, just as much progress as there needs to be. That has philosophical meaning, maybe even political too--a living sense of values. And when, that point is reached, it all starts over again, from the "1" which is the most tranquil place, but not weak! Well, this is beautiful beyond description.

I can think of a few examples in our piano literature somewhat like that, where a measure moves towards its last beat: the middle section of the Chopin Nocturne in G minor, Op.37, No.1, where within a very smooth 4 measure phrase, each measure 0f 4/4 seems, by the harmony, to contain an ineffable sense of suspension... which is confirmed by the conclusion where every last beat is prolonged by a fermata. The other is the Promenade from Moussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," with its march towards the fulfillment of its eleven beats. Overlooking such subtleties gives palpable errors of phrasing.

Gamelan "Son of Lion" in New York was formed by Barbara Benary out of hot rolled steel, for her Asian Music Performing Group at Livingston College, a part of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. There is actually an indigenous iron gamelan, in Bali, the sacred instruments called "selunding." This prevented Barbara's opponents at the University from dismissing our ensemble as some sort of toy. The material itself is relevant to the New Music ensemble it became- one can hardly imagine doing our kind of music with, say, the West Coast-type gamelans made of aluminum.

From the beginning, our "creasi baru" used the gamelan as a vehicle for all kinds of styles. And it provoked so much creativity from within the group that there was hardly any room at concerts, and any on our recordings, for compositions by others (and now that I no longer live there, even for me).

The very fact of the instruments' existence, their belongingness as an indissoluble group, helped bring our group together. A great image of community. And the practice of it. Just the opposite of the usual practice, each one coming with their own instrument, and leaving with it. We belong to those instruments--they belong to no-one and they are never separated from the ensemble. Also, just like discovering the refinement of eating with fingertips, it is so delightful to sit in a circle on the floor.

There is some strong music played by Jarrad Powell's "Gamelan Pacifica" (Seattle) and in the Berkeley Gamelan of Daniel W. Schmidt. But I think that the sugary sound of the aluminum keys plays into a sort of Beach Boy aesthetic, "Sunset over the Pacific Palisades," much indulged in. No matter how sweet, the native Indonesian instruments of bronze never descend so perilously close to sentimentality.

There is an idea out there, as mistaken as counterproductive, that those on the West Coast are "out from under the umbrella of European culture," belonging instead to a pan-Pacific-rim culture, manifested in sound as Lou Harrison's "Pacifika Rondo." They should know that their own position is undermined by this: what is at issue is not conformity to any given cultural norm whatsoever, but to open our own creative potential by learning from all the others.

Therefore, the practice of imitating classical Javanese models, however delightfully pleasant some of the results might be, is essentially an exotic form of counterpoint exercise.

The aluminum also lends itself to the practice (mistaken in my view) of forcing the scales into a just-intonation tuning. This is derived from the harmonics of strings and air-columns and has nothing to do with the resonances of cast metal. Listen to Dutch carillons playing 4-part chorales if you doubt this. True, a lot of satisfying hours in the workshop can come up with some elegant but tortured shapes as one tries to "get the 13th partial--or was it the 11th?--just right." But this is not what gamelan is really about. The interesting thing is precisely the anomaly of each separately tuned ensemble--a fabulous, and potentially still-usable phenomenon, where the group is recognized by its particular intonation. The whole system is based on ubiquitous ur-scale prototypes. In this case, there's two: the 5-tone slendro and the 7-tone pelog, which often do not even have notes in common. Or rather, just one: the "tumbuk."

I once tested my hearing when listening to a composition by Dan Schmidt and heard the number-2 tone as a slightly sharp major second. A full quarter tone would have made it identical to a flat minor 3rd, so I guessed it at 225 cents. Dan went to look up the acoustic ratio--which turned out to be 230 cents (1/20 of a semitone off!). I believe this is really the way the ear works.

In Bali, the ideal sound is the opposite of our ideal, by tuning two instruments not identically but off by a minute degree. It makes for an enticing shimmer. Out-of-tune, ha! Maybe it was only 5 vibrations apart, a tiny percentage. This also is something that works well with metal- another kind of ideal, which can be used in new music. A computer-generated piece of mine was worked on by Mike Winter who followed my suggestion to make a kind of mini-white noise aura around the melody notes, and thus cancelling out the overtones. Just another kind of harmonization and actually not all that new! It was a kind of hyper-refined form of parallelism, only different in exquisiteness to that which set harmony/counterpoint off in the late Middle Ages--updated organum. Then, I rediscovered the Impressionists and so on into the 20th century. Now the possibilities of interval superposition are endless--all the more so thanks to these new/old tunings.

In a way, this has long since been done, in the way of combining tuning systems. The supposed incompatibility of equal temperament and the gamelan systems has seemed to be an obstacle to an integrated world music. This has led to proposed solutions like Sinta Wullur's 12 tone gamelan in Amsterdam. Well and good--that has its potential. But you do not always have to modify the tunings. The simultaneous playing of two gamelans will give you a fascinating polytonality. This already happens in Bali when two ensembles share a concert--what a way to come in!--a little like the father of Charles Ives putting two marching bands against each other. But in order to be "taken seriously," such things seem to need be inserted consciously into a composition--as Charles wrote his father's experiment into his symphonies. I know of one multi-gamelan work, by Pak Rahayu Supanggah.

After all sorts of polytonalisms, multi-interval scales, harmonic disjunctions, and so forth, including both the Javanese and Western systems, the simple problem of putting together a melody and accompaniment seemed intractable. That was until I heard "Lawung" in Surakarta. It is an elegant example of solving a problem by disappearing it--why had I not thought of just combining a tune in two tunings, just as they are? After all, they only added a pair of trumpets to "Bimakurda" (and, yes, Dutch drums), letting the intervals come naturally as close as their tunings would permit. I have since heard rock bands do pretty much the same thing, by mixing gamelan metalophones with electric guitars and keyboards. No attempt at retuning here! And there's testimony to long-term cultural usages---with bass lines essentially doubling the melody. There's shades of the balungan there! Is this really so very different from the California practice of turning gending into concertos by the addition of Western instruments where they let the unisons, approximately, land where they may?

The realization of the piece "Belum" which, with the collaboration of I Wayan Rai, was presented at a new music concert in Denpasar (Indonesia), dealt with this issue in the form of a multi-cultural polytonality (he laughed, realizing why I wanted to give it the name "Not Yet"). A single melodic line is interpreted simultaneously by the instruments of different cultures--a real poly-tune-ality. The STSI Academy had a small contingent of students from other cultures (while being all "Indonesian" they might, musically speaking, all be "foreigners"): Sundanese (that other part of Java, with its kecapi), and various parts of Sumatra, Minang, Batak (triabe-specific drums, and the special sound of each bamboo flute, not to speak of the number of indigenous, Balinese, gamelan instruments available. All these together made a fine harmony. What a fusion of tone colors! There was place even for a touch of Fluxus-Dada, blended into their cultural norms: since we were all wearing the ritual headbands, and had the requisite flower behind the ear, I had them drop flowers onto the instrument and play where it landed. This "Buka Bunga," when I do it in the West, is translated as "Flower Prelude"; and played on the piano's keyboard its name is "Petalli Pianissimo."

At this point, let us backtrack to the "Debussy question". My opinion is that, apart from the national pride of a few French professors who may not even know the difference between a Balinese and a Javanese gamelan (listen to Slamet Abdel Slukur, who studied in Paris, hold forth on that! ), this is not even of very great interest. A few pieces with an evident surface exoticism ("et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut") do nothing to show that Impressionism was derived from direct oriental influences. As I showed during my first trip to Java when they invited me to the Academy in Solo--they wanted to hear about the relationship between out cultures, and even provided a piano!-- nationalism can be traced from Grieg as one of the first of the folk cultures peripheral to the blanket aristocracy at the heart of Europe (local variations notwithstanding) which moved eastward through the Slavic lands and out beyond, following Russian imperialism through "the steppes of central Asia" and picking up pieces of technical exotica. which gradually modified the nature of its harmonic and melodic language. So when Debussy had the occasion to hear a gamelan at that Exposition in Paris, it was no more than a confirmation of the journey European music had made to a closer aesthetic language and so it become able to open their Occidental ears to these newly heard sounds--a trip of a half century since Berlioz, revolutionary spirit as he was, had been unable to appreciate the music of Persia.

Another thing: some seemingly obvious parallels in their new music creations to innovations in Western music do not necessarily demonstrate any form of copying. To be sure, the general climate of social renovation was caused and is still being caused by the disruptions of modern impositions, but if one considers the fact closely, it becomes obvious that all cultural "avant-gardism"s must move in a similar direction, being that they must upset a well-defined system of procedural limits towards an increasing complexity which may be felt as chaotic. No surprise then that many of the results point in the same direction. I Wayan Sadra (composer/musician) is one who needs no help from outside to be as "far out" as anyone in the world.

The issue comes up as to who has the "right" to use the gamelans for creative expression. We have surely come a long way from when the musicologist went around the island measuring the tunings. But to actually sit in with them? To play with the natives? There was very little of that. Now we have virtuoso gamelan groups from America and Japan who can have well-received tours of Indonesia itself. Hurrah for that. But at the same time, there is sometimes heard a moralistic opposition to the idea of using those "foreign" instruments in a non-traditional way. We don't know their music well enough, they say. All the contemporary Westerners are ‘dilettantes,' they say about us. But "they" are other Westerners mostly, as if any of the great folklore composers were certified scholars! This came to a head at the International Gamelan Festival in Vancouver, a discussion which I put the cap on by saying, "No-one ever asked Louis Armstrong to play the Haydn trumpet concerto."

We have come to the point where Gamelan must be proclaimed necessary! For us, I mean. After the great opening into full chromatic space and thence into the universe of sound, what do we do when we still need to sing and dance? Which we do. With the minimalists, we lazily fall back into the same beats, measures, scales, chords and tunings that were there before, when we could, and should, have the full range of possibility in musical time and space that we can imagine and learn from the universal heritage of human possibility. Gamelan, come to us! We need you.



Also see Philip Corner's PSF article on minimalism, a 2012 PSF article about Corner and a 2013 article which details a book about the composer


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