Monday, April 15, 2013

Gamelan Composers' Forum

Yesterday (14 April 2013) I a attended the Gamelan Composers' Forum at the spacious G2 lecture room of SOAS in London. The event was organised by Aris Daryono, a London-based musician and composer from Indonesia who plays with the Southbank Gamelan Players, with sponsorship from both SOAS and the Indonesian Embassy. The ambassador and his staff were present during the first half of the day and provided food for participants.

Five composers were represented in the event by five compositions, and after each piece. Composers introduced their works and after each piece was played there was ample time for moderated discussion.

The event opened with Robert Campion's Studies for Solo Gender Barung (2007), a very fine etude which explored the possibilities of the instrument. The composer explained that he wanted to write a piece that was comfortable for the hands, idiomatic for the instrument and developing techniques for both players and also composers wishing to write for the instrument. He has written half a dozen etudes for gender, which he says is the instrument in the gamelan most suited for solo playing. One is so hard that he has not mastered it himself and has never performed it in public.

Japanese composer Makoto Nomura from Japan was present via a Skype link and his piece No Notes VI, written on 14 March 2013 on board a train from Kyoto to Tokyo and dedicated to Aris, was played live by four gamelan players in London. (See picture above.) This piece for gamelan instruments and voice had only time signatures, no notes or words. The musicians talked about how it challenged them to think metrically while improvising.

Rasa 2 was a new composition by Aris Daryono which developed ideas that Aris had deployed in an earlier collaboration with Charles Matthews for live gamelan and computer. The peice was scored for flute, oboe, clarinet and cello and 2 gender players (who played in both slendro and pelog). The Western instrumentalists were asked to tune their instruments to the gamelan, so B flat was shaped to become a 6 on the gamelan scale (fairly close), while there was some distance between C and 1. The oboe and clarinet players played into kenong pots to create resonance and an off stage effect. (The clarinet ended up sounding something like an oboe on some notes.) The clarinetist reported that the piece changed his conception of being at home. Home was for him in this piece the moments when his notes accorded to gamelan pitches. The cellist added that it felt satisfying to come together after dissonance. She said furthermore that she didn't feel a clash between Western vs. non-Western instruments. Instead there was a feeling of commonality and shared interest in new music and composition.

After the lunch break, the event resumed with two further pieces.  Jonas Bisquert, a composer originally from Spain but now living in Holland, directed a performance of his piece Su Ilanto (His Weeping, in Spanish), which was inspired by the crying of his newborn baby and was originally written for a Spanish percussion ensemble. The piece used thimbles on fingers striking kenong to replace cymbals, included Spanish style clapping, pair of dueling bonang players who invade each others space substituted for the alternating cellos of Basque music, and had an evolving texture like Javanese gamelan and many theatrical gestures.

The event wound up with a performance of Philip Corner's Dua Uni (2=1) a conceptual piece in his gamelan series. Corner is an American retired professor, a co-founder of the New York ensemble Gamelan Son of Lion who has been living in Italy since 1992. The piece consisted of one high and very loud and sharply played note followed by a low and long and very soft note played ad infinitum. The piece could be played by any single instrument or arrangement of instruments, and was scored on this occasion by Corner in what he called a baroque arrangement for two ensembles of players - 4 gamelan musicians (each of whom played a gong/kempul and an instrument of the saron family) and cello, English horn, flute and clarinet. The gamelan player played first, then the Western instruments building into a tutti and then rejoined by the gamelan instruments. Though very simple in design, it was very effective and challenging in performance.

Corner reported that the piece was a distillation of an idea that had long fascinated him in gamelan - the colotomic structure where low instruments play slowly and high instruments play quick elaborating parts over this. He said that this is found in many music cultures in the world. He hadn't realised that his piece was gamelan inspired until after it had been performed. Only then did he include it in his gamelan series. (His more overt inspiration was the work of Olivier Messiaen and Messiaen's ideas about disjuncture.)

Nick Gray, a SOAS lecturer and composer who hosted the event, reported that there were plans for the event to be an annual gathering. All the gamelan pieces included in this year's event were Javanese, but Balinese Gamelan musicians and composers present said they hoped that the event would be opened up to Balinese, Sundanese etc gamelan composers as well.