The Pacific Northwest ensemble, Gamelan Pacifica will feature music of Central Java in its concert on April 9 in PONCHO Theatre, Cornish College of the Arts. Guest performers include Javanese musicians Ki Midiyanto, currently a Lecturer in Gamelan at the University of California, Berkeley, and Heri Purwanto. While Indonesian gamelan music is widely known as a rich percussion orchestra, the program centers on Gamelan Gadhon, a genre more resembling chamber music and utilizing fewer instruments. “Soft-style” instruments known as panerusan—rebab (bowed fiddle), suling (bamboo flute), gender (metallophones), gambang (wooden-keyed xylophone), siter (plucked-string zither), gong, and drums—comprise the Gadhon instrumentation in addition to vocal soloists (psindhen) and chorus (gerong). Jarrad Powell, a composer and founder of the ensemble, describes the program’s pieces as “represent[ing] a variety of styles in a variety of different modes and moods. Gadhon style is not usually used for wayang or dance. It is generally chamber music and is most frequently heard alone.”
Historically, the Western world began showcasing gamelan music as an art form. According to Powell, “gamelan is considered to have developed its current form and instrumentation during the Majapahit Empire (13th to 16th centuries). Much classical gamelan repertoire is traceable to the 19th century when Dutch political control of Indonesia channeled the status and power of the courts in the arts as a way of showing power, status and accomplishment.”
For different reasons, modern classical composers searching for a new musical language found ample material in this indigenous music. Canadian composer Colin McPhee spent eight years in Bali and later documented his findings in the book, “Music of Bali”. The composer wrote transcriptions of gamelan music for original instrumentation as well as for Western instruments, many of which are housed at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). McPhee also wrote his own compositions using elements of gamelan (rhythmic patterns, instrumentation such as gongs, and ostinati or repetitive grouping of notes). His meticulous work undoubtedly provided valuable resources for other composers—such as Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison—who integrated the gamelan style into their compositions.
McPhee’s 1935 article “The Absolute Music of Bali”, which appeared in the journal of Modern Music, conveys sentiments reflecting his contemporaries: “Here is a music which has successfully achieved the absolute,-impersonal and non-expressive, with a beauty that depends upon form and pattern and a vigor that springs from a rhythmic vitality both primitive and joyous. But even more than this, perhaps, what inspires the musician with wonder and envy, is the satisfactory raison d’etre of music in the community … Modest and unassuming, they nevertheless take great pride in their art, an art which, however, is so impersonal that the composer himself has lost his identity.”
Indeed, gamelan music is continually rearranged by successive generations of musicians and thus not attributable to just one composer. While the same melodies and phrase patterns remain, new fragments and episodes are added to the old compositions. Much like the oral tradition, the works are a composite or “montage-like structure,” as McPhee termed it. And Gamelan Pacifica provides the latest incarnation of Gamelan Gadhon music in its upcoming concert.
For more information on Gamelan Pacifica, visit www.gamelanpacifica.org.