i’ve always been interested in gamelan music. the first time i heard something like it was in the soundtrack to akira. there was a haunting and sad element to it but tremendous energy and beauty. in high school i had a crappy copy of the akira soundtrack and i listened to it over and over again. it was one of those albums where you lay on the floor to listen to it cuz it’s high school and yr so moved by the music that you can’t do anything. it wasn’t until a few years later when i was living in chicago that i came across a used copy of one of the nonesuch explorer series gamelan albums at reckless. i bought it for seven dollars and after i got home and listened to it i was hooked. the music was mind blowing. all the syncopated polyrhythm, the loud soft dynamics. it all killed me. and what was awesome was at the time i couldn’t even imagine what kind of instruments were capable of creating such sounds.
after i realized how much i loved this music i wanted to learn more, but it was always a backburner sort of curiosity. i would occasionally look it up on wikipedia or something. and i learned about what the instruments looked like and some of the ceremonial functions of the music and where it had its origins, etc. but it was all kind of sterile, general reading. i just recently came across a book by a composer, colin mcphee, about his experiences with the music in java and bali in the 1930s. he had heard a random record of the music in the 20s and was blown away – i can’t imagine hearing this stuff in america in the 20s. so he traveled to bali and moved in for a few years and traveled across the islands listening, transposing, composing, trying to learn about the music and document it. in the book he puts the music in context. there are certain songs that are only played at certain ceremonies, etc. but the vast majority of the music was played constantly for dances, plays, puppet performances, parties, everything. clubs formed in villages and they would practice constantly and have competitions – rival clubs battling it out for prestige and bragging rights. fancy costumes, decorating their instruments. learning top secret music that other clubs surely couldn’t play.
i knew much of the music was old or had its roots in old traditions, and in my ignorance i assumed a lot of the music that i was hearing on recordings was like music for ethnomusicologists and museums – strictly for documentary purposes. i kind of assumed that the music had long stopped evolving and what i was hearing was an echo of what once was contemporary. but mcphee makes clear that at the time of his travels, the music was constantly evolving, people were constantly changing the music and building on it and combining different forms to create new styles. one of which was one of my favorites – the intensely dynamic and syncopated kebyar. again i just assumed this was some old-ass music that had been around forever. but, kebyar was the new hotness in the 20s and 30s. all the young dudes wanted to play it and dance to it. it was wild and chaotic and carried a cool cache.
the other thing that intrigued me was how much improvisation went into these pieces. the basic melodies and styles and techniques were passed down from musician to musician – everyone playing by ear, only the barest of outlines were written down. many times when the ensembles began to play, one person would improvise for a while until the melody of the piece they were going to play took shape and then the ensemble joined in. lots of subtle visual cues, rhythmic cues, etc. rehearsals were frequently collective improvisations as the ensemble learned new pieces and worked out the various sections. and even in established pieces there seemed to be plenty of room for improvisation since everyone knew the pieces inside and out.
as i read all this i couldn’t help but make parallels to the jazz world that existed at the time and especially the bebop that would form shortly after. standards that were known inside and out, collective improvisation, young kids trying to outshine everyone with their technical virtuosity, cutting sessions between individuals for prestige, rivalries between bands.
when i started reading the book, i was expecting there to be casual racism, orientalism, exoticism, magical natives, colonialism, etc. i was pleasantly surprised to find that colin mcphee seemed to be pretty liberal for his day. he comes across as anti-colonialist. he’s appalled by various christian missionaries attempts to convert people. he finds the dutch school system’s tendency to squash the culture of indonesia repulsive. he is aware of his appearance as a white outsider and how that affects how people view him. he is respectful of the various cultures that exist in the islands. there was a bit of him acting as a white savior when he would try to organize gamelan clubs in the towns he lived in, spending lavish amounts of money on retuning and reforging instruments, and funding schooling for a young child who he wanted trained as a dancer. all things that fit into his desire to further his musical studies and experience, but it’s there nonetheless.
after i finished the book, i read mcphee’s tiny entry in wikipedia and learned that he was married while he was in indonesia and his wife was also with him. she’s not mentioned once in the entire book. it’s always him living on his own, hanging out with musicians, priests, princes, officials, etc. according to wikipedia he was gay, which didn’t surprise me given how much he seemed to enjoy describing the physical attributes of the different men who came into his life. i was playing a game of, is it old timey writing or is he gay the whole time i was reading this and wouldn’t have been surprised with either. he and his wife divorced shortly after they returned to the u.s. in a way i’m not surprised that he didn’t mention her, since that’s not what the book was about and in the book he makes it sound like the only reason he went was because of the music. but, man, considering she was an anthropologist and that her work was one of the reasons they decided to go indonesia, i found it shitty that he had erased her like that.
all in all this was definitely worth reading and i’m so happy that i have a context for this music instead of it existing in some vague region of my mind. i’m curious about mcphee’s music now. he apparently wrote a few things that were attempts at incorporating gamelan into western orchestral music. i’ve only been able to find a couple of songs, and they’re not really my thing. if anyone has any recommendations for his music, i’d be glad to hear them. i’m also curious to know what the status of gamelan music is in contemporary indonesian culture. is it totally museum music for tourists and for students of history? or does it still hold a place in the popular culture and conscience? do elements exist in pop music?