Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Bali: Gamelan and Kecak

Another remarkable entry in the Nonesuch Explorer series of world music recordings is this 1989 release of Balinese gamelan and kecak recordings, supervised by David Lewiston in 1987.  Lewiston, who made many important contributions to the Explorer series, made his first trip to the island of Bali, in the region of Java in the Indonesian archipelago, in 1966 and made recordings that resulted in two albums that were early entries in the series.

Returning to the area two decades later, he remarked in the notes to this album, he found the process of arranging for the recordings to be much more difficult, because the pace of life and the gradual eroding of tradition complicated matters significantly.

Nonetheless, he was able, over a period from May to October, to record performances that showed that the unique music of Bali was still there to be savored and shared.  Some of these were recorded at the Bali Art Festival in the island's capital, Den Pasar.  The first piece is from the opening parade, in which some forty ensembles participated, and the 12-minute excerpt captures the sounds of a marching band called a beleganjer, which features songs, drums, flutes and cymbals; a gamelan with flutes, gongs, drums and a metallophone, a xylophone with tuned bronze bars in different pitches than heard in the Western version; a grumbungan ensemble performing on wood cowbells and slit drums; another gamelan called salunding, which includes tones like a bell; and another sample of beleganjer.

A village gamelan using a style developed in the 1910s comprises a ten-minute track with a notable harmony in the metallophone and a rollicking syncopation.  Following is a duet of a Balinese version of the jew's harp called genggong performed by brothers.  A four-minute frog song mimics these reptiles through the enggung, which is a piece of palm bark which is used as a wind instrument creating a very reedy sound. 

An example of the oldest type of gamelan found in Bali follows with the metallophone having iron bars and the result is a gorgeous one, showing its ancient origins of perhaps two thousand years.  Then comes a six-minute gamelan including the metallophone and the rich, sonorous tones of the gong, tempered by the high pitches of the flute. 

There is also a piece that has music accompanying puppet performances of tales that are taken from the ancient Sanskrit epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the puppets, made from leather, create shadows on a sacreen, hence the term "shadow play."  Two metallophones set at different octaves are played, but with the twist of the performer having to play with mallets in both hands, each of which plays a separate melody.  In addition, each note is followed by a damper by the heel of the hand and the players have to use syncopation in interlocking fashion.  Imagine the difficulty in learning to play in this way.

The kecak is a form of performing in which a chant of "tjak, tjak, tjak, tjak . . ." is done by a large ensemble of men, in this case 80, that reminds the listener of many of the trance pieces found in other parts of the world, but with this unique Balinese manner.  Coming to creation in the 1930s, the kecak is based on the story of monkeys who aided King Rama in his battle with a foe in the great Ramayana epic.  Finally, a nearly thirteen-minute gamelan based on a dance for warriors concludes this fascinating and varied album.

There is nothing like gamelan and Balinese music and its influence in the West has been shown in such areas as the piano work, Gnossienne, by the iconoclastic French composer Erik Satie, pieces by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, and modern composers like John Cage, Steve Reich, Mike Oldfield and, especially, Lou Harrison, whose work will be touched upon here soon.  Also to be covered here soon is the 1980s work of King Crimson, whose guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew made frequent use of complex interlocking duets that Fripp dubbed early on in that period as "rock gamelan."

It is striking that music from a relatively small part of the world should have such a major influence on the larger parts of it, but this is testimony to the hypnotic beauty and otherworldliness of Balinese music.

No comments:

Post a Comment