Legend has it that when the French classical composer Claude Debussy first encountered Javanese gamelan at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, he was utterly entranced, returning again and again to hear the ensemble play. Depending on whom you ask, gamelan’s fluid, bell-like tones and cyclical motion either directly inspired Debussy’s later compositions, or simply confirmed his unconventional (for a European) notions of harmony.
As far back as the 12th century, and probably further, the gamelan, a collection of primarily percussive instruments including metallophones, gongs and drums, has been played in social and religious contexts throughout Java and Bali, often to accompany dance or puppetry. With its distinctive tuning system, fugue-like melodies, and communal aesthetic—a typical gamelan requires 20 to 25 players—gamelan has inspired devotees from as far afield as the Netherlands and Japan, particularly those with an avant-garde or experimental bent.
The American minimalist composer Steve Reich penned “Music For 18 Musicians” in direct homage to the Balinese gamelan, while the English prog-rock/new-age composer Mike Oldfield, famous for writing the theme to “The Exorcist,” used gamelan on several recordings. Most recently, the Japanese experimental pop group OOIOO released their album “Gamel,” which re-contextualizes the frenzied, polyrhythmic peals of Balinese gamelan within a rock idiom, to critical acclaim. They perform at Cafe 939 in Boston on July 19.
The influential American ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood devoted his career to the study of gamelan, and it is thanks to him that the instrument is so well-represented in American academia. The Boston area has not one, but three large and active gamelan ensembles: Gamelan Galak Tika at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Viewpoint Composers’ Gamelan at Harvard University, and the Boston Village Gamelan at Tufts University. Each embodies a distinct philosophy, coming to divergent answers to the question: How much may American practitioners toy with the centuries-old Indonesian idiom?
“I’ve been playing gamelan since I was 17. That’s like 43 years ago,” said Jody Diamond, an artist in residence at Harvard University. “So do I have the right to say, ‘This is my music?’”
Evan Ziporyn, a music professor at MIT and artistic director of Gamelan Galak Tika (pictured at top and performing in the video above) met me outside the MIT Museum with his dog, an affable golden poodle named Gigi, and led me upstairs to a dim, carpeted room. A sprawling gamelan was clustered against the far wall, a chaotic-yet-stately vision with its sinuous wooden carvings and rows upon rows of dusky bronze keys. When struck with a mallet, they released a clear, sonorous tone.
Ziporyn, an amicable man with close-cropped hair and strong features softened by a crinkly smile, explained the basic musical precepts common to Balinese and Javanese gamelan. Unlike the 12-note sequence of equal intervals upon which European classical music is built and that is used widely in popular music across the globe, gamelans are tuned in five and seven-note scales that have no mutually agreed-upon frequencies. Each gamelan has its own notes and therefore its own character.
“It’s really interesting how difficult it is for a Westerner to wrap their head around that,” Ziporyn told me. “Ethnomusicologists will constantly be like, ‘Well there’s got to be some formula that they’re using, we just can’t figure out what it is.’ But there isn’t.”
Perhaps most importantly, the act of playing gamelan is inherently cooperative and usually works best with at least 20 participants. Similarly, melody is conceptualized as the sum of many parts.
“In traditional Balinese and Javanese music, it’s not about harmony and it’s not about counterpoint,” Ziporyn explained. “There is harmony in the objective sense, and there is counterpoint in the objective sense, meaning there is a vertical alignment of tones, some of which sound good and some of which don’t. And that makes sense to those listeners. And there’s counterpoint in the sense that there’s more than one melody that goes on at once, but the way the music is conceptualized, there’s just one thing going on. There’s one tune, and that’s called the ‘pokok.’ And everything branches off of that in a way that the players and the listeners understand as being directly related to it.”
Gamelan Galak Tika plays three gamelans: a traditional Balinese instrument, a gamelan designed by Ziporyn using European-style “just” intonation, and an electronic midi gamelan called “Gamelan Eletrika.” The group performs an eclectic mix of material, from traditional Balinese pieces to new works by Balinese and American composers alike, at times incorporating string ensembles, rock instrumentation, and electronic music. The gamelan players perform in loose-fitting, colorful Balinese garb, a choice likely meant as a respectful gesture towards the music’s origins, but which could easily read as a blithe appropriation by a group of mostly white Americans of “exotic” aesthetics from a small, once-colonized nation in the Global South.
Ziporyn says that he has never experienced resistance from Indonesians for experimenting with gamelan music. “I think for the Balinese—and I don’t want to generalize because they’re all individuals and they all have their own opinions about it—their tradition is intact. Some guy, or some woman, coming in and doing some weird thing with gamelan, that’s interesting to them if they’re the kind of person that’s interested in these curiosities. They either think of it as a compliment if you’re respectful personally, or they think of it as a curiosity or a distraction. It doesn’t threaten their music. It’s a renewable resource, right? If you learn something about a melody or a structure, and you use it, that doesn’t hurt.”
Balinese gamelan is marked by quickness and precision, with complex, rhythmically-interlocking parts and occasional bursts of frenetic activity. The most distinctive feature of the genre is its tuning: though each instrument in a single gamelan contains the same scale, the notes are intentionally pitched slightly askew.
Ziporyn demonstrated how this works. He tapped one of the bronze keys, setting off a long, languid tone, and then its counterpart on a nearby instrument. The second was, jarringly, just a shade sharper in pitch. But when he struck them at the same time, that dissonance disappeared. In its place rang a single pulsating tone, at once bigger and richer than its two components.
You will not find that particular tuning quirk in Javanese gamelan, I soon discovered. Later that afternoon I ventured down to Harvard University to meet with artist-in-residence Jody Diamond, who directs the Viewpoint Composers’ Gamelan (featured in the video above) in Cambridge and the American Gamelan Institute in Hanover, New Hampshire. The gamelan housed at Harvard’s Student Organization Center was built by the contemporary American composer Lou Harrison and his partner William Colvig. It is customary to give gamelans, like ships, proper names, and this one was called Gamelan Si Betty.
Accompanied by her standard poodle, Lily, (all evidence to the contrary, there is no poodle requirement to play gamelan), Diamond let me into a spacious tiled room. Padding about in bare feet, she immediately set about rearranging the gamelan, which was in disarray from the last performance.
“Some people would say this is an American gamelan, but it was just built by an American,” she told me.
At first glance, Si Betty bore little resemblance to its Javanese and Balinese counterparts. In place of the solemn, ornately-carved instrument bodies were simple wooden boards emblazoned with a tangerine-hued floral pattern against a startling azure background. The keys were aluminum instead of bronze and held down by scaffolding nails. Unlike the Central Javanese instrument upon which it is modeled, Si Betty uses just intonation, a distinctly European concept based on frequency ratios.
Before we sat down for the interview, Diamond taught me a simple Javanese gamelan piece called “Eling-Eling.” At first I struggled with the technique, which requires the player to dampen the ringing key at exactly the moment that she strikes the next note, resulting in a crisscrossing game of chase between her two hands. Once I was bumbling along without too much hesitation, Diamond initiated a second pattern in an octave above, playing twice as fast as well as doubling each pair of consecutive notes in the original sequence, so that the melody at once increased in density and expanded. Gradually, she pushed the tempo up, and I followed. Then she stretched the beats out until, slowly, we came to rest on the home note, also known as “gong.” It was exhilarating and immediately satisfying, to send those effervescent tones into the air together, and to feel them click in and out of synchrony like gears in a clock.
We paused for a moment, enveloped in the acoustic reverb particular to the gamelan. “Isn’t that fun?” Diamond exclaimed.
More than that of her Boston-area gamelan colleagues, Diamond’s work deals directly with the legacy of colonialism and imperialism in gamelan’s spread across the globe. In a 1990 essay published in Musicworks, she identifies the way in which ethnomusicological practices have perpetuated power imbalances between researcher and ostensible “subject,” writing, “World music is a dangerous idea. If ‘world music’ means all music except Western music, it perpetuates a hierarchy of knowledge. It separates Western Culture, ‘reality’, from Other Culture, ‘an exotic variation to be observed’. ‘We’ know who ‘they’ are but they don’t know who we are. We understand the entire world but they only understand part of it. We decide what is good for our world and for theirs. We can participate in their world but should not have too much influence. We study ‘them’ and don’t share the results; they don’t need information.”
Diamond believes that by fostering more equitable relationships—economically, academically, and personally—between researchers and those who would have once been referred to as “informants,” a truly equal cultural exchange can be realized.
The upshot is a kind of post-modern, postcolonial musical philosophy in which no one, either local or foreign, is arbiter or keeper of any tradition. Diamond is not concerned with “preserving” gamelan music so much as interacting with it. Her compositions include mash-ups of American standards like “Wayfaring Stranger” with tunes written in a Javanese gamelan idiom.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum (such as it is) is Barry Drummond, the Javanese gamelan instructor at Tufts University. Under his direction, the Boston Village Gamelan (seen in the video above) performs exclusively central Javanese repertoire from as far back as the 17th century and as recently as today, all of it written in the same long-established style. Often, he invites Javanese players to join the performances. During our conversation, Drummond, who met his wife during one of his many stints in Java, emphasized the importance of cultural immersion as a path to mastering a musical language. In all his years as a gamelan devotee, he has never tired of the centuries-old material that grabbed him in the first place.
“Aren’t we in the West, or the United States, in some ways cultureless, so that we appropriate other cultures? I mean we appropriate everything,” he remarked at one point. “I try to be sensitive to that.”
While Diamond sees the contemporary, non-traditionalist Indonesian gamelan scene as healthy and thriving, Drummond worries that the older stuff is dying out. “The music that I like has been on the decline there.”
However, Drummond and Diamond do agree that gamelan is uniquely welcoming to players of all ages and skill levels. Both invited me to join their groups.
In keeping with his ideals, Drummond seems to be immersed in gamelan in all aspects of his life: he keeps a Javanese gamelan in his basement, and both of his children have played since a young age. When I visited his home in Cambridge, he coaxed his wife and daughter downstairs to join us on “Eling-Eling.” Drummond quickly demonstrated a fairly complex pattern to his 8-year-old daughter Gita, a bright, articulate girl who absorbed his directions avidly.
After a bit of conversation and some wrangling over preferred mallets, we were off, albeit haltingly, with Drummond hammering away briskly in the upper register while simultaneously singing along with the other parts to guide our way. It wasn’t perfect, but at last we all managed to land together, on the gong.