"Let us speak of stillness in the constancies of nature, when 'music for my ears' is not merely sentimental, and not only to be found by meditating beside a waterfall, but, being attentive, in the fullness of the world."
So writes Philip Corner in the booklet that comes with the CD of Central Java XV. Returning Minimalism: In Nem. This was recorded over two days in October 2009 at the studio of the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI) in Surakarta (Solo) and is now released as number 15 in a series curated by John Noise Manis on his Felmay label based in Italy.
In our tropical climate, the sound of gamelan can be heard drifting from the courtyards of the sultanate palaces in Yogyakarta, Solo and Cirebon, and Balinese temples, often drawing us in.
Gamelan orchestra (1870-1891)
As Nicola Campogrande writes in the sleevenotes to Music of Remembrance, release number eleven in the Felmay series, gamelan music continues to seduce us especially for its capacity to push the clock in a corner, to make us pulsate with an alternative rhythm, to offer us a representation of existence devoid of tensions, targets, [and] thus relaxed, harmonious, enviable.
Living in the rush and crush that is Jakarta, such moments are rare. You have to go to a concert at Gedung Kesenian (the Jakarta Arts House) to hear gamelan played live, and then you have to put up with folk chattering away on their mobile phones or taking photos in order to reassure themselves and their social networks that they were there.
If you're fortunate to live in a back street far from the hum of incessant traffic noise and not too close to a mosque, settle down on your front terrace or porch shortly after jam maghrib, the time of the evening prayers. This is the bewitching hour – actually just 15 minutes if you're lucky – when an innate fear of hantu (ghosts) means that all and sundry seek the safety of indoors and an unusual calm settles over the neighbourhood. For a very short while you can be "a representation of existence devoid of tensions" listening to the rhythm of the evening within yourself.
It is this almost primeval element of gamelan that has inspired western musicians for over a century, although the roots of gamelan lie much further back in Indonesian history and mythology.
In Javanese mythology, the gamelan was created by Sang Hyang Guru in Saka era 167 (c. AD 230), the god who ruled as king of all Java from a palace on the Maendra mountains in Medangkamulan (now Mount Lawu). He needed a signal to summon the gods and thus invented gongs, thus forming the original gamelan set.
The earliest image of a musical ensemble is found on the 8th century Borobudur temple, Central Java. Musical instruments such as the bamboo flute, bells, drums in various sizes, lute, and bowed and plucked string instruments are identified in this relief. However it lacks metallophones and xylophones.
The gamelan has influenced several western composers of classical music, most famously Claude Debussy who heard a Central Javanese gamelan play at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Erik Satie was also there and his Gnossienne set for solo piano incorporates the repetitively hypnotic effects of the gamelan. Direct homages to gamelan music are also to be found in works for western instruments by composers Béla Bartók, Francis Poulenc, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten whose Balinese gamelan transcriptions were recorded in 1941.
Composer John Cage's 'prepared piano' pieces also owe a debt to gamelan; he defined music's purpose as "to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences."
In the early nineties, Lou Harrison composed specifically for gamelan on a set he co-owns which is housed in the State University of San Jose, California; this is but one of many in the USA which has a thriving gamelan scene.
Gamelan is probably a central influence on the minimalist school of music whose most noted composers are Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Steve Reich, who studied Balinese music in the early 70's, albeit in America, pioneered 'Systems Music', a term which describes music which evolves gradually with little or no variation of pitch, tempo, dynamics or timbre..
Terry Riley composed In C, possibly the seminal minimalist work, in 1964; it was released on the CBS (now Sony) label in 1968, and has been the subject of much scholastic discourse.
In C proposes a delicate balance between the individual and the group. It demands of its players a high degree of individual responsibility. It is very much a product of community. The act of listening implies that all the players devote themselves to the greater good of the piece, that they not only listen to their interaction with immediate neighbors but also hear the influence of their actions on the total work.
Gamelan and minimalist forms of music have that in common.
Dedek Wahyudi is not one of the eight musicians on In Nem, but coincidentally has an album out on Felmay this year. He was recently interviewed in the Jakarta Post and said, "Gamelan constitutes a collective performance. To maintain harmony, gamelan players have to listen to each other.”
Terry Riley's masterpiece has the note 'C' as its constant core, its heartbeat. 'Nem' is the Javanese word for 'six', the note common to both slendro and pelog scales in many gamelan sets and in the set that was played; without the pulse these recordings could easily be mistaken for original gamelan works which have no links to Riley.
Whereas the traditions and ceremonies of kratons and temples generally pre-determine what is played and when, the structure of In C allows for immense variation. For example, the Shanghai Film Orchestra version, recorded in early 1989, utilised traditional Chinese instruments such as "various lutes, zithers, mouth organs, flute, and percussion."
As far as can be determined by the Wikipedia page, only the version recorded in 2005 by Ars Nova Copenhagen, Percurama Percussion Ensemble made direct reference to gamelan with the use of a Bali gong, although the insistent beats are courtesy of marimbas and a vibraphone.
Apart from the expected Java gamelan, the Surakarta Ensemble recording features an Arabic bowed instrument, the rebab, an instrument, what sounds like a zither but is called a siter, kendang, Sundanese drums played with the hands (and a foot). as well as "an array of new, unique instruments expertly built by some of the players out of a variety of materials."
There are many ways to listen to In Nem, although being free from distractions is a major key to the listening pleasure. The three pieces, ranging in length from 19 to 38 minutes, have a hypnotic insistence which is at times incredibly funky.
Whilst listening, this reviewer likes to imagine a long train journey with the regular clickety-clackity as the background sound to the views of kampung life, farmers attending to their rice sawah, and the occasional heightened awareness that we're crossing a bridge over a ravine, passing through a tunnel or about to arrive at a station.
There are two silences of a minute and a half each between the three tracks, time enough to think about where you've been, to come to terms with where you are and to anticipate where you're going next.
It's a journey worth taking and I hope that some time the other four tracks recorded over the two days will also be released.
Jakarta Expat readers will be interested to know that the musical director was one of our own – Daniel Quinn of Gunung Bagging.com fame. He "simply encouraged the musicians to listen to other players and follow where the existing melody might take them. I would make limited comments with regard to varying the ‘pulse’, duration and instrumentation. Mostly however, I simply sat back and enjoyed the music…"
There is no better antidote for the stress of Jakarta, so that's what you should do: sit back and enjoy the journey.
Originally published in Jakarta Expat edition 48 July 20th – August 3rd 2011
Sample the tracks here.