I recently took a short break on the Indonesian island of Bali, a three-day cocktail not just of swimming, surfing and sunsets; colourful batik, engaging artwork and an ancient temple completed the mix. Ambling around the grounds of that temple, and above the respectful silence of the bevy of tourists, there floated a sound: gently metallic, hauntingly ethereal, percussive yet soft-edged, hinting at its roots in the modern vibraphone. I speak of the sound of the gamelan, the traditional form of Indonesian music-making, heard particularly on the islands of Bali and Java. The name won’t have such a soothing effect on everyone: teachers who have had to impart its musical mechanics to exam candidates, and parents whose children have grappled with extended essays on the subject, might claim to have heard enough of the drums, gongs and metallophones that comprise a typical gamelan ensemble. Yet its charms have persuaded many a composer of western classical music to integrate its unmistakable sounds into their works.
Before we get into that, let’s hear an audio clip of an authentic gamelan performance (8.558020). It may well have been sounds similar to these that were heard at the Universal Exhibition held in Paris in 1889, when such completely novel sounds enthralled distinguished visitors such as Debussy, Poulenc and Ravel. Before we hear how it influenced those French composers, however, we’ll take stock of how the gamelan was soon travelling further afield than Europe, namely to North America.
Having been introduced to recordings of the gamelan, the Canadian composer Colin McPhee (1900–1964) subsequently travelled to Bali, where he lived for a number of years in the 1930s. Shortly after his return, he wrote his 3-movement Tabuh-Tabuhan (9.80011), subtitling it Toccata for Orchestra and two pianos as a reflection of the rhythmic energy that pervades the composition. McPhee had this to say about the piece:
“The title of the work derives from the Balinese word tabuh, originally meaning the mallet used for striking a percussion instrument, but extended to mean strike or beat … Tabuh-Tabuhan is thus a Balinese collective noun, meaning different drum rhythms, metric forms, gong punctuations, gamelans, and music essentially percussive.”
Here’s the closing section of the work.
The American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003) came under the influence of John Cage in San Francisco, Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles and Virgil Thomson in New York. He’s possibly best remembered, however, for his experiments in intonation and achieving an east-west synthesis in his works. Here’s how he introduces one of his noted compositions, written in 1961, that manages just that:
“The Concerto in Slendro, for Violin, Celesta, 2 Tackpianos and Percussion (CDS221) is filled with my eager anticipation of a first taste of the beauty and bustle of Asia. The title derives from the Indonesian theoretical term denoting any five-tone mode [slendro] in which the “seconds” are roughly “major” (or large) and the “thirds” “minor” (or small).”
Here’s the opening of the first movement, Allegro vivo.
The metallic, percussive nature of gamelan defines its tonal palette. As regards the way the notes are put together, there’s no space here for a scholarly check list of the elements involved: a surface reading, however, throws up ostinato (repetitious) patterns, the anchor of a unchanging tone at the bass end of the texture, and an overall, static feeling of the music going round in circles rather than arching into the sky and then settling down again.
Written in 1932, Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos (C5237) has a section towards the end of the opening movement that perfectly exemplifies this: listen for the repetitive figurations in the pianos at the start of this extract; the simplicity of folk-like melodic snippets; the bass anchor in the sonorities later on, resembling the tintinnabulation of deep gongs; and the cheeky ending where the west gives the east a peck on the cheek in farewell.
The 5-note slendro scale mentioned earlier can’t really produce a perfect cadence, which is the most common pairing of a western piece’s final two chords, giving an unequivocal feeling of finality. The 6-note whole-tone scale that was used so often by Debussy has the same limitation, producing that feeling of drifting, rather than being directional. Listen to Debussy’s Voiles (8.553293) as it meanders along; also note the ostinato passages and the deep repeated bass notes once more. Java and Bali are never far from the imagination in these sorts of sound.
Finally, some music by Ravel, his La vallée des cloches (9.70873), in which you will no doubt be able to draw your own parallels with all the previous clips in this blog. And when you’re sipping on your next Bali Surf ‘n’ Sunset cocktail, you can pretend that your floaty feeling is all down to the influence of that hypnotic Balinese gamelan music.