By NAKAGAWA Shin, (Musicologist)

Regular readers of SA have probably already become familiar with Nakagawa Shin in his role as a musicologist. What you might not know is that he is also the director of a gamelan ensemble called Darma Budaya. The ensemble was formed at Osaka University in 1979, and in addition to performing traditional music in the central Javanese style, has shown great eagerness to perform contemporary compositions. This distinctive ensemble has already given the premier performances of a number of newly commissioned works. On Sunday, August 4 at Xebec Hall, Darma Budaya will perform two concerts of eleven contemporary works, including compositions by CAGE, NYMAN, OLIVEROS, HARRISON, and others as well as two newly commissioned works by Japanese composers. At the end of August, the group will be traveling back to the homeland of the gamelan, Indonesia, to perform these same works.
The Identity of the Gamelan
How can new developments be made in gamelan music? Naturally, the Indonesians are giving this question the most serious consideration. Outside of Indonesia, there are also people, like myself, preoccupied with this question. Exactly what kind of methods are available to us in this pursuit?
Gamelan Image
Gamelan group in Freiburg Germany
No matter how much one deviates from the gamelan and attempts to break free of orthodox concepts, it should still sound like a gamelan. To me, it seems as if there are two points that should not be forgotten. The first is reverberation. Most of the instruments in the gamelan are metal, and are imbued with a soft timbre. Of course, there are stringed (the rebab and siter), wind (the suling), wood (the gambang), and leather (the kendang) instruments, and voices (gerong and psinden), but these are like pieces of wood floating up and sinking down in the undulations of a big river--evanescent. The subtle method of arranging harmonic overtones brings out the textural shape peculiar to the gamelan. From the extremely small pieces of metal to the extremely big gongs, a wide variety of harmonic overtones are available. According to how often one strikes them, an infinite number of combinations of minute humming sounds and fertile harmonic overtones arise--this never fails to enchant me.

The second is the interchangeability of the performers. Rather than specializing in a particular instrument, gamelan players are versatile performers who can play all of the instruments. The gamelan is separated into more than ten parts, but it makes no difference which instrument a performer plays. Like climbing a staircase, beginners continually shift to a more difficult instrument until they master each of them. This results in any gamelan performer becoming able to predict the direction the music will take. At the same time, there are no individual performers who stand out; each part melts into a homogeneous sound.

This contrasts greatly with the conductor-driven, Western-style of orchestra. Even in the West, it was natural in the eighteenth century for a performer to play both the violin and the flute in turn.

Incidentally, in new gamelan music in Europe, the need for a conductor occasionally arises. When performing these works with my group Darma Budaya, however, we refuse to use a conductor. Because by using one, the eye completely replaces the ear.
Gamelan in Europe and the U.S.
According to my knowledge, from the visits I've made, the most active gamelan experiments are being undertaken in England, Holland, and the United States. Each of these has its own significant features. In England, London, and York are the main areas for gamelan experiments. Why is it that gamelan has flourished in England, when in Paris, a center for Orientalism in the late nineteenth century, the first such group has only just recently been created in the conservatoire in La Villette? It seems slightly unbelievable, but as it is located next to Holland, one reason is geographical. Another reason for its strong following might also be that in a land that has given birth to the Scratch Orchestra and Portsmouth Symphonia, there is a certain respect for anti-authoritarianism. At present, many English universities are equipped with gamelan, including, of course, Cambridge and Oxford.

Heading the South Bank Center group in London are two composers, Alec ROTH and Adrian LEE. They have taken material such as Shakespeare's plays (The Tempest, for example) and Alice in Wonderland to create dramatic works filled with humor and added a unique color to British gamelan. Just as texts such as the Mahabarata and the Ramayana have become classical, dramatic works for gamelan in Indonesia, one gets the feeling that works like these might eventually become classical gamelan works in England. At York University, Neil SORRELL's group has been seriously working at creating a contemporary gamelan. (Neil has provided me with many scores for pieces by Nyman and other contemporary gamelan works.)

The popularity of gamelan in Holland is easily explained by its having been a suzerain state over the colony of Indonesia. In Amsterdam, there are a number of groups that exist. The Ensemble Gendhing, led by Jurrien SLIGTER, is making positive efforts to promote the contemporary gamelan. As one might expect with Holland, the gamelan world is extremely diverse, and includes one well-known publisher of sheet music, Donemus, that supports gamelan activities by publishing new works for gamelan. The Dutch gamelan, based primarily on written music, has its roots in the most European avant-garde techniques. As can be seen in works by Dutch composers such as Will EISMA, Sinta WULLUR, and Ton de LEEUW.

In the U.S., there are great differences between the gamelan of the West and East Coasts. To begin with, there are apparently over 200 gamelan groups in the U.S., and since I have only had contact with a very small portion of this number I am somewhat lacking in information on the subject. It is clear, however, that as far as circulating information goes, the American Gamelan Institute, having published over 150 gamelan scores, has created a situation in the U.S. which is the most outstanding for gamelan in the world.

It is the West Coast that has taken the most challenging approach to the established image of the gamelan. This includes, in particular, forerunners such as Lou Harrison, whose group has deservedly received much attention for its home-made full sets of gamelan instruments. Based on just intonation, their extremely beautiful timbres are somewhat alien to the Indonesian gamelan, and there is a lack of distortion as well as less elaborate scale and hum. However, with the addition of other non-gamelan instruments such as violin and kokyu, it has been somewhat simplified. There are also groups that while creating original music, put greater emphasis on process than full notation of their work. For example, Daniel SCHMIDT's group in San Francisco. Each of the group's members explain their own musical ideas, and through repeated rehearsals the musicians practice each of these sounds. On the East Coast, Barbara BENARY's group, Son of Lion, is particularly noteworthy. (For a time, Philip CORNER, known for his work with Fluxus, was a member of this group.) There is a particularly strong performance element in the group's work, which serves as a strong reminder that by working in New York they share the same territory with many other experimental musicians.
Japanese Gamelan: Darma Budaya
Darma Budaya Image
Darma Budaya & FUJISHIMA Keiko
Darma Budaya Image
Lou Harrison's Double Concerto
There are over ten gamelan groups active in Japan, but of these only the Osaka-based Darma Budaya is constantly performing new works. Why is Darma Budaya the only group like this? A variety of negative reasons come to mind, but it would take too much time to explain them here. For the time being, I'd just like to explain the direction that Darma Budaya is taking.
Our basic idea is that music is a hybrid creation. We are playing gamelan music in Japan, and while it might be an obvious thing to say, it is impossible for us to be completely disconnected from our surroundings. There are many kinds of musicians and artists around us, and we are interested in performing collaborations with them. This is an entirely natural course of events. Besides commissioning composers such as SHIBATA Minao, MATSUDAIRA Yoriaki, MATSUNAGA Michiharu, NANATSUYA Hiroshi, NAKAMURA Shigenobu, NODA Masami, and NOMURA Makoto, we have written many original works. We have also performed collaborative works with dancers and visual artists. In the process of doing gamelan music in Japan, one is faced with a host of dichotomies: one's own culture vs. another culture, west vs. east, traditional vs. contemporary. But in the end there is nothing good about being bound by these sorts of textbook configurations. It is perhaps better if one, while laughing, can invalidate, or nimbly slip through the cracks between these opposing positions by being active.

Ed Osborne
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