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Echoes of Indonesia at Eastman

The bursting open of a flower 

Echoes of Indonesia at Eastman

"Bali has the most vibrant culture I have ever seen or experienced," says Ellen Koskoff, professor of musicology at Eastman School of Music. You'll have an opportunity to see if this statement holds any water when she and the gamelan ensemble Lila Muni perform their annual concert at Kilbourn Hall as part of the ongoing World Music Series.

Lila Muni is not an ensemble by your typical standards. The name refers to something more complex. Lila Muni is the group of musicians who will be playing on Monday night, but more distinctly, the name refers to any group of musicians playing the particular set of instruments housed in the Eastman School's gamelan room. It is more like a club with a rotating cast of characters. "No one instrument is individually owned," Koskoff says. "It has its own identity."

These instruments are crafted by highly trained artisans in the islands of Indonesia, nearly halfway around the world.

"I had a friend who was a teacher at Bowling Green University," Koskoff says. "She said, 'Isn't it time Eastman had a gamelan?' 'Yeah,' I said, 'But who's going to teach it?' 'Don't worry,' she told me, 'You'll learn.' So we bought the Lila Muni from Bowling Green... We've had it since 1991."

"Gamelan" itself is a thorny word. The word stems from the Javanese word "to strike an instrument," and it now refers to a set of mostly percussive instruments, including handcrafted metallophones, gongs, bamboo bars, double-sided drums, and bronze chimes. By extension, "gamelan" also refers to the musical ensembles --- anywhere from four to 40 people --- that play these instruments. To Western ears, the instruments sound closely related to xylophones or mirambas and at first listen, the sound is very much like that of an oversexed music box.

Within gamelan, there is a micro-universe of styles and techniques too complex to fully explore. Gamelan Kebyar, one of the most popular subgenres, is signified by explosive bursts of sound, tempo-shifts, and schizophrenic changes in mood. Kebyar sometimes translates as, "the bursting open of a flower," other times as, "the flaring of a match."

Music infiltrates daily life in Indonesia. Gamelan music provides the backdrop for Hindu ceremonies and rituals, it also accompanies weddings, funerals, and tooth filings. Tooth filings of the incisors are a rite-of-passage for youth: Incisors symbolize the animal in humans, and filing them down makes one more civil.

Meant for pavilions or other open-air venues, gamelan in a four-walled concert hall is an aurally consuming experience. "It's very loud --- extremely loud," says Koskoff. The gong, the backbone of the ensemble, resonates so powerfully that it makes your ribs hum. "They say you have to be pure to play a gong or it will kill you," she notes.

The resulting music is hypnotic and beautiful, enchanting and mysterious. Each composition is unpredictable. Sometimes even the musicians don't know what is going to happen.

After the gamelan was sent to Eastman, Koskoff began attending seminars held in Montreal. And now they have weekly tutorials from a Balinese native, I Nyoman Suadin, who lives in Washington, DC and flies up for his classes.

Suadin's pedagogical approach to music is not what you'd call rigid. "Week by week it changes," Koskoff says. "He teaches by rote." Which means students don't need memorize pieces note for note. In fact, there wasn't a standard notation system in place in Indonesia until the 20th century when the Dutch imposed a European system.

"To them, music is not a fixed thing," Koskoff says. "It's a living thing." Rehearsals and classes are noticeably laidback; students and teachers talk freely.

"Here it's such a communal process," says Sylvia Alajaji, a PhD in musicology. "It's a release."

According to Koskoff, Suadin doesn't mind teaching authentic Indonesian music to young, white, American, Eastman school students.

"He wants to share the beauty and intricacy of Balinese music," she says.

But often there is a learning curve to contend with. The language of Bali does not always translate into English.

Koskoff recounts a conversation between Suadin and the group:

'"Now let's make it sweet.'

'But what does sweet mean?'

'You know, make it sweet.'"

Suadin is fluent in English, but American students of the gamelan need to relearn everything they know about music, and often there is something lost in translation. Alajaji has said she needed to dismiss her "preconceived concepts" of music "ingrained since childhood" to learn gamelan properly.

This ancient style has influenced a whole generation of modern musicians in the West. You can hear strains of gamelan in new classical and avant-garde musicians like Philip Glass and Harry Partch, but perhaps most noticeably in minimalist composer Steve Reich who stated that his piece Music For 18 Musicians was directly influenced by gamelan.

Gamelan represents an ideology with roots in Hindu-Buddhism. Within this philosophy is the idea of ramé, which, as defined by musicologist Sue Carole Devale, indicates the "heightened excitement one feels when experiencing coincident multiple layers of meaning, colors, sounds, and events." One can see this in each facet of the music, from the varicolored costumes to the ornately engraved drums to the ecstatic dancing and the layering of polyrhythms.

Despite the deep well of complexities, the music is immediately accessible. Alajaji agrees.

"I think anyone can appreciate gamelan," she says. "We don't see this in day-to-day life. It's so unique. But it's universal."

GamelanLila Muni will perform on Monday, April 25, in Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs Street, at 8 p.m. Tix: $2-$8. 274-1100, www.rochester.edu/Eastman


Elusive sounds

The sound of the gamelan has been as elusive as a fox. Repeated attempts to capture it have mysteriously failed. Satisfactory recordings weren't made until the late 1960s, nearly 60 years after the advent of recorded sound. And even since then, sound engineers have been plagued by freak accidents and recording malfunctions. Now there is a wealth of recordings, but the stories behind them rival the actual sounds for sheer intrigue.

In the 1930s an entrepreneur from German record label Odeon went to Bali and recorded cuts of traditional gamelan on 78-rpm discs. He then toured the country trying to sell them back to the native Balinese. He was mostly ignored. What did the Bali people want with heavy, scratchy, expensive discs that only played tiny segments of their acoustically rich music? The discs gathered dust. Eventually, in abject consternation, he went to the edge of a cliff and threw them all over the edge.

Fortunately, one person did purchase these discs and brought them back to the US. They were the first and only commercial recordings made of gamelan music before the devastation of WWII and have been released on CD as The Roots of Gamelan: The First Recordings. 1930s field-recording technology isn't particularly suited to the low-range frequencies of the gamelan orchestra, but this record still has an appeal --- it has a ghostly feel, and aside from the scratchy recording quality, the music is surprisingly modern. Composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee heard these original 78-rpm recordings and promptly abandoned the piano and moved to Bali. He repeatedly invited sound engineers to the island to record, but the imported equipment failed time after time.

In 1941 there was another attempt to make field recordings in Bali. However, the product went mysteriously unreleased until 1986 when the Library of Congress finally issued Music For the Gods: The Fahnestock South Sea Expedition. The Fahnestock brothers --- both explorers and ethnomusicologists --- used 16-inch acetate discs for their sessions, allowing for five-minute tracks. The equipment weighed several hundred pounds and took a crew of four to carry it across the island. While still in the South Pacific, their ship struck a shoal and sank. Fortunately, the recording equipment and records were saved.

These recordings were made one month before the Dutch East Indies were conquered by the Japanese. In the 13 intense tracks, one can almost hear a foreshadowing of the agonizing years to come. It's an exquisite selection of tracks --- the metallophones and kettles come at you in a shimmering flurry and you're easily lost in the music.

Presented to a capacity crowd in New York City in 1942, the field recordings were enthusiastically received. They made plans to make a commercial release, but the American entry into World War II cut their plans short.

Daniel Lewistan, one of the major ethnomusicologists to record in Bali, returned to Indonesia in 1987 with modern equipment to capture the gamelan. First the digital processor malfunctioned. Then the microphone pre-amp became noisy. There were no qualified technicians in Bali, so he had to fly north to Singapore to get it fixed. No such luck. Ultimately, he had to fly in equipment from Los Angeles. Despite the hang-ups, the resulting CD, Bali: Gamelan and Kecakcontains some of the purest recordings of gamelan --- all done in their natural environment with high-caliber equipment. Many of the tracks feature incidental accompaniment by frogs, crickets, geckoes, dogs, and roosters.

Lewistan also made a series of classic recordings in the '60s for the Nonesuch label. Recently, Nonesuch has re-released many of these original gamelan recordings as part of their Explorer Series. There are over 10 gamelan-related CDs in the series, but your smartest choice is to pick up Music from the Nonesuch Series: Indonesia, which includes 15 selections from the islands of Java, West Java, and Jasmine, in addition to Bali.

Also recently releasedis Lila Muni's premier recording, Gamelan Angklung: Traditional and New Music for Balinese Gamelan, which will be available at the Eastman concert.

Speaking of Gamelan, Lila Muni

  • Echoes of Indonesia at Eastman

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