Monday, 30 November 2009

Gamelan Weekend at the RNCM - Saturday

Just got back from Manchester, attending a weekend of gamelan concerts and workshops at the Royal Northern College of Music, which turned out to be well worth the trip down from Glasgow.

The first thing we were able go get to on the Saturday morning was the RNCM Chamber Orchestra doing Lou Harrison's Suite for violin, piano and small orchestra. A very small orchestra indeed, in fact, really a chamber piece. I've lost my copy of the programme note, but if memory serves this was quite an early piece, dating from the early 1950s, showing a fascination with writing gamelan-like music before he actually got around to constructing instruments. A couple of the movements were entitled 'gamelan', and these were the most sucessful, with celesta, harp, percussion and tack piano playing simple ostinati throughout against a bell-like melody on the piano.

The second concert was also West-looks-at-the-East, but less satisfactory. Evan Ziporyn's gamelan-incorporating music is a bit of a recent discovery for me, particularly his excellent opera A House in Bali which I had the good fortune to see in Ubud. This concert of his Kebyar Maya missed the mark for me on several levels, however. The piece is for eight cellos, and consists pretty much of a direct mapping of the layers and textures of Balinese kebyar onto those instruments. So, it was kind of a 'this is what kebyar would sound like if you played it on a cello' piece; a slightly weak idea.

I also was suspicious of the approach taken by the conductor and players. In the pre-publicity material it talked about the players being asked to 'strike their de-tuned strings with gong beaters'. But, the conductor muttered something at the start about their having 'adapted' the piece, and there were no gong beaters in evidence. The playing was highly cello-istic, with the conductor drawing out heartfelt lyrical phrasing from long notes which on a percussion instrument would be struck and then die. The overall impression was of a performance where the western players had payed the composer to do the engaging with Other music on their behalf.

The lunchtime concert by the Southbank Gamelan Players was one of the highlights of the weekend. In some ways, this was pretty hardcore stuff, an entire programme organised around the Javanese måcåpat tradition of sung poetry. (But then, when it comes to gamelan music in the UK, this is the hardcore team, all of them long-time experts in Javanese music and culture; always a slightly daunting for a semi-dilettante village musician like myself to be around this crew!) They worked their way through a well-planned and varied programme, including in two places working with the dancer Ni Madé Pujawati. The instruments on which they were playing were a fabulously ornate set recently tuned by Pak Cokrik; the whole thing looked and sounded great.

A few hours later they were back in much more relaxed mode, in the cafe bar, for a wayang performance in English by Matthew Isaac Cohen. This was more than anything else what I had come to Manchester to see. I've seen wayang in Indonesia, but the language barrier is really quite steep, and it's a big part of what's going on; from high-flown court Javanese to crude street slang, its a form which traverses a great range of linguistic and performative registers.

Matthew and the South Bank Players have done a number of wayang recently, and this is the first chance I've been able to see them. It seems to me they are doing a fantastic job of translating waying into a shorter form in a different language, making it understandable and enjoyable to UK audiences while retaining a great deal of honesty to the original. Matthew has a great sense of humour, which was on this occasion slighly lost on a noisy audience in a reverberant space. I look forward to seeing him perform again.

A long drive back, last night; off for a cup of tea now, hopefully find the energy to write up some notes on the Sunday performances later. Including, perhaps, The Worst Concert I Have Ever Been To In My Entire Life.