Monday, 30 November 2009

Gamelan Weekend at the RNCM - Sunday

First up on Sunday morning was a super delightful concert of Sundanese degung by the Manchester group Degung Manchung. In the west, Sundanese gamelan is much rarer than Balinese or Central Javanese ensembles, and it's historical and cultural importance has regrettably been somewhat neglected. From a sheer enjoyment point of view, the music is highly attractive to listen to, especially on a Sunday morning after being up late for a wayang. The group played a mix of pieces, including a strongly executed polyrhythmic composition Fill It Up With Ghosts by Christophe de Bézenac, and a number of traditional styles often featuring Rachel Swindell's excellent suling playing. This fresh little group completely won the audience over; could have had more of this.

Two workshops followed during the course of the afternoon, both led by members of the Southbank Players, both of the highest quality and interest. As someone with an investment in this area, I've naturally read a fair number of books and articles on wayang kulit, and seen it performed both in the UK and Java. In the opening sentences of his super clear introduction to Javanese puppetry, Jonathan Roberts made plain to me five or six things key things which I had never noticed or thought about or read before. Perhaps it's because he's used to presenting this material to schools, but he went right back to the very beginning in terms of how these puppets look to the western eye compared to what they mean to the Javanese. This is exactly the kind of information which is so hard to glean, because it is so obvious to anyone immersed in the culture. He went on to show us the basics of how the different types of characters moved, and let us have a hands-on go at manipulating our puppets on the screen.

Esther Wilds' workshop on Javanese singing was also extremely clear and engaging, and pitched exactly right for the quite large and mixed group who had turned up. By the end of an hour the whole group had learned to sing short unaccompanied piece in the Javanese language, with a fair approximation to the rather difficult pronunciation and (to many) unfamiliar scales. Then, with half an hour to spare, she split us into three groups to learn a children's song, with actions. Like Robert her skill was in breaking this material down into clear easily-grasped chunks, rather than having to attempt to swallow the whole of Javanese culture and language in one go.

Oops, I've skipped over the lunchtime concert. This was by the York University group Sekar Petak, who had brought their own set of instruments with them. Like our own group Naga Mas in Glasgow, this is a group which does a great deal of composition, although perhaps with a slightly more academic slant.

I'm a composer myself, of course, of both academic and gamelan music, so I have some personal knots to untie here. David Hammond's piece Tainted Lunch left me thinking about whether and how and why one should use the existing formulas when writing new gamelan music; which many of my pieces have done, and which this one did. My jury is out on this one; on the one hand I felt I wanted to bin some of my pieces which are rewritings of sampaks or whatever, but on the other hand I like those pieces. But I was disappointed by David's piece; should I be disappointed by my own?

Peter Moran's Bonang Quartets 1 and 2 showed good original thinking, treating the four bonangs (in two different tunings!) as if they were as standard and sensible an ensemble to write for as string quartet. The actual pieces seemed perhaps to try to do too much in a short space of time; the ending of the second piece sticks in the mind (although inaudible to my deafening ears), the four players sliding bonang pots gently around on a piece of carpet.

Jon Hughes First chorus from The Women of Trachis (Sophocles) also seemed to me to display a kind of flawed thinking of which I have also sometimes been guilty in the past; that one could take two ancient and noble traditions, central Javanese karawitan and Ancient Greek strophic forms, and somehow marry them into something which might have existed if history had taken a different turn. Which in this case, unfortunately just seemed to produce something which was vastly long, slow, and not very engaging, as opposed to perhaps sitting through a klenengan or a Greek play, which might also be long and slow, but would perhaps be of some cultural or historical interest.

Clive Wilkinson's Spindrift was performed by a four-piece subgroup called The Gong Agenda, who evidently take a more experimental and improvisatory approach. I got over the rather pretentious sounding programme note, which might have been intended ironically, but still found it hard to engage with this textural piece. Many of the sounds were very quiet and subtle, long notes on a clarinet, stroking the bonang pots with wire brushes, blowing into the resonators of a gender, quiet sustained tones from a laptop. These were counterpointed by occasional bumps of sound; a loud note on the clarinet, a sudden gesture from the gender, and so forth. Probably it was quite a good piece honestly and well-performed; perhaps I wasn't in the mood for it.

Aris Daryono's piece for gender and electronics had disappointingly been cut from the programme for length, so we were left with John Jacob's Lancaran Bentwrong to end the concert.

Now; music; postmodernism. We are free to read anything we like postmodernly these days, but it seems to me that not that many composers are consciously writing postmodernly. By which I mean in particular (what do we mean by postmodernism, anyway?) a certain sense of irony, of playfulness, openness to our work being read and misread by different audiences, music which is about other music, music which comments wryly about itself. Is it possible to be playfully ironic in a language which you don't natively speak? And which your audience doesn't fully understand?

In short, is it possible for a composer to write postmodern gamelan music? It ought to be possible for an Indonesian musician in Indonesia, but is it possible for a western composer? Do we speak the language well enough to tell lies in it?

John Jacob's piece seemed to go some way in that direction, if I'm not reading too much into it. We start with a title, which is obviously a pun on the rather well known, even tired teaching piece 'Ladrang Bendrong'. It started with the bonang player confidently playing the buka, before descending into what may well have been a sort of self-doubt, the players attempting uncertain duets with one another, or attempting to play the instruments next to them. After a while we got a sort of syncopated post-minijazzamilist riff, again with perhaps an element of self-consciousness; this is exactly the kind of thing we all end up writing.

I don't know, perhaps I'm reading too much here. At any rate, a good piece, and good to have a concert dedicated to new music for gamelan, although the overall mode of the thing was perhaps a little... composatorial.

And finally, The Worst Gig I Have Ever Been To In My Entire Life. Now, I don't want to criticise any of the sidemen here, or even less the gamelan players, who were only playing their part. But, Sugeng Tindak (Farewell) Finn Peters' Butterflies was an indulgent mess of complete rubbish. The idea of having a jazz band ignore, play over and drown out a gamelan group might under some circumstances be framed so as to have some point or purpose, but here it was just lazy and ignorant. The music itself was lazy and ignorant, with the gamelan being given nothing to play but the simplest of one-bar ostinati, while the leader rambled meaninglessly over the top on flute.

The second piece in the concert was more or less identical to the first, with the gamelan playing an almost identical ostinato at an almost identical slow-rock tempo. The final piece in the concert was a rendering, by which I mean a tragic tearing up of, the well-known Buburan Hudan Mas. The concert started late, which is a clue; I'm guessing the leader was short of material, and had most likely sprung this piece on the band and gamelan at the last minute. Which was desperately unfair on the gamelan, who evidently did not know it very well. But even if they had, in what way were they possibly supposed to join in with the pointless jazz ravings on the tune into which the jazz band were goaded by their leader.

If I'd had the courage, I would have walked out, and I was also minded to ask for my money back. Give it to the degung group instead.


Anonymous said...

Right - not quite sure why you're devoting your time to slagging off other people's music. I was quite upset when I read what you've written, until a number of friends whose musical opinion I quite respect and who are familiar with your music said it is embarrasingly bad. It wouldn't bother me, but you've basically published your opinions as of interest to people who did not make the weekend - by putting down other peoples creative work in this way you are doing real harm. The gamelan world is quite small, so why not just keep your opinions to yourself? If I heard a piece I didn't like by someone, I wouldn't want to tell everyone, cause that's just thoughtless and damaging.

Sam Lea said...

- alright there, Finn Peter! As far as I can see, van der Walt has every right to express his own opinion. Naturally, it's up to others to agree or disagree with it - but no need to give him a moral dressing down. Welcome to "the internet".

J. Simon van der Walt said...

Thanks for that, Sam. Of course, we don't know who made the original comments, as they are posted anonymously; which is why I haven't felt the need to respond to them.

Peter Mochilla said...

Finn Peters's albums feature ostinati loops of gamelan music. What you heard was a live version of some of that material. It's plainly incorrect to say the band ignored the gamelan, and as for them playing over the gamelan, drowning them out, well, that's just how the music is. Using the language you do you create the impression that the performers were unwilling participants in a fantastic vanity show concocted by Finn, and that just was not how it looked to me. I thought it sounded sublime, and I bet it was a great deal less self-indulgent than some of the other music you describe in your write-up! I'll include in my own write-up here that your writing seems lazy and ignorant (your writing seems lazy and ignorant) ;)

紅豆 said...
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