Balinese Gamelan Music
Olivier Messiaen: Turangalila Symphony
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Jean Laurendeau (ondes martenot)
Gamelan Semara Santi of Swarthmore College
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)
"…The music is fantastically rich-melodically, rhythmically,
texture (such orchestration!)…a remarkable culture."
Benjamin Britten, in a letter from
Bali to Imogen Holst, January 1956
In what has long been considered by many Europeans a primitive area of the world there exists an extremely sophisticated musical system already hundreds of years old before the first Dutch traders reached the South Seas. Gamelan music, the heart of this system, can be found on the islands of the Indonesian archipelago from Java and West Java to Bali, the lesser Sunda chain and the neighboring islands of Rinja, Pontar and Flores. Not only does this music encompass an entire universe of orchestral color and emotion, it has been highly influential in the development of Western classical music in the twentieth century.
In 1889 the Grand Universal Exposition in Paris was celebrated to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. Claude Debussy was amazed by the sonorous effect and the sophisticated complexity of the visiting Javanese gamelan. He wrote "…Javanese music is based on a type of counterpoint by comparison with which that of Palestrina is child's play." Most likely he was already familiar with at least slendro tuning since an entire orchestra of instruments was available at the Paris Conservatory, but certainly no one in the West had ever heard this music played by experts before. For Debussy this experience was a watershed and there are several direct links between the aesthetics of the gamelan and the mature music of this French master:
1. Although difficult to express in words, the most significant similarity is the spaciousness of Debussy's orchestration, a direct rebellion against the thick sonority of the huge Wagnerian orchestra prevalent in the 1890's, and inspired by the wind blown textures of the gamelan.
2. Debussy's use of water imagery (La Mer, Sirenes, Pelleas) corresponds to the basic gamelan sound. He wrote that the Javanese "…conservatoire is the eternal rhythm of the sea…"
3. Unique combinations of instruments in Debussy, such as the flute, viola and harp are similar to the Javanese combination of suling, rebab and chelempung and his use of the harp to create "air" in his orchestration of major works evokes the gamelan's distinctive natural sound.
4. Debussy's use of the whole-tone hexatonic scale is right out of slendro tuning.
5. There are some pieces, for example Pagodes from Estampes, which directly imitate the harmonic structure of the gamelan and produce a recognizable Asian sonority.
6. Debussy is the first composer to use the percussion section as an element of the melodic and although his efforts in this category seem tame today after the works of Varese and Chavez, they were revolutionary in the 1900's (see the importance of the drum and its foreshadowed implied rhythms in the nocture Fetes) and paved the way for Bartók and Stravinsky.
7. The repeated rhythms and layers of instrumental line in La Mer are certainly inspired by the gamelan.
8. Debussy's writing for the piano, essentially an instrument struck with mallets, leaves the listener with the feeling that there are no hammers in use, that the sounds just appear magically on the wind and this is exactly the effect of a gamelan orchestra, which has many men pounding on instruments and yet the sonic illusion is that there is no percussiveness. This style of pianism was of particular influence on Ravel, see for example the Ondine section of Gaspard de la Nuit.
9. Debussy's piano pedaling instructions produce a rich upper atmosphere of overtones similar to the added layer of gamelan music played indoors in a special enclosure called a pendhapa.
Which is not to say that Debussy set out to consciously create a Western equivalent or imitation of Javanese music. Rather he adapted the Indonesian aesthetic to his own individual artistic world-view. The Western concept of "classical music" is foreign to the thinking of the Indonesian musician. Although themes and structures are handed down from the past, the essence of the gamelan is the present, the creation of sound at the particular moment of performance. When Olivier Messiaen created his masterpiece, the ”Turangalila” Symphony, he called the augmented percussion section a "gamelang". His use of the electric wave-generating keyboard instrument known as the Ondes Martenot helped to create that wind effect in the score and also assisted in stratifying the layers of instrumental sound to allow for spaces between the sonorities (as well as significant gamelan-inspired overtonal activity). Further, he uses the percussion section as a melodic instrument, not just a rhythmic one. The main theme of the fourth movement is stated by the wood block and the ninth movement (Turangalila 3) may be the best example in all of Western music of a recreation of the essential "feel" of the gamelan. Messiaen's two star pupils, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, adopted his love for the gamelan in varying degrees. Boulez, formally renouncing his mentor's love of the genre, spends a great deal of time in his music arranging for the sonic moment to be interesting and exotic and in the process sometimes creating a gamelan-like sound (although this usually doesn't last for long) while Stockhausen, who belonged as a young man to groups that performed Balinese music in Paris, journeyed to Bali in the 1960's and came back to Europe inspired to create an entire series of major works based on Indonesian colotomic principles. The Licht series, one event for each day of the week, borrows heavily from the gamelan. It is performed outdoors with a huge array of noisemakers spread out around the physical space and elements of improvisation are central to the total effect of the work (gamelan musicians are essentially composers as they create a unique version of a particular theme and its structure for each individual performance). Stockhausen also recorded Balinese music on his trip and reproduced it electronically in several experimental pieces of the late '60's, including "concerts" where he just sat on the stage and played his tapes (I had the opportunity to attend one of these extremely spiritual evenings at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford).
As often as I have experienced performances of the ”Turangalila” (including the concert by the New York Phil in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday with Messiaen and his wife Yvonne Loriod in attendance), I have never before had the opportunity to hear it in context. Making his first New York appearance as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach emerged standing amongst some of the most strikingly beautiful instruments the Carnegie stage has ever seen and proceeded to tell us all briefly about the gamelan and its influences. What followed was a radiantly magical performance of exuberant music which thrummed and echoed all around and above us, the superb Carnegie acoustics realizing their greatest potential. The young musicians from a local Pennsylvania college anointed us all with blessings and joy.
Our collective ears thus bathed ceremonially, we were ready to enjoy a splendid performance of the Messiaen. Alas, this was not forthcoming. Of course, with the nation’s best orchestra in tow, Maestro was able to create more than a few gorgeous individual sonic moments, frozen bits of time that would have pleased the composer greatly, but the essential rhythmic vitality of the piece seemed curiously absent. The soft, tentative flutterings of birds were there, but the loud, strident interruptions in the fabric of time were not forceful, not jarring. The orchestra never seemed to grab on to this wild ride; they appeared to have been left at the station. Jean-Yves Thibaudet was competent but not exciting (he is certainly no Aimard in this piece) and Jean Laurendeau was so self-effacing as to virtually negate the importance of the wave-generating futurism so integral to this unique work’s élan. The final impression was that of a lot of loud gesturing, putting the lie to Messiaen’s affinity for the gentle, otherworldly nature of his musical urtext. Had this been my first hearing of the piece, I would not have come away thinking that the Frenchman had done much to enhance the Pacific (in both senses of the word) original.
Frederick L. Kirshnit