Balinese Ensemble in United States

Posted on December 13th, 2010 at 7:53 am by Farah Fitriani


The floors of New York City’s music halls attain various states of cleanliness. Few ensembles are in a better position to observe them up close than the Balinese ensemble Gamelan Dharma Swara.

In an October performance at a West Village club, its musicians sat cross-legged behind an array of glittering bronze percussion instruments on the black basement floor, a linoleum surface one suspects began as some other color.

Pool-playing patrons sat next to more sober listeners on beer-stained sofas.

It might seem far from Bali in spirit, but the music’s spectacular brightness attracted a rogue dog, something you might encounter in any temple courtyard.

Home for Dharma Swara is not Indonesia itself, but rather its consulate in New York.

That converted town house has a basketball court’s worth of hardwood on which to rehearse. Membership in the group is open to anyone.

The set of instruments — gongs, xylophones, drums and flutes — accommodates about 20 players.

Some are Balinese, but most are not.

The ensemble serves both to promote Balinese music and dance and, in a practical sense, to support diplomatic events.

The performers are roving diplomats themselves.

In addition to sundry clubs and concert halls, they have performed on the carpets of the United Nations, in the lobbies of museums, at college auditoriums and in the gardens of private patrons.

A flurry of dates last year helped raise money for a summer tour of Bali.

Last Sunday the group celebrated the release of its first album, a double CD set titled “Gamelan Dharma Swara,” with a concert in Greenwich Village.

An offering dance, a traditional form of temple worship performed with a nimble trio of women, honored the audience in a shower of flower petals.

The program also featured Pan Wandres’s Kebyar Legong (1914), a 30-minute tour de force with such explosive shifts of mood and tempo that few groups try to perform it — even in Bali.

The sound of gamelan ensembles, which have distinct Javanese and Balinese forms, became known to Western classical music connoisseurs through Debussy, Ravel and other composers who found its tonalities novel and inspiring.

In the 1930s, a young Canadian named Colin McPhee (1900-64) began drawing on gamelan’s interlocking melodic patterns in his own music, and his works and a later book of research became reference points for Balinese music in the West.

“In some ways Colin McPhee had the wrong impression of Balinese music,” said Pak I Nyoman Saptanyana, Dharma Swara’s artistic director since 2001.

“He preserved the older forms at the expense of all the new 20th-century styles. He didn’t see this as a living tradition that should continue to evolve.”

As in McPhee’s time, Balinese music continues to be swept up in romantic fantasies of the primitive and exotic, which Westerners frequently confuse with authenticity.

“Bali still serves as an icon of the mysterious premodern East,” said Andrew McGraw, the executive director of Dharma Swara.

“It satisfies a neo-liberal nostalgia for community and spirituality.

“Gamelan in the US is as much, if not more, a story about us than an accurate representation of Indonesian culture.”

It’s a story told by scores of gamelan ensembles across North America, many of which trace their roots to Mantle Hood, a pioneering ethnomusicologist who believed that scholars should learn to perform the traditions that they study.

In 1958 he started the first US-based gamelan at the University of California, Los Angeles, and trained the leaders of a hundred more.

At least that many ensembles exist today, on college campuses and as community groups like Dharma Swara.

Although the roster changes from year to year, Dharma Swara tends to include both emerging and established talents on the new music scene.

Recent members include the bagpiper Matt Welch (Blarvuster), the trombonist and instrument builder Richard Marriott (Club Foot Orchestra) and the percussionist Michael Lipsey (Talujon), who starts his own gamelan ensemble at Queens College in January.

“The learning process makes you use your brain in a completely different way,” said flutist Jessica Schmitz, co-director of the Asphalt Orchestra.

New pieces are taught by rote without notation, which requires deep understanding of musical structure as well as attention to detail. Because multiple parts combine to create a single melody, players depend on one another to rehearse as well as perform.

Saptanyana also notes that half the members are composers, some of whom have contributed to Dharma Swara’s repertory.

During Dharma Swara’s Balinese tour, audiences applauded wildly for an original work by McGraw, “Sikut Sanga,” which appropriates swaths of melody from “New York, New York” and “A Night in Tunisia.”

Next week one work will be a world premiere, by Saptanyana’s 18-year-old son, Putu, who performs on multiple instruments.

“I brainstormed using all the music I’ve ever heard and picked some ideas that I liked,” said Putu Saptanyana, who has spent as much time around New York City as in his Balinese village, Ubud.

As the audience ponders its intricately layered pulse and shimmer, few would suspect that the young composer does his most intensive listening to gamelan while he plays his Xbox 360.

News Source : The New York Time, The Jakarta Globe

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