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XV. Returning Minimalism: In Nem - GAMELAN of JAVA and BALI

Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis

GAMELAN OF CENTRAL JAVA – XV.  Returning Minimalism: IN NEM

Front cover: one of the instruments invented by Al Suwardi – the gentha

 

It was 25th October 2009 at ISI Surakarta and myself, recording engineer Mas Iwan, and eight of Central Java’s finest gamelan players and composers were standing in the studio entrance hallway, eating bananas, boiled peanuts and – of course – nasi goreng, and waiting for the torrential thunderstorm to abate and for electrical mains power to be restored. This was the start of the second of a two-day recording session of material the concept of which was dreamt up in emails between John Noise Manis and myself. We enthused over how there still remained so many possibilities in gamelan music which incorporated ideas from sources outside of its own tradition. The studio was filled with a curious mixture of the usual gamelan instruments plus an array of new, unique instruments expertly built by some of the players out of a variety of materials.

At the end of Day One, four of the players decided that in order to give more structure to what they were playing they would each compose melody fragments for each other to use on Day Two as the basis for the lengthy ‘semi-improvisations’. This would still leave much of the instantaneous musical decision making – with regard to on which beat to commence, how rapidly the phrase was to be played and how many times – open to each individual player.  Thinking on your feet – a feeling of when it is ‘appropriate’ or ‘natural’ to introduce a new phrase – is something Indonesians are particularly expert at. Working together almost telepathically is something intrinsic to the very nature of Javanese culture – including the weaving and winding of the thousands of motorbikes on the roads of Java!

The day before had been a success – three ‘takes’ saved – the first of which (Nem One) had that magical exploratory quality to it which sometimes occurs at the very beginning of recording sessions, when musicians feel free to experiment, knowing that they still have much time to lay down other pieces. It featured rebab, suling, siter, and had the widest array of musical timbres of any of the pieces. However, I was hoping that Day Two would be the time for the musicians to really shine, having by now become comfortable with the ideas behind the project. My aim had been to interfere as little as possible rather than limiting their creativity by offering too many suggestions. I do remember that I simply encouraged them to listen to other players and follow where the existing melody might take them. On Day Two I would make limited comments with regard to varying the ‘pulse’, duration and instrumentation. Mostly however, I simply sat back and enjoyed the music…

Much has been written of the similarity between the cyclical, non-chord based structure of gamelan – both Javanese and Balinese – and the so-called minimalist classical music emerging in various areas of Western music from the early twentieth century onwards. Since then, Western composers were incorporating some of these ideas into their own works. Examples of Western music which have ideas in common with gamelan include work by the composers often grouped together as having initially sprung into being in America in the 1960s – Terry Riley, Steve Reich and others.
Steve Reich specifically studied Balinese gamelan in 1973-1974 – albeit at home in America. Reich’s contemporary, Terry Riley, was arguably more influenced by Indian music yet his pioneering early work ‘In C’ (1964) sounds very gamelan-esque in terms of structure and, interestingly, like a prototype for much of Reich’s subsequent career. ‘In C’ is still regarded as one of the most important benchmarks of minimalist music. The score is a semi-conceptual one, designed to make no two performances sound too much alike. Musical phrases are available for musicians to work their way through in order – at their own discretion – but  in any given performance the players are given the freedom to ‘semi-compose’ by means of ‘semi-improvisation’. It is up to them which phrases are used, for how long, and in what manner. Some musical phrases may be omitted. Their judgment directly determines the nature of the performance in terms of mood, pace and duration in a way not possible in traditional classical music.

Each individual’s performance sounds fairly simple when heard in isolation. The magic is in the mixing together of the individual performances to create something which – given its simplistic ingredients – sounds remarkably complex. It’s all about the way these musical fragments are put together to create a mesmerizing array of interlocking, shimmering ‘moiré’ patterns. It sounds a little like a musical version of micro-organisms darting back and forth, or cells replicating, as seen through a microscope in a science laboratory.
Many experimental musicians across the globe continue to make performances and recordings of their own interpretations of ‘In C’. They vary from fairly faithful reproductions of the original melody motifs to wildly experimental noise barely identifiable as a rendition of ‘In C’. Given the many parallels that exist between Western minimalist music and Javanese gamelan, John Noise Manis and myself decided that it was about time somebody set out to try a Javanese gamelan interpretation, in the broadest possible sense.
It’s unlikely that Reich and Riley and their colleagues were oblivious to the excellent Nonesuch Explorer gamelan records that were being released in the late 1960s as ‘world music’ began to influence both composers and listeners alike on a global scale. Whether or not Riley had heard much gamelan prior to his composing ‘In C’ is an interesting question but instead of focusing on composers as individuals we ought to view them in a much broader social context of the times and technology that surrounded them. It was not just music but all of culture – art, fashion, cuisine, literature and so on – that was being re-evaluated by the more open-minded citizens of many Western countries at the time. The cultural palette with which artists could work from was increasing in size at a breathtaking rate. Ideas were speeding back and forth across the globe and giving people brand new ideas or confirming and revealing their old ideas in a new light.

Instead of asking whether or not, or to what extent, Western minimalists were inspired by gamelan, we should just perhaps acknowledge that all sorts of fascinating hybrids were being created in the huge compost heap of cultural ideas at that time. The original ingredients and sources are for the most part far too numerous to explain in a few paragraphs. Our understanding of them is perhaps not all that important and our seeking after this comprehension is probably misguided. The most important thing we need to remember is that Riley and Reich were among the first truly global composers – their worldly music had little respect for national borders. The trumpet player on the original 1968 recording of ‘In C’ was none other than Jon Hassell, a composer who took global music to magnificent heights on a series of albums in the late 1970s and 1980s of his self-styled Fourth World Music. In my opinion, it is his under-recognized work which represents the finest culmination of the cultural cross-pollenization that had been occurring over the preceding decades.

Another major element that links gamelan with Western minimalism is the drone. Music based on a drone rarely changes chords. There is not necessarily a need for linear development as the melodies are cyclical. Drone-based music often has a quality which makes it uncategorizeable except by the era of the technology used in performing or recording it. A lot of traditional folk music utilizes drones – Scottish bagpipe music is underpinned with a powerful, buzzing drone; folk music of many European countries rests on a drone substratum which glues the piece together and heightens the hypnotic effect it can have on the audience. Just listen to some of the incredible works on the amazing collection Secret Museum of Mankind and you’ll probably find that it’s the simple, drone-based, atmospheric works which are the most affecting and haunting. Changing chords is often used as a method to keep people interested. The drone is generally used to emphasize that the place where we are is good enough, but that we’re going to deepen this atmosphere anyway. All the best ambient music rests on the belief that there is less of a need for music to ‘go somewhere’ but rather for it to actually ‘be somewhere’.

I suppose many children have had fun pointing one mirror into a second mirror and seeing the images of mirrors zoom off into an endless infinity of mirrors. In a similar way, we thought we’d throw the ideas behind ‘In C’ back at the Javanese gamelan experts in Solo and see what they would make of something which lots of people have said reminds them of gamelan.
…Day Two did indeed turn out to be day for a bumper harvest of great gamelan minimalism. The first piece on Day Two (Nem Four) remains my favourite. It almost seemed as though the inconvenience of a thunderstorm and a power-cut gave the players an enhanced sense of urgency. Led by Pak Joko’s musical phrases and Pak Al’s incredibly precise ‘pulse’, as always played on his own unique cowbell-like instrument called the ‘gentha’, the music was the most uplifting of the entire weekend. Everything gelled perfectly.
How Pak Al could possible manage to beat out such a rapid pulse for such a length of time is beyond my comprehension. It must be something to do with a superhuman dexterity, supreme muscular strength and a stamina which knows no bounds. There are very few people who have the necessary discipline and precision to carry this daunting task out effectively and it is highly probable that the player him or herself has the least fun out of any of the musicians taking part. As you will hear, the pulse elements of the recordings are, for the pulse players, more like hard and monotonous physical labour than music. It must have been difficult for the other musicians too, because the tempo was not dynamically and expressively given by the kendhang as in their classical music, but was rigidly marked by the pulse. And then the all-important large gong, which everyone must normally ‘lock in’ with at the end of a cycle, was also missing. On the second day I made suggestions to double the speed of the pulse or play an irregular pulse in order to help give each performance its own character and flavour.
The final piece of the weekend (Nem Seven) had an irregular pulse and was the most ferociously rhythmic of the weekend. After all the others, somehow all eight players found a new level of energy for this wonderfully textural finale. Pak Al led the melodies in this piece which at times sounds more like a technically proficient avant-punk band playing wild syncopations on a gamelan set.
Interestingly, without the pulse these recordings could easily be mistaken for original gamelan works which have no links to Riley and his piece ‘In C’. That is one reason the recordings are titled ‘In Nem’, ‘nem’ being Javanese for note ‘six’, which is the note common to both slendro and pelog scales in many gamelan sets and in the set that was played. These pieces should be understood more as Riley-inspired gamelan semi-improvisations over a drone-pulse than a genuine attempt at a faithful interpretation of ‘In C’. Each piece became its own composition. We simply fed the musicians a few ideas that had been – directly or indirectly – partially fathered by gamelan repertoire itself. “Take the concepts of the original composition, and do what you like with them in your own way”.

Daniel Patrick Quinn

 

Impressions and comments on the In Nem sessions by the performing musicians

Note
These comments were written, on my request, the days following the sessions. They seem to indicate that the musicians had problems with the technique of ‘In C’, the model composition. Were the difficulties inevitable, because of music culture differentials? We can suspect so. Not on an absolute basis, but because of lack of time (not a question of a couple of days) for the performers to interiorize the unfamiliar musical discourse. Not only the model had ‘rules’ that, for being foreign to the musicians, appeared particularly strict to them, but also the idea of ‘improvisation’ was different (maybe only apparently!) from the one the Javanese use, based on what they call ‘garap’, treatment.
I have the impression that the musicians, in writing these comments, may have overemphasized the difficulties they encountered. Playing in ways which are foreign to their knowledge and expertise, they may have felt uncertain about the results, thus emphasizing the difficulties of the endeavor.

Fact is that, after all, they succeeded in their performances. It is amazing that, in spite of the problems revealed by the following comments, outstanding tracks such as the ones included in this CD were created

(JNM)

 

Joko Purwanto

After listening to the original version of ‘In C’ by Terry Riley, I imagined what it would be like if this kind of model was applied to the Javanese gamelan. At first, I thought it would be easy to do. Each musician would focus on a particular pattern or phrase which would be repeated for a certain length of time; and each musician would be given freedom of expression.
However, what happened on the first day was not what I had imagined. When we started to practice together in the studio, the self-expression that I had imagined would come easily did not seem to be as easy as I had thought.  [Note–  It is reported (p. 44, in “In C” by Robert Carl, 2009) that during rehearsals for the first performance of In C in November 1964 Terry Riley, who had assumed the work would be easy, quickly found out that it was more difficult than he imagined.]  All the musicians were waiting for each other and seemed confused about what kind of patterns to play.  This happened several times until eventually I created a few short patterns that we could use as a starting point. After that, things went more smoothly but the result was still not perfect. Numerous factors contributed to the lack of success, one of which was the length of time we had to play according to the proposed model, around 40 minutes.
Based on the experience of the first day, I took the initiative of asking a few of the other musicians (Al Suwardi, Sukamso, and Darno), as well as myself, to compose a few patterns that we would use on the second day. The problems we encountered on the first day also reoccurred on the second day, that is in addition to the long duration of the piece, we tended to be affected by what the other musicians were playing. All the musicians have a strong background in Javanese gamelan, with its relaxed or “laid back” style in which small mistakes are acceptable and there is only one melodic line, and this seemed to be somewhat of a disadvantage for the Riley model. Here we had to play exactly what had been written. That meant we had no choice to play another possibility, compared with traditional karawitan, in which every musician follows only one melody (balungan), and he has the freedom to choose the kind of pattern (cengkok) he can play. So what I am trying to say is that playing in this kind of composition is very hard and requires much concentration all the way through. While playing karawitan there is a feeling of joy, not too hard concentration. As a result, all of the musicians encountered a good deal of stress and a fairly heavy mental burden. We did not feel a complete sense  of freedom but on the contrary felt that the “freedom” of the Riley’s model tied down our interpretation, improvisation, and expression. I felt it was not easy to play such music. And this was a new experience for me.

 

Al Suwardi

In my opinion, this is an interesting model of composition to talk about, but it could be boring to listen to, especially if it has a relatively long duration. For the first few minutes, there is a sense of momentum which manages to keep our full attention. After that, the sense of regularity or constancy risks to feel like a “tape loop” and the listener might begin to feel bored.
The best way to utilize this compositional model should be to have a variety of different models or schemes in a single composition. Also, it is important to use the timbres available and the improvisation of different players who interact to enrich the texture, so as to create continuous surprises for the listener and greater interest for the performers.
I can appreciate the methods of composing known as “minimal music” or “process music” or “phase music”. In my opinion, if I may say so, these methods can be developed further and acculturated with other methods.

 

Sri Harta

In my opinion, the recording which took place last Saturday and Sunday was a good collaboration, but when the material to be performed was not pre-planned or programmed, we, the performers, were not entirely prepared to create or produce the material spontaneously. When changing from one instrument to another, we also had to feel our way or try and produce new fragments or patterns as best as we could. If the main material had been prepared beforehand, and we had only to fill in certain parts, I feel confident that the result would have been better.

 

Sukamso

1- It was a very good idea to record this new composition.

2- Some of the ideas behind the composition which we recorded were based on rhythmic play – for example Al Suwardi’s piece [Nem Seven] was suitable to be developed spontaneously.

3- The pieces led by Sukamso and Darno [not on CD] were based on melodies with a Javanese influence, but as there was not enough time to practise and the performance was spontaneous, the development of the ideas did not reach the full potential.

4- Although Sukamso’s version used melodies with 8, 10, and 9 beats, if we look at the rhythmic aspect of the melody, it is not like a melody generally found in Javanese karawitan.

5- The method used in Joko Purwanto’s version [Nem Four] was really like the method used in minimalist music.

6- I really enjoyed the process of exploration in this project.

 

Suraji

1- The idea for the recording of this composition was very interesting. This was reflected in the freedom given to the performers to experiment while at the same time retaining a sense of consistency.

2- For myself, perhaps because I have never composed in the style of new compositions (komposisi baru), this project was both interesting and challenging. Maybe because of my limited ability to understand what was desired, I did not manage to explore well. So what happened was only spontaneous.

3- As a supporting musician, I found all of the contributions by Al Suwardi, Darno, Kamso, and Joko Purwanto interesting. One aspect particularly interesting was in Al Suwardi’s piece [Nem Seven], where all the musicians took total freedom to experiment – with the exception of the kempul (which I played), which maintained the rhythmic pulse throughout, creating an impression of ‘sampak’.

 

Supardi

It was very enjoyable but mentally tiring as we had to concentrate on the melody that had to be played over and over. It was a valuable experience for me as a musician, and an opportunity to increase my musical vocabulary. Of the four ‘compositions’ (by Joko Purwanto, Sukamso, Darno, and Al Suwardi) Joko’s [Nem Four] was the nicest to record. He wrote clear notation so that the musicians had only to play what was written.
Sukamso’s melodies were also quite pleasant, but the musicians had to improvise as only the main melody was provided. This was also the case with Darno’s piece in which the other musicians improvised around the main melody. Al Suwardi’s piece was very enjoyable and he presented the main melody clearly so that the other musicians had only to follow it. The notation was also written clearly, like for Joko’s composition.

 

Darno Kartawi

The style of minimalist compositions presents a high level of difficulty, as the musicians are required to play with a sense of “sportsmanship/fairplay”, consistency, and individual skill. In the compositional process which took place on Saturday and Sunday nights, I felt faced with a great challenge, to play consistently and to respond to the melodic and rhythmic patterns played by my colleagues for about 30 minutes. At the time of the recording, I was given greater freedom to improvise my response to the patterns/rhythms played by the other musicians. However, this freedom to search for new ways to respond presented me with some difficulties. I found it difficult to come in when there was an empty space because I felt that if I did not choose the melodic or rhythmic patterns carefully, I might destroy the intensity of the overall performance.
The other problem was that all the musicians were given the space to interact. We often failed to produce the required level of consistency since not all the musicians had the same skills or level of sensitivity, resulting in a lack of musical or emotional intensity.

 

Prasadiyanto

The recording was a valuable experience because it was an opportunity to play minimalist music on the gamelan. Although the material we played was not difficult, it was quite stressful due to the duration time demands. In some of the sessions, we had to develop the simple predetermined patterns in a spontaneous way. This was the most interesting part.
Of all the material recorded, the patterns composed by Joko Purwanto were very interesting because the melodies were strange, and although there was a strong sense of karawitan behind these patterns, they were developed in new ways so as to produce a unique kind of music. Although simple, the melodic patterns composed by Al Suwardi were developed in unique and different ways, especially by Al Suwardi himself, and the result was extraordinary. In my opinion, this was the most interesting material recorded.

 


Corner In “On Nem”

Although Javanese traditional music has nothing to learn from anyone else about repetitive hypnotic music, Mr. John Noise Manis has had the curious idea of letting a group of gamelan musicians from Central Java “take off” on what is, well, a take-off of Terry Riley’s In C, the 1964 composition since become a sort of easy-listening classic.

Come to think of it, In C  as written would do well in gamelan transcription.  I would, in such a case, prefer a grand multi-instrument density,  and this, the Javanese version, seems to me a bit light.  The occasional, very occasional, deep gong tone comes as a welcome weight.
The original steady pulse, an afterthought in the Riley (and sounding best when practically dissolved in the texture), is in this case initiated strongly and persistently continued, with great attractive force.  The introduction of the trochaic ostinato  (in ‘Nem Seven’)  comes as a surprise but then settles in attractively enough.
The differences are great, and instructive.    It need hardly be said that the Riley piece has nothing formally to do with traditional music.  Or, actually it does—-the Western classical tradition.    Structurally it is a type of prolation canon, with some improvised indeterminacy…..its only nod to modernism.

This Javanese version eschews another feature…..that of modal modulation. In revenge, polyrhythmic textures are created with a far higher level of complexity and fascination.   A new pattern will arise in one of the instruments, and then another in another, their overlapping generating a degree of counterpoint.   Yet there is no imitation, and so it avoids that characteristic intellectuality of much European-derived music.
The time-honored traditions die hard.  Indeed, they do not die at all, but continue to underly all attempts at novelty.  Oriental pop tunes tend to be pentatonic, and I was surprised to hear Indonesian rock bands making their bass lines essentially a doubling of the melody. (Balungan!)    Instead of progress, innovation may well become a process of digging oneself deeper   into a hole, as we know so well from the avant-gardes of the last century.   And after that “breath from other planets” which moved us into total chromaticism and, indeed, the full world of sound, i.e. noise—- the  so-called minimalists have fallen back into the same seven note diatonicism which we inherited from the Greeks.

Whereas Riley arranges his patterns to move towards a rousing climax, here the musicians persist in a characteristically Oriental steady-state. The ending comes just when, and why, the musicians decided to stop.   (Apparently this is not quite true; cf. later comments.)

Pak Manis raises an interesting question, about the relation and relative validity of improvisation versus composition.  The patterns and their sequencing could have been written out, or at least conceived, beforehand. I would like to believe that, if so, each musician made up his own melodies. Or it could have been created on the spot, in the moment, it sure sounds spontaneous enough. You cannot know unless you know.

I know ofcourse than “nem” is one of the pathets, but i would welcome some more explicit description of just how this is used in this case, being that it is not traditional.   (Mr. Manis explains,  “The ‘nem’ of the title (and project) is not a pathet but a NOTE (six). There is nowhere the idea of using the traditional pathet concept . ‘In Nem’ is the equivalent of ‘In C’. “)   Or on it (Ph.C.)

I think that Dan Quinn’s observations, by being present, are really useful…..far more valuable, i think, than his attempt at a musicological apologetic, which strikes me as just more purveying of the familiar warmed-over minimalist propaganda.
That goes for the cut  ‘Nem Seven’,  the first i heard.
‘Nem Four’.  What a difference!

The very fast beat appeals from the first—-no, rather the second stroke (but we are talking about less than half a second here—-not only by its promise    ( fulfilled….but we will have to wait until the end ! )   of a superhuman-seeming (let none dare say “mechanical”) endurance and precision, but by the enticingly machine-like brittle sound, not quite wooden, with just a hint of the drone pitch; i guess it is a damped metal plate.  (Manis says:  “This is part of the original instrumentarium built by the ingenious Al Suwardi, called ‘gentha’, or (cow) bells—pictured on the cover”.)

This is effectively left alone long enough to impose itself as not mere background, accompaniment, support, whatever…., but a presence in its own right. Which it will retain, no matter what else:  which turns out to be a gorgeous middle register resonant mini-gong sound (let the resident musicologist give you the in-gamelan instrument’s name—i keep that for myself; a kind of trivial information accumulation) which plays an 8-beat phrase; and even punctuated by the gong ageng on the beat (the last one, of course) and that repeats…..it is a Lancaran!  And it repeats and as it does another part enters, another stratum which also fits into that eight. And as it repeats yet another stratum with another phrase to fit into that measure:  And so it reveals itself—–as a Passacaglia.  The piling up of parts reminds me of one of my favorites: ‘Good For Goodie’  by Moondog.
I have just listened to the first 9 seconds.

It takes until 3:57 for the accumulation of upper counterparts to wipe out the presence of the initial “ground” line.
The measure (dare i call it “irama”?) countinues in 8…. until a slight irregularity in the low gong punctuation boom makes the ears perk up and a not very difficult recalculation shows an alternation of 8 and 9: cle—ver !

And on it goes……continuing in slendro,  seeming (to this ear) with only 4 tones.  Until ? did i hear a new note brought in by the xylophone-like high pitch’d instrument (go to your ethnomusicologist for confirmation) and is it what i think: a step above the drone?  Please explain to this ignorant listener why that drone-tone seems to be on the note number five and not six as proclaimed.
I am liking the gong turned into a quasi-staccato (welcome touch of a not-so-moist quality) ;  and the regularity of eight re-established—-can’t beat those multiples of two!  (oh you are such a conservative, Philip)   Am i wrong or is the gong now coming in on the first instead of the last beat of the phrases?  like a Western composer would do.

Hey!   now that gong is beating in seven!
GoodGod! we have waited seduced for 19 and a half minutes and are now shocked by this crisp new melody playing in what must be the pelog scale, their double tunings giving a polytonality we equal-tempered Westerners can only dream of.
Now there are two gongs….low/high….for a long time ….ofcourse 4 + 4.  And so it goes.
Very nice those moments when the gong drops out.
I was perfectly happy with the 33:18 version
but if they want to cut it down to 21:24, well alright.

Last listened to was  ‘Nem One’, and that is rightly attractive. First the fast pulse again and then soon the great gong, so grand. And punctuating by eighths that you can feel rather than count; after all we are still in Java. A floridissima melody when we finally hear the non percussion instrument, a bowed string so it must be  rebab, with an ornamental tune weaving novelty in a positively Baroque manner—if not improvised should be—shades of Barbara Strozzi or Francesca Caccini.  A Camerata Surakartense!
Is this next-entering in-mixed rhythm fascination not a kodok-ngorek?  And the gongan diminutes to four—exciting.  A flurry of new tunes on new instruments, so from here on i am going to just delightedly let it all wash over me and i recommend you do too; enough of my academic blah blah!

A last observation though:  perhaps rather than in nem this might be called on nem, taking the model of Lou Harrison’s Symphony on G  to suggest a technique of tonal centering liberated from the well-known scale-type and harmonic-progression procedures.

OKOK you’ve made me listen more attentively than i would just for my pleasure; i’m retired now: i don’t have to teach that stuff.  Yeahyeah, i enjoyed doing it.

John, i think you can consider this experiment a success. May it continue!  It shows that the tradition of gamelan music can continue unthreatened by innovation, and i hope this will go further without needing the stimulus of shopworn occidental examples.
These Javanese musicians can certainly hold their own without being transposed to the key of C.

 

After reading the Musicians’ comments

Dear Pak Not-so-noisy:
My first response to your question about publishing the Javanese musicians’ comments was “Yes!, ofcourse.”
…….before reading any!  No way they could not be interesting, relevant—-and i still feel that way, even after having started reading Joko’s reminiscence, where i see that they have totally misunderstood what Riley was doing, which means that y’all Westerners did too, or failed to communicate what’s what. Or monitor the results.
This should all be clear in the beginning of my comments on my first listening.
I cannot, frankly, understand how that could have happened…..But i am glad it did. As the result is much more colorful and lively than the In C  imitation could have been.
The  confusions at the first run-through point up the problems you have raised regarding improvisation, and show clearly the pitfalls of entering that world with unprepared musicians.
I would add, as the complication of the excessively long predetermined duration shows, that intellectual forethoughts are no guarantee of effective realisations and perhaps—or no doubt—-an intuitive feeling of rightness would have been better*—-unless you are John Cage and willing to accept whatever.
*admittedly that also can be abused—-i have the experiences to prove it (as in “Pull the plug on these guys or my musicians are splitting!”)

Suwardi’s comments are perplexing—-not that his reaction is to be discounted.  Only that  the   “tape-loop quality”  actually operates only on the level of the repeating modules  but because of the rhythmic counterpoint an overall effect of regularity is avoided.   In these improvisations, especially the last one i discuss, the occasional alteration of meter helps even more to break constancy.
The unvarying time-cycles which are to be found in traditional gamelan structures are not-at-all boring!
The sentence in the second paragraph emphasizing timbres and improvisation seems to me exactly what they did do in that last example i discussed.
His last sentence shows a discerning openmindedness which promises well.

Sri Harta—-right on.  Although in my experience it has been possible to work the way he suggests, with precomposed material.  And then let go in performance……but that requires a long time preparing.  It might eventually lead to a wider range of invention, and i get the sense from the musicians’ comments that opportunities  and invention are welcome.

Kartawi well presents the challenges facing all improvising musicians, even the greatest.
Several have commented on the material not being difficult (enough?)……..Then the solution would be to provide more complex material!

I get a positive sense for all of it.

 

Answering a producer’s question on ‘minimalism’

All isms are political snow-jobs, and in this case a way of putting American economic power behind a nationalist program of professional opportunism, exactly as was done, forinstance with “Action Painting” and “Pop-Art”.  (God help me, there have been gestures towards perpetrating the same with Fluxus—-but we have been able to protect ourselves.  By being failures! Hahaha)

What is to the point here is the use of severely restricted means, in the hope that “less is more”.  In music this would apply principally to the dimensions of space and time—-that is, rhythm and pitch.  (Colour and intensity have surely their relevance but can be considered more as affective procedures than structural.)  In one way or another repetition will be of the essence, the more effectively as the elements in play are simplified.  This applies to anything partaking of such forms in whatever time and place, whatever the culture or history.

A few of my favorite examples:

For me “minimalism”, even in the restricted sense of repetitively simplified music, begins with l’Ecole de Notre Dame in the 12th century;  the medieval rhythmic modes as spectacularly presented by Leonin and Perotin.  One could say that the French have continued to lead the field:  Satie with his unsurpassable ‘Vexations’,  ‘Musique d’ameublement’,  and the ‘Cinéma-Entr’acte’,  not to speak of the ensemble of Rosicrucian pieces;  from Ravel, obviously ‘Bolero’—–but these are precursers;   as is the  ‘Canzonetta Spirituale sopra la nanna’  of Tarquinio Merula,  Purcell’s  ‘Evening Prayer’,  ‘Je Prens Congé’  by Gombert,  and the Pachelbel  ‘Canon’  (what a marvel!  a 3-voice round over that simple bass, gently resisting dramatic change by sliding one by one through the species of counterpoint).  The Coronation Scene from ‘Boris’!  and the source of the Rhein …..or of the Gold.  Schönberg’s Klangfarben; a one-note crescendo leading to Wozzeck.

So, you see, there are not only the French.  But don’t they return with a vengeance with Ives Klein’s ‘Symphonie Monotone’!…ahead of by years the simplicities associated with Fluxus, in the work of, say, Yoko Ono and George Brecht.  The concentration on one note was of course anticipated by Scelsi but his ecstatic surface may put him out of the game.  But not LaMonte Young, whose unvarying sostenuto uses all of two notes…..but they form the “too too perfect” 5th, harmonico-acoustically an almost-unison..  You will appreciate “where i am coming from” when i tell you that my favorite piece of his is the, minimal yes, but decidedly anti-harmonic composition ‘Two Sounds’.

When i did a bunch of radically pared down things in the 50s, Henry Cowell steered me to something he had published years before:  unaccompanied songs by Imre Weisshaus.  Curiously, although he is known for his later turning away from this, John Cage’s earlier metal percussion pieces, and the prepared piano, were not only repetitive but consciously cyclical, as is all Asian traditional music;  Lou Harrison is to be mentioned here, his later devotion to Javanese gamelan a natural outgrowth.  (A good part of Cage’s noisy and chancy compositions are pretty minimal too.) Compared to these, a lot of what i am forced to endure as film music—i’d never listen to it otherwise (exception made for Bernard Herrmann)—strikes me as positively—no, negatively, vulgarly—maximal.  Speaking of vulgarity, isn’t the true father of this reductive form of semi-classical music, Karl Orff?  Let us not forget the ‘Sabre Dance’.

And all this simply shows our provincialism, looking only within Western compositional models.  So i mention the things i have listened to from other cultures which have infused my music:  Yebechei chants of the Navajo;  drumming from the Yoruba of Nigeria;  Tibetan Buddhist chanting (with those great rough instruments which always play the same notes no matter what the context!);  court music of Korea (Ah Ahk) and Japan (Gagaku);  a visit to the Batak people in Sumatra, whole tribes with cultures so constant i cannot tell one piece from another—how wonderful!  Bismillah Khan’s musicians circular breath their drones for hours, while he takes a long long time on the first note. You could get high singing some mantra of Indian inspiration, even if sometimes made a bit New Age silly.  But we did sit and chant OM for hours on end.

Closer to home, we find Super Blues (Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Richard, Bo Diddly—-taking off on a tradition where repeating one chord for a long time was not strange at all).  I always appreciated, when dancing rock during the 60s, when a band came on with a 2 chord or even one- chord piece.  I was directly influenced by “Rock Around the Clock”; Tito Puente and Salsa—-all of Latin American music. The Sanctified Church when i was down in Mississippi. How long can you too keep from laughing with Inuit nose singing duets?

This kind of concentration seems to be more and more osmosing into a pop/rock underground  …..drone music; environmental mixes, etc.

Let us speak of stillness in the constancies of nature, when “music for my ears” is not merely sentimental; and not only found by meditating in a waterfall but, being attentive, in all the fullness of the world.  Listen also to those human-made phenomena which are really music, though not always admitted as such: bells—a single one pealing endlessly at noon in Paris, a scale ringing the English changes (but not harmonized hymns in 4-part disharmony as in Holland), a trinity of close pitches phasing in the Italian Veneto; and yes the ‘campanacci’ on herds of cows.

And, as if to return the favor, the creative members of (North)American gamelan ensembles, like Son Of Lion in New York,  the Evergreen Club of Toronto,  Gamelan Pacifica from Seattle,  and the Berkeley Gamelan,  are finding ever new ways of integrating sensibilities, so that East does meet West.  This reaches to Japan in works played by the “Marga Sari” Contemporary Gamelan in Osaka; “reaches” did i say? —have you ever seen and heard the Noh Theater?

(And if i might mention myself.)   Ah! the pizzica of Salento—still giving life.

So, to be very clear about things:  Neo-tonal repetitive music has nothing to do with the legacy of John Cage (as the Michael Nyman book would have it) nor any other pretense of avant-gardisme.

I believe the current situation is well expressed in the title of one of Malcolm Goldstein’s compositions,  ‘Where are we when we are standing still looking backwards’.

No question mark needed.

Philip Corner
Reggio Emilia,
November 2010