ANCIENT AND NEW MINIMALISM
The content of the present CD is very much connected with ‘Gamelan of Central Java. 15 – Returning Minimalism: In Nem’. This previously released CD presented three of a number of sessions (seven) inspired by Terry Riley’s landmark of minimalism – ‘In C’ – and performed by an 8-member group of outstanding Javanese musicians. The sessions took place at ISI Surakarta on 24-25 October 2009. The liner notes of that CD, released in 2011, include a chronicle of the sessions by Daniel Patrick Quinn, comments by the Javanese musicians, and an important essay by Philip Corner. I strongly recommend the reading of such notes to the owner/listener of the present CD.
The musicians’ comments included in the mentioned CD were written, upon my request, soon after the sessions. They reveal that the performers had initial problems with the concept and technique of ‘In C’, the model composition. Not only the model had ‘rules’ that, for being foreign to the musicians, appeared particularly strict to them, but also the idea of ‘improvisation’ appeared different from the one the Javanese use, based on what they call ‘garap’ (treatment). Anyway, in spite of the problems and complaints expressed in the comments – for example, “the musicians encountered a good deal of stress and a fairly heavy mental burden” – the performers managed to produce outstanding music.
A recurring comment was that they would have liked to try the ‘style of minimalism’ in a non-improvisational context. So the idea of commissioning ‘minimalist compositions’ was born. And what better solution than working around the ancient ‘minimalist’ themes – of two, three, four notes – of the ceremonial gamelan pieces Kodok Ngorek, Munggang, Carabalen? The musicians agreed with this idea and three of them – Suwardi, Joko Purwanto, and Sukamso – produced the three ‘Variations’ that make up the first part of this CD.
The other half of the CD presents three more of the 2009 ‘In C-inspired’ sessions that could not find space in the previous ‘In Nem’ release. They result of shorter length with respect to the sessions already published, but musical quality and coherence are just as compelling.
John Noise Manis
1- 12:24 – Variations on Ceremonial Themes by Al Suwardi
2- 9:18 – Variations on Carabalen EMPAT NADA by Joko Purwanto
3- 14:36 – Variations on Munggang JI-NEM-MA by Sukamso
4- 5:36 – In Nem Six (phrases by Darno)
5- 6:30 – In Nem Two (group improvisation)
6- 20:49 In Nem Five (phrases by Sukamso)
Note on EMPAT NADA
Carabalen is the name of a pakurmatan gamelan ensemble which is often used in the Kraton Kasunanan Surakarta to welcome guests who attend various kinds of celebrations at the Kraton. The notes used on this ensemble are 5 6 1 2 for performing gending in pelog nem, and 6 7 2 3 for performing gending in pelog barang. However, in practice it does not matter whether the Carabalen ensemble is in pelog nem or pelog barang tuning. The gamelan Carabalen in the Surakarta Kraton is tuned to pitches 5 6 1 2, while at ISI Surakarta there are two sets of instruments, with the tunings mentioned above, for study purposes.
The basic idea of this composition is to use the notes 5 6 7 2 (?). Elements of the conventional Carabalen ensemble are still evident in the composition, such as the interlocking patterns on the klenang and kenut, although in the composition the phrases are irregular and fragmented or incomplete. This kind of treatment is used to avoid a monotonous effect. The function of the gambyong, which traditionally performs the melody in a regular tempo, is altered by providing it with different melodies which in turn create a different mood or feeling. The addition of other instruments, such as the gender barung, gender panerus, and slenthem, with their own individual techniques, is intended to provide a brighter colour to the music. The composer intentionally creates a desolate or remote effect at the start of the piece through the sound of the up-turned bonang kettles filled with water, accompanied by the gender and slenthem keys which are sounded using a rebab bow.
Of course, the composer was faces with the limitation of using only four notes, which was accepted as a challenge.
Note on JI-NEM-MA
The idea behind this composition was the re-interpretation of the melody 1 6 1 5 of gendhing Monggang. Only three pitches are used, 1, 6, and 5. The melody is repeated over and over, but the powerful feeling created in this gendhing is quite extraordinary. The performance of gendhing Monggang on a gamelan Monggang ensemble can produce a sense of power and grandeur, with its clamorous sound which can be quite mesmerizing.
JI-NEM-MA re-interprets the melody of gendhing Monggang using a Javanese slendro gamelan in an instrumental performance. In terms of form, the music is not kept simply in lancaran form, but is developed further in the forms of ketawangan, lancaran, srepegan, sampak, and also a combination of these forms. In order to create a variety of moods, different techniques are used, such as techniques known as ‘kemprangan’, ‘pithetan’, ‘tremolo’, ‘sarugan’, and the use of Balinese gangsa mallets to play the Javanese gambang. A number of combinations of techniques and treatments that are not usually found in traditional gendhings are used to produce different effects throughout the composition.
As a result of these variations on the theme of gendhing Monggang, various feelings or moods are created, including ‘tense’, ‘noble’, ‘relaxed’, ‘humorous’, ‘joking’, and ‘cheerful’.
The Other Minimalism
by Federico Capitoni
The variation technique is the only way for minimal music to develop. The variation of the minimal cell allows a composition to form a musical discourse (the progression process, instead, is often the reiteration, but it does not constitute a necessity).
Therefore, a collection of pieces which are variations on classical themes from the Indonesian islands are the clue of a resemblance between what Westerners mean by ‘minimal music’ and its counterpart of Javanese or Balinese origin. A starting point made up of very few sounds – which then repeat themselves following progressive and often imperceptible rhythmic, melodic, and timbric variances – would appear to put the minimalist current immediately in tune with the Indonesian musical tradition.
But we may think that embryos of minimalism are in the music of gamelan orchestras, since this music has more ancient origins than the American twentieth-century movement. Nevertheless, to speak of protominimalism in the case of music played in Giava, Bali or Madura would not be totally right. This is minimalism before minimalism, because in gamelan tradition the concept of minimalism, as understood in the West, does not exist. And probably – if a similar idea existed – it would not have the ‘artistic’ value we ascribe to it, nor it is applied consciously to music.
So the variations presented here have nothing to do with the form of variation that has been conceptualized and settled by the European music culture. There is no development, in fact, following formal rules, but a series of excursions on the minimal pattern that identifies the subject.
The differences between the gamelan music of Indonesia and Western music are mainly in two fundamental areas – of music and sound.
The 12-tone tempered system does not exist in gamelan music. Both Java and Bali have two scales – a 5-tone scale, called ‘slendro’ and a 7-tone scale called ‘pelog’ – and in neither case the pitches correspond to pitches of the tempered scale (unless by chance!). Each gamelan is built with its own tuning, pitches being specific to that particular set of instruments; one of the consequences is that a given piece of music may sound differently when played on different gamelans.
The other important area where gamelan music and Western music present diverging characteristics is the spectral structure, hence a perceived ‘quality’ of sound. The metallophones of the gamelan (both the gong-shaped instruments like Kenong, Kempul, Bonang and the bar-shaped Gender and Saron) resonate in a way that is problematic for the Western unaccustomed ear. The sound of the struck metal does not come with the harmonics that are typical of string and wind instruments. Instead, the metal produces the so-called ‘partials’, resonances that are not regular nor predictable and thus can happen to be perceived as harsh.
Kodok Ngorek is composed of a cell of three notes (A, G#, A). This motif is then moved forward, in the variations, by a tone (B, A) and also a semitone is added in unison (B/C). Other small melodic phrases then overlap on a rhythm that becomes more and more urgent. The stratification does not lead to fullness, in the sense that after it has reached a certain number of patterns, it gives way to substitution, avoiding the cumulation of all the musical ideas. This not only prevents excessive confusion due to overlap, but also it allows to experience the aspect hypnotically iridescent which is typical of reiterative music: we come to a new musical situation realizing the change only after it has occurred, without perceiving the making of the ‘shifts’. At the end of the variations, the original motif of Kodok Ngorek is heard again.
Carabalen is a theme of four notes with longer intervals producing a spontaneous melodic variation, since their simple succession is already a tune. In fact in the variations ‘Empat Nada’ (four notes) the composer needs not enrich the melodic horizon, but may rather allow himself to rarefy it, carefully choosing the notes to extract. Almost a transfiguration. Here is a high drone (in the manner of ‘In C’ by Terry Riley) on which single notes bud, responding to each other at an octave’s distance, first in a scattered way, then searching an overlay. It is curious that the outcome is like an atmospheric piece. The four notes in succession reveal themselves, the way they are conceived in Carabalen, around the central part of the piece, as if it were an affirmation of identity that the ceremonial theme uses so as to be recognized. Only at the end the piece speeds up rather vertiginously.
Munggang, considered the oldest Javanese melody, is here presented in a very original way. ‘Ji-Nem-Ma’ is a predominantly rhythmic piece, played on pauses and the intervention of percussions (though renouncing to the Kendhang (drum) and contenting itself with low and damped notes of the gongs). The piece uses long resonances, sudden changes of character, obstinate but light sounds in the background. The Eastern matrix is very recognizable. Variations are very clear, with strong contrasts, but they let glimpses of a structure. Such structure is much stronger than in the other pieces, especially in the relationship between melodic and rhythmic lines, and in the choice of instrumentation – as it would happen in a well studied orchestration in Western music. Just pay attention to the original ‘ping-pong’ around 3:40, in which the instruments respond to each other in a very smiling dialogue as in a script where there is also room for improvisation, at least in the spirit with which musicians exchange cues.
Working on these variations, the gamelan musicians demonstrate that they return a kind of acknowledgement to the Western culture, and even something more, since many American minimalists took much from the Javanese and Balinese approach without ever explicitly acknowledging it (which in fact a few European composers did, like Debussy and Bartok).
Tracks 4, 5, 6
Not only. The interpretation of a Western score/concept that the gamelan musicians offer – such as the three versions of ‘In C’ included in this album – contradicts the various assumptions, typical of certain ethnography, which would not consider possible for distant cultures to understand (and therefore interpret) what does not belong to them. And even if a kind of anthropological relativistic discourse worked for some events and human expressions, we here see that it is not true for music.
The C-note of the Riley’s composition is here replaced with Nem. This is the Javanese note 6, which is the most frequently designated note as common pitch (tumbuk) to both the slendro and pelog scales. In the gamelan heard on this recording it corresponds to our Bb.
The variations are real and proper renovations of ‘In C’. From the original composition they just take the idea; number, form and content of the motifs are completely different. But precisely what is relevant is not so much the performance of yet another ‘In C’, this time on the gamelan instruments, but the concept behind the work. The idea of playing, hypothetically to infinity, a series of patterns which cross each other, move away and return, played from time to time by different musicians, with different instruments in the same session, is maintained. For this reason ‘In Nem’ is not ‘In C’, but something that comes from the same intention – same in spirit, different in the outcome and of course in the sound.
‘In Nem’ (or ‘In C’, or ‘In…’ any other note) becomes a universal matrix in which what is important is the conceptual aspect of a ‘never composed’ composition.
Tracks 1-3: Recorded at ISI Surakarta, 26 June, 2010
Musicians: Al Suwardi, Joko Purwanto, Rasita Satriana, Singgih Prabancara, Sugiyanto, Sukamso, Supardi
Tracks 4-6: Recorded at ISI Surakarta, 24-25 October, 2009
Musicians: Al Suwardi, Darno Kartawi, Joko Purwanto, Prasadiyanto, Sri Harta, Sukamso, Suraji, Supardi
Recording Engineer: Iwan Onone
Concept, Editing, Mastering, and Photos: John Noise Manis
YANTRA – Production and Digital Release