Gamelan Ensemble Makes the Unfamiliar Inviting


The gamelan music of Indonesia has fascinated the Western world, and Western composers, for centuries. Debussy was powerfully affected by a gamelan performance at the Paris Exposition of 1889. And the sound of the ensembles--with their rich blend of tuned percussion instruments (gongs and metal and bamboo xylophones), their often indeterminate pitches and floating timbres--has surfaced in contemporary music throughout the 20th century.

The CalArts Spring Music Festival paid tribute to those associations Saturday night in a concert featuring the music of Burat Wangi, the institute's Balinese gamelan ensemble, by means of a traditional presentation as well as a blending with the contemporary music duo Basso Bongo.

In the opening half, Basso Bongo (Amy Knoles on mallet instruments and Robert Black on contrabass) produced a wild array of computer-modified sounds--roaring, stomach-rattling low frequencies and glass-shattering high notes. The music of the gamelan ensemble, in this context, even with its occasional rapid notes and explosive percussion, had a reassuring quality, an oasis of acoustic musical centeredness amid the duo's electronic excursions.

The most intriguing of the works performed by the combination--Robert Kyr's "Transfigured Light," conducted by the composer--added a taped chamber orchestra. Despite the potential disparity of the ingredients, the combination (which Kyr calls "world orchestra") came together surprisingly well, producing a seamless, beyond-definition music.


But the best part of the program was devoted to a more traditional gamelan performance, primarily in the kebyar style, which supplements stately ancient sounds with dramatic shifts of emphasis and sudden explosions of percussion. Executed with great enthusiasm by an ensemble of students, guests and faculty members led by I Nyoman Wenten, the playing was a classic example of gamelan's communal method of making music.

And, since gamelan--in Java and Bali--is almost never heard in isolation, it was appropriate that most of the pieces accompanied appearances by a group of dancers (directed by Nanik Wenten) performing in Balinese style. Like the musicians, the dancers were costumed in brilliant traditional outfits, rich with traditional hues of gold and red.

The costumes, the atmospheric stage setting and colorful instruments added the perfect ambience to an evening of unfamiliar but infectiously attractive musical sounds.

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