Gamelan Hybrids Display Uneven Charms in Toronto

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The gamelan has fascinated Westerners ever since they first made contact. And what they love, they must appropriate.Late-19th-century gamelan photo by H. Salzwedel c.1870-91 (TropenMuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam)

The gamelan has fascinated Westerners ever since they first made contact. And what they love, they must appropriate.
Late-19th-century gamelan photo by H. Salzwedel c.1870-91 (TropenMuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam)

By John Terauds

TORONTO — Imagine the difficulties a theater company would face in presenting a show in two different languages and idioms. Although that kind of cultural cross-pollination is common in music, it’s not any easier to pull off. Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra and its guests brought those challenges into high relief at a concert at Koerner Hall on Nov. 17.

Bali dancer Evie Suyadnyani

Dancer Putu Evie Suyadnyani

The evening’s program featured six works that in various ways tried to bridge Western classical and traditional gamelan music from Bali and Java.  As a point of cultural reference, the orchestra at one point gave way to Balinese dancer Putu Evie Suyadnyani, who performed eight minutes of traditional movement to recorded gamelan music. The program made for an interesting patchwork of ideas, idioms, and effects. It also raised more questions about the challenges of imitation and appropriation than it answered about how to bridge cultural divides.

The gamelan has been an object of fascination to Westerners ever since they first made contact with these percussion ensembles when long-distance travel became easier. One of the most famous points of contact came at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, where attendees were treated to a visiting Javanese gamelan. And what Westerners love they must appropriate, even when faced with difficult-to-adapt scales and tunings.

Lou Harrison wrote 'Threnody' for viola and gamelan.

Lou Harrison wrote ‘Threnody’ for viola and gamelan.

One of the most successful contemporary efforts remains American composer Lou Harrison’s Threnody for Carlos Chavez, a 1978 piece for viola and gamelan ensemble. This is one of a series of works by Harrison pairing Indonesian gamelan traditions with Western medieval divisions of meter. In essence, the Threnody is a viola rhapsody accompanied by gamelan instead of a Western ensemble.

What should, in theory, be an opposition of styles achieves a hypnotic unity in performance. Guest violist Douglas Perry and Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, Canada’s only professional gamelan, played Threnody brilliantly. Perry delivered his solo lines with a light simplicity that perfectly mirrored gossamer, mesmerizing work by the Evergreen Club, seated around the soloist on the stage floor.

Also satisfying was the evening’s premiere – O Gamelan, by Montreal-based composer José Evangelista – and the closing piece, Pulau Dewata, written in 1977 by another Quebecker, Claude Vivier, arranged for this concert by Scott Good. Both works adapt the melodic and rhythmic ingredients of Balinese and Javanese gamelan to the Western symphony orchestra. There’s no way that a bowed or blown instrument played as originally intended can sound like a struck object, but both composers still managed translations that maintained the texture as well as sense of momentum of their Indonesian inspirations.

Esprit leader Pauk also composed a work on the program. (Bo Huang)

Esprit leader Pauk also composed a work on the program. (Bo Huang)

The Esprit Orchestra, now in its 30th year with founding artistic and music director Alex Pauk, is the only Canadian orchestra dedicated to new music. It may be made up of freelancers, but they are Toronto’s best. Still, O Gamelan could probably have used a bit more work to help release the music from its picket fence of clearly identifiable bar lines.

Good’s arrangement of Vivier’s Pulau Dewata, populated with big brass choruses, did to the delicate tonal and rhythmic fabric of the Indonesian source material what Leopold Stokowski’s arrangements did to the music of J.S. Bach: fit it with cement shoes before tossing it off a long pier.

André Ristic, Ka Nin Chan

André Ristic, Ka Nin Chan

The three remaining works on the program were Echo Spirit Isle, written in 1983 by Pauk, Éveil aux oiseaux (Waking up to Birds) by Torontonian Ka Nin Chan, and Project “Peuple” by Belgian-based Quebecker André Ristic, both from 2005.

All three picked up on gamelan rhythms but failed to capture their light textures or a strong propulsive thread that could survive frequent shifts in mood and tempo. All three contained too much West, at the expense of the Balinese and Javanese elements that have seduced generations of composers, musicians and audiences.

It was all the more reason to celebrate the genius of Harrison and the good fortune of having the Threnody on the program.

John Terauds is freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. He also maintains the blog MusicalToronto.org, and is director of music at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity.

Esprit Orchestra and founding director and conductor Alex Pauk perform at Toronto's Koerner Hall. (John Terauds)

Esprit Orchestra with founding director and conductor Alex Pauk perform at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. (John Terauds)

Date posted: November 19, 2013

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