Review: ‘East meets West: Gamelan and Western Composers’

Composer Leopold Godowsky described the effect of hearing the gamelan as being ‘like a musical breeze … spectral … shimmering … I lost my sense of reality.’ Comprised predominantly of percussive instruments, the Indonesian ensemble has proved captivating for composers since its introduction to the Western world, particularly from the end of the nineteenth century. Handmade in their country of origin, each set is unique, created to have a nuance to its tuning system meaning that the sound of each gamelan is quite distinct. Oxford Gamelan Society’s concert at St John the Evangelist church last week offered a rare opportunity to hear a full gamelan ensemble played live, bringing together traditional melodies and compositions inspired by the gamelan.

Pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Ligeti, and Godowsky provided the mainstay of the Western repertoire provided on the programme. Performed by pianist Clíodna Shanahan, Godowsky’s ‘In the Kraton’ from the Java Suite was a particular highlight, alongside the Ravel ‘Laidonerette; L’Imperatrice des Pagodes’, for which Peter Smith provided the second part of the duet. It was a shame that the upright piano was used rather than the grand (presumably due to the lack of space alongside the gamelan), but nonetheless Shanahan’s playing was sensitive and ethereal, bringing to life the spectral and shimmering sonorities that Godowsky described. Hearing these pieces alongside the instruments that inspired them brought the resonant similarities between the gamelan and the piano to the fore, contextualising why so many composers chose to write for this particular instrument when emulating the sounds of the Indonesian ensemble.

Gamelan; the bronze orchestra of Java
Oxford Gamelan © Pete Smith

Slightly less successful was Lou Harrison’s Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Javanese Gamelan. The balance between the instruments improved over the course of the piece as the soloists settled in to the acoustic, but didn’t fully recover from a somewhat shaky start. Also on the programme was Seeds by Oxford composer James Telford, an electro-acoustic work that was a response to Ai Weiwei’s 2010 sculpture ‘Sunflower Seeds’. For this installation, the artist covered the Tate’s Turbine Hall with 100 million porcelain sunflowers seeds. Telford tried to capture the vast difference in scale between the tiny seeds and large hall through extreme dynamic contrast, using the gamelan’s gong sounds to create waves of sound that ranged from the barely audible to filling the entire church. The acoustic of the building suited the programme perfectly, allowing for a wash of sound whilst being able to hear individual melodic strands.

Two of the gamelan melodies offered were accompanied by dancers from the Lila Bhawa Dance Company, giving an idea of the ritual and ceremonial contexts in which the gamelan is traditionally played. The final piece on the programme, ‘Karonsih’, is usually played at weddings, portraying a narrative about relationships. The Sun Princess wakes to find herself alone, and the dance follows her forgiving her partner to reaffirm their bonds and express the sentiment that they are two halves of a single whole. The piece was beautifully danced by Ni Madé Pujawati and Andrea Rutkowski, making excellent use of the limited space available in the church.

Oxford Gamelan Society’s concert was a great introduction to the gamelan for those previously unfamiliar with the instruments, and a captivating performance for any better acquainted with the ensemble. Interspersing compositions inspired by the gamelan gave variety to the evening, whilst the dancers provided a compelling visual aspect. With all proceeds going to the Mandala Trust, a UK-based charity dedicated to supporting children and young people in the developing world, this was a wonderful addition to the St John’s concert series.

Leah Broad

For more information about Oxford Gamelan Society please visit their website; more information about the Mandala Trust is available here. Future events in the St John the Evangelist series can be found here.

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