Influences | Gamelan Orchestra | Modern Era | Classical

Gamelan is an orchestral tradition in Java and Bali, where every instrument – various gongs and drums – is a member of the percussion family. The tradition emphasizes respect for the instruments and cooperation between the players.

In 1887, the Paris Conservatoire acquired a gamelan. In 1889, Debussy went to the Paris Exhibition, where he heard the sound of the Javanese gamelan; the experience influenced his music. Debussy sought to reflect its use of the pentatonic scale in pieces like ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ (part of the Préludes, book 1, 1909–10). Of his Et la Lune descende sur le temple qui fût (‘And the Moon Sets Over the Ruined Temple’, 1908), Boulez has commented that it was a transformation of oriental influence at the deepest levels, not merely a piece of pastiche.

Britten visited Bali to listen to the gamelan and worked to take the sound into his ballet Prince of the Pagodas (1955–57). As well as transferring the gamelan’s gong strokes to a conventional orchestral gong (with double-bass doubling), Britten used staccato notes played with hard sticks on a piccolo timpani. Xylophone, vibraphone, celesta, cymbals, tam tams and a rack of gong chimes all help Britten recreate something of the effect of gamelan.

Recreating the Gamelan in Western Music

Prominent among composers to be influenced by the gamelan sound was Messiaen, for example in his Turangalîla-symphonie, his best-known orchestral work. His Et Exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (‘I look for the resurrection of the dead’) boasts six gongs and three tam tams. Stockhausen, who also visited Bali, and Cage both studied gamelan instrumentation and procedures. The American composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee (1901–64) visited Bali in 1934. The influence of that visit is reflected in his Tabuh-tabuhan (1936) and Balinese Ceremonial Music (1940). Following a study of world music, Lou Harrison (1917–2003) wrote for a combination of percussion and prepared piano, and his Pacifika Rondo (1963) is scored for a chamber orchestra bringing together western instruments such as the violin, celesta, two tack pianos (where the keys have added drawing pins to create a deliberately honky-tonk quality) and two percussionists with Javanese instruments.

The gamelan has become prominent in British music education in recent years, with some universities, local authorities and concert venues owning their own gamelan orchestras. This reflects partly the rise in importance of world musics in both schools and universities, and partly the worldwide impact of Orff’s use of percussion in education, making access to a sophisticated percussion tradition such as gamelan an attractive option. Orff’s experience of teaching led him to develop instruments to allow students to improvise their own music without first learning instrumental skills. Orff’s approach (known as his Schulwerk) involved tuned and untuned percussion: alloyed steel triangles, silver-bronze (not brass as it is conventional) cymbals, rosewood castanets, woodblocks, claves, xylophone bars and spruce resonance boxes of bar instruments. Each type of instrument was built in three sizes.

Influences | Fluxus | Contemporary | Classical


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