Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Edinburgh Festivals Friday 19 August: Yogyakarta Palace Gamelan Orchestra

To the Hub (a converted church on the Royal Mile, near the Castle) on Friday evening for a concert by a Javanese gamelan. As you might expect for an ensemble which plays for the Javanese royal family, this was a BIG gamelan: twenty-five players or so, and I counted sixteen massive gongs at the back, each of which would take several people to shift. To my surprise, as well as the normal gongs and assorted metallophones (a gamelan looks like an orchestra made from casseroles and woks with the odd bank of saucepans thrown in, with chime bars and things that look like Jurassic vibraphones) the royal gamelan had a rebab player (a stringed instrument I previously associated with North Africa and the Middle East), a flautist, and a singer. Gamelan music is based on two Javanese scales, pelog with seven notes and slendro with five. Each of the percussion instruments (at least, the ones that played melodies) came in two versions, one for each scale, laid out at right angles. So you could tell which scale a piece was in because for slendro the guys in the front row were facing the audience, while for pelog they were sideways-on. Similar rotations happened further back in the orchestra.

A momentary digression: to remind myself which was which of pelog and slendro I went onto Wikipedia, where I couldn't help noticing the wonderful description of Balinese modes in pelog, whose note names are ding, dong, deng, dung, dang. Bear in mind that this music is being played primarily on gongs, and you'll see why I liked this!

The Yogyakarta Palace Gamelan Orchestra was VERY LOUD, as you might expect from twenty-odd people bashing gongs. All very reminiscent of Michael Bentine's classic sketch "Welcome, Stranger" (sadly no longer available online) where a reporter visits a temple for an interview, and in successively greeted by louder and louder instruments until at the end it's quite impossible to do the interview, leading to the pay-off "I'm sorry, stranger, I can't hear you. You'll have to come back when we know you better.

We were agreeing with a friend that the overall sound was less energetic than we'd expected form previous experience of gamelans, and we thought that was because in the acoustic of the Hub the middle row instruments, the ones which play the fast-moving parts, were somewhat muffled. Thus it was the slower-moving melodic lines which dominated. Maybe that's how it should be: any gamelan experts or Indonesian bloggers out there want to express an opinion?

The gamelan was accompanied for one number by a dancer, Kridha Mardhawa. She was extremely flexible (especially her wrists), and Hilary commented that her dance moves were far less symmetrical than we would expect from Western dance traditions.

All in all, a fascinating concert. Oh, I forgot to mention that one of the pieces was inspired by hearing a clock with "Big Ben" type chimes: it was called Gendhing Westminster, and yes, you could detect the familiar chimes in there.

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