1889. Universal Exhibition in Paris. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, built for the occasion, Ravel, Debussy and other musicians let themselves be captivated by popular European, Asian, African and Oceanic music. A historic event was the performance of the Javanese dancers, who performed on the Trocadéro esplanade and in the Dutch pavilion, to the sound of a gamelan orchestra. The musicians were deeply impressed by the Javanese orchestra and especially by its harmony. Non-Western music had always been considered incapable of organizing and developing in a harmonic system, the discovery, therefore, that a “primitive” orchestra could “evolve” at such levels, without contact with the West, was received like a sensational event. Debussy, 25 at the time, and Ravel, 14, just entered the Paris Conservatory, were deeply impressed by the gamelans’ timbre and instrumentation.1
1Francesco Adinolfi, Mondo Exotica, Einaudi, 2000, pag. 122-123
1977. Edward D. Said writes in his monumental essay “Orientalism” how, for Europe: “it was a silent Orient, usable by Europe for the realization of projects that involved, without ever making them participate, indigenous peoples, unable to resist the plans, meanings and even the mere descriptions that were superimposed on it.1 The East is considered not as a cultural, social entity to be explored and understood, but as something to be recounted, a cultural territory to be re-mapped according to a Western vision that sank more into the realm of ideas and myths than into practical experiences.
1Edward D. Said, “Orientalismo L’immagine europea dell’oriente”, Feltrinelli, 2015, pag. 99
2015. Californian composer Bill Aves records his album “Guitars & Gamelan”, effectively sanctioning a musical, cultural and social fusion, this time on an egalitarian basis. Aves unites East and West together in a completely respectful, contemporary way, free from any form of cultural subjection. Bill Alves is a Southern California-based composer, writer and video artist who has long been involved in studying the borderlines between musical cultures and technology. He has written extensively for conventional acoustic instruments, non-Western instruments (mainly Indonesian gamelan) and electronic media, often integrated with abstract animations. His discography includes “The Terrain of Possabilities”, “Imbal-Imbalan”, “Mystic Canyon” and “Guitars & Gamelan”. His work with computer animation pioneer John Whitney inspired abstract computer animation with music, now published by the Kinetica Video Library as Celestial Dance. He is co-author with Brett Campbell of the new biography “Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick”. He is also the author of the book “Music of the Peoples of the World”, now in its third edition from Cengage / Schirmer. Other writings have appeared in Organized Sound, Perspectives of New Music, Computer Music Journal, SEAMUS Journal, 1/1 and elsewhere. In 1993-94 he was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellow in Indonesia, where he studied the music of the gamelan orchestra of Java and Bali. He currently directs the HMC American Gamelan, an ensemble of Javanese instruments specially dedicated to performing new non-traditional music. He often explores new musical tunings in his works and is one of the organizers of MicroFest, Southern California’s annual festival of new music in alternative tunings. He teaches at Harvey Mudd College of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California.
In “Guitars & Gamelan” electric and acoustic guitars join the gongs, percussion and explosive rhythms of the Indonesian gamelan orchestras. Here we find new compositions such as “Angin Listrik”, which evokes an electric storm, the rational “Rational Basis” and “Metalloid”, inspired, among all, by the periodic table of elements. The highlight is the world premiere of the “Concerto for Guitar and Gamelan” with the presence of Grammy winner John Schneider. Together with him, guitarists Sean Hayward and Nat Condit-Schultz, the powerful Los Angeles Electric 8 octet, two gamelan musicians from California and an electronic music ensemble create a flammable combination of acoustic and electric sounds, oriental and western music. Let’s see these compositions a little more in detail.
“Angin Listrik”, in Indonesian language, means “electric storm”. This composition was commissioned by the University of California at Santa Cruz for the Semar Pegulingan, an old type of gamelan from the island of Bali. This type of gamelan takes its name from the god of love due to its function of accompanying romantic evenings in ancient Balinese courts. Unlike the more modern forms of Balinese gamelan, this instrument features seven tones, forcing the guitars to be tuned differently.
“Rational Basis” is entirely based on the Just Intonation tuning, a tuning that cannot be used with standard guitar frets (except for octaves). Therefore, in this piece, the musicians play without touching the keyboard, generating natural octaves and harmonics. Each string has been tuned to produce the melodies and patterns we hear. The only exception is the slide guitar, which can play all these pitches by sliding on the standard frets. The influence of gamelan is manifested not only in the interlocking techniques, but also in the scales used, which often resemble the Indonesian scale known as slendro. This piece was inspired and composed for the fantastic Los Angeles Electric 8.
“Concerto for Guitar and Gamelan” (2004). This concert, written for John Schneider, which plays a guitar built by Walter Vogt. This instrument is characterized by an invention, that Vogt Fret-Mobile system, which allows you to individually adjust the frets under each string by means of a track along which they slide. This system is indispensable for matching the guitar to the heights of the HMC American Gamelan, a collection of metallophones and gongs from central Java, Indonesia, similar in some ways to those of the Semar Pegulingan on track 1. This concert is a perfect example of how new works can be played that respect the accumulated wisdom found in many techniques of Indonesian practice, but also descend from the traditions of the West, North America and California.
“Metalloid” was written for the Harvey Mudd College Electronic Music Ensemble for their debut concert. Synthesizers are tuned on a scale based on the 3rd and 7th harmonic, as are the open strings of electric guitars and bass. The tuning is: 1/1 49/48 9/8 7/6 9/7 21/16 49/36 3/2 49/32 12/7 7/4 27/14
“Guitars & Gamelan” is an interesting and important record because it testifies to the possibility and the need to create music capable of providing common ground between different cultures. At the same time, it marks a clear overcoming of the positions expressed by Edward D. Said, in the field of musical aesthetics,. This is not an easy thing.