Behind the scenes: The test of the gamelan (Part One)

The Venerable Showers of Beauty's instruments are more than 130 years old.

I normally keep my journalism and my amateur musical avocation as detached as Woody Allen separates his jazz gigs from his movies, but when OAW’s El Queso Grande asked me to recount the experience as a way to jump start an occasional series of first person accounts by Portland performers and creative artists, I acceded to the request in hopes that it will provide some insights a common Portland phenomenon: making art in your spare time.

Last month, the ensemble I play and sing in, Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan (VSB) faced one of its biggest challenges ever: An amateur music ensemble had to suddenly take on much more complicated and challenging repertoire — including music from the Western classical tradition, and to collaborate with musicians trained in that utterly different tradition.

Not to say that gamelan music is simple — its genius lies in the way it weaves both complex and relatively easily played parts into a compelling and sophisticated whole, as Western composers from Debussy, who called European classical music “child’s play” by comparison, to Benjamin Britten to Portland’s own Lou Harrison understood. The music is now performed by ensembles throughout the world, helped immensely by Harrison, who composed many works for the instruments and helped construct several sets. From roots in California, especially the San Francisco Bay Area, gamelan has spread throughout the United States. The American Gamelan Institute directory lists well over 100 gamelan ensembles active in the US today.

Several of our group of fifteen or so core amateur musicians were new to the group; half hadn’t performed in our last major concert a year ago, the sold-out 30th anniversary concert in Evans Auditorium at Lewis & Clark College, our home base. But even our most veteran players were decided amateurs, practicing once a week together for two hours and not at all individually. With only nine weeks of preparation, how would they be able to perform with professional classical musicians, two of the world’s greatest Javanese music performers (visiting from Java and Berkeley), three superb guest artists from Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica (including its director) — and a 100-voice choir in an American premiere piece? That last would also require us to follow an actual conductor, something that gamelan musicians are unaccustomed to, as we take our cues by ear (through signals from a drummer) rather than visually.

It’s all complicated by the fact that our group members represent a wide range of musical knowledge and performing experience — from none at all to years of making music in bands, orchestras, solo recitals and choruses. But most of us can’t read a Western music score, have never worked with a conductor, and have performed, if at all, only in one of the handful of concerts VSB stages around town each year.

I’m probably in the middle of our pack. I’ve sung in choirs (which meant reading a score and following a conductor) way back in my school days and, more important, I’ve played in at least 150 gamelan concerts during the past 15 years, in Eugene and Portland.

For this show, I signed up for demanding vocal parts in the almost entirely new set of higher level traditional Javanese classical works chosen for the concert by our esteemed teacher, Midiyanto (who uses only one name), an 11th-generation musician and puppet master from Central Java who led the L&C program for a decade in the 1990s. He now teaches gamelan at the University of California at Berkeley, and leads performances all over the world.

The distinguished Javanese musician Midiyanto, formerly of Lewis & Clark College.

The Return of the Teacher

Our music director, Mindy Johnston, had invited Midiyanto to lead us in the 30th anniversary concert last year, and he apparently noticed that, thanks to Mindy’s assiduous leadership in the two years since she’d returned to Portland after studying the music in Java for three years, VSB had raised its game above the familiar, high school level (in Java) repertoire the ensemble had been playing before.

As a result, during a long weekend of rehearsals in September, Midiyanto brought us an entirely new set of Javanese traditional tunes more sophisticated than most anything we’d played before.

That was challenge #1: We knew we’d have a tough time learning them, particularly the vocals, which seemed just close enough to the style we usually sang to be confusing when the tune suddenly veered in unexpected directions. The melodies are difficult to notate accurately in the simple cipher notation we use, so one of our diligent members, Earl, made recordings of them, which we singers listened to at home. This was just one of many volunteer contributions members made to the effort (from a home-cooked pre-concert Indonesian meal to help with video and audio) that many members of the group contributed, a hallmark of most Portland amateur ensembles, I’d bet.

The instrumental parts I would be playing on several other songs were also challenging, but certainly learnable. I’d even played a couple of the pieces years ago in Eugene, although Midiyanto, characteristically, had changed the biggest piece of the night, a dreamy 17th century classic called “Gambir Sawit” (approximately: “matching flowers”)  by interpolating a fast, explosive new section that I knew would electrify the audience. The other, “Subakastawa” (“Royal Gift”) boasted one of the most beautiful melodies I’d ever heard, much less sung, and I hadn’t had the chance to sing it in years, since I’d left Eugene and its gamelan for Portland. I couldn’t wait!

Diva from Java

Especially because, we later learned, we’d have a very special guest for this concert: a pesindhen singer from Java named Peni Candra Rini whom Mindy had befriended during her studies there. As soon as Mindy learned that she would be in the US on a fellowship and tour that would take her to Southern California, New York City’s Lincoln Center (a few days after our concert), and Seattle to perform with various gamelans, she called Peni to come visit, and then she realized that Peni would actually be available to sing with us in our concert.

Peni Candrarini

This was a rare treat. The first time I’d heard gamelan music live, at an outdoor concert at the arts university in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, I was utterly beguiled by the music. But what really literally sent shivers down my spine was the sublime voice of the female singer, singing a serpentine tune that seemed to wend its way through the other instrumental textures while shining out among them — like a violin made human.

I’d never heard anything like it, and I wouldn’t again, at least not live, until last year, when a well-known, Seattle-based new music/world music singer, Jessika Kenney, who’d studied in Java, joined us for the 30th anniversary concert. The skills needed to sing those sinuous parts are formidable, and the training arduous. Peni later told me she’d studied the style for eight years and continues to learn; it’s rare to have a singer of her expertise accompany an American gamelan. I’d once had an opportunity to sing with a fellow student learning the sindhen part on a couple of songs, and found the experience of intertwined melody to be magical. I was eager to try it with Peni.

Two for the Show

That would have been enough for a great show, but another opportunity — another challenge — awaited.

Northwest New Music cellist Diane Chaplin

Last summer, cellist Diane Chaplin arrived at Evans for a concert of new music by Cascadia Composers. As she stood in the lobby, she heard the bubbling sounds of gamelan music wafting up from the world music studio below. It happened to be the same night as Venerable Showers of Beauty was playing a min-concert for visiting dancers in the studio. Chaplin, who’d moved to town recently and started a new music group with a percussionist partner, had for years wanted to play one of Lou Harrison’s most ambitious creations, the grand Double Concerto for violin, cello, and gamelan, which sports a blistering trio movement for the solo instruments and drum. I’d always wanted to play it, too, but it requires crack soloists that we could never afford to pay. Diane offered to play it with us, if we’d perform it on a concert of their music in the spring.

It was another singular opportunity. Harrison is also one of my favorite composers, and I’m writing a book about him, so I’d spent well over 100 hours with him in interviews and other occasions before his death in 2003. Moreover, he was born in Portland and returned often to work with our group from its inception (though long before any but a couple of the current members had joined), even tuning the instruments.

Composer Lou Harrison plays a gamelan instrument.

Harrison was also a great friend of Midiyanto’s, who stayed at his house when he moved to America. (Lou told me that when Midiyanto would practice some particularly brilliant improvisations on the harp-like gender, a metal-keyed instrument played with two mallets, Lou would surreptitiously record him, and used those recordings to better understand gamelan music.) And the Double Concertowas a bravura piece that would thrill both classical and world music fans — “like playing the cello in Big Ben,” the cellist said at its 1982 premiere.So that was Challenge #2: It would be a stretch to learn the concerto in seven weeks, combined with the new Javanese repertoire, but we could handle it. I even volunteered to take on a particularly difficult but way-cool obbligato part that Harrison had specially composed for a rack of tuned gongs called a bonang, played with two padded mallets. Playing Harrison’s music gave me otherwise unattainable insights into his creativity, particularly the way he combined Western and Asian forms. Plus it was fun! It was a doozy, but hey, with enough practice, I — we — could play anything, I thought.

That turned out not to be entirely true.

And an even bigger challenge lay ahead.

Continued in Part Two.

One Response.

  1. Jean Anderson says:

    Thanks for this intriguing explanation of the group, it’s history and how it all functions.
    It had seemed all too foreign and obscure prior — now the dots connect.

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