It seemed appropriate that practically the first thing we did in Bali—after stopping for bottled water and kretek—was stop into a beautiful restaurant featuring a thirty foot statue of Ganesha, the famous elephant-headed remover of obstacles. Ganesha is traditionally invoked at the beginnings of difficult endeavors, and although none of us post-Christian U.S. Americans were religiously savvy enough to know any traditional prayers and blessings, we still took His presence at our first dinner as a good omen.
Gods and goddesses are everywhere here, along with a wild profusion of temples, statues, offerings of fruit and rice and incense, street dogs, motorbikes, delicious “warung” food carts, and music music music. I’m here with Portland’s only Balinese gamelan, Wahyu Dari Langit (“Revelation from the Skies”), and we’re here to study the traditional percussion-centric music of Indonesia. It’s been almost embarrassing to encounter groups of kids on the street playing drums and gongs with skill and grace we all agree we’ll never achieve.
But we’re still learning, and I’ll tell you all about that as we go along. I’m also still going to tell you about all the stuff I’m missing in Oregon this week and beyond. But first, I have to tell you about the mini-opera we watched shortly after arrival—a deeply entertaining, spiritually fulfilling two-hour spectacle of music and dance centered around a mythical beast known as Barong.
When we got to Pamaksan Barong Denjalan, a lovely old stone outdoor temple in the village of Batu Bulan near Ubud, our host Nyoman Danu (whose students include superstars Gamelan Çudamani and Gamelan Sekar Jaya co-founder Michael Tenzer) took us backstage to see all the masks and costumes. As we dodged stray dogs and puffed on our clove cigarettes, Danu greeted all the dancers and musicians, smiling and waving and high-fiving one of the band’s drummers as we made our way to our seats. The full-sized gamelan orchestra wrapped up its overture and out came The Monster.
You’ve seen those two-person horse costumes, right? Or the two-person dragons they use in the Chinese circus? The Barong was like that but grander: one dancer in the rear, shaking the monster’s adorable ass, and one dancer in the front running an incredibly detailed mask. You have to see one of these things for yourself to get an idea of how expressive a wooden mask can be. Big eyes, shiny teeth, wagging tongue. The barong is a little bit lion and a little bit tiger, but despite the creature’s inherent violence it’s quite friendly and charming. Even the crib notes (exactly like an opera’s, but printed on a single broadsheet sans ads for wine and financial instruments) refer to Barong as a good spirit opposed to Rangda, the evil witch of the forest.
The dancers brought all this dangerous cuteness to the fore, hopping around and generally behaving like a big puppy, playing around with a monkey (danced with an alarming attention to authentic primate behavior), bopping around the temple stage, fighting masked dudes with knives, chasing a wild bird. Falkor is probably a good point of reference for Western readers.
The performance mostly proceeded in duos and trios, male and female dancers portraying servants, gods, and politicians engaged in a story of enchantment, betrayal, and ultimate triumph and redemption. Rangda with her skull face and skeletal fingers bewitches Dewi Kunti (of Mahabharata fame) and persuades her to sacrifice her son Sadewa—but Siwa God (Lord Shiva to you and me) appears and grants Sadewa immortality. Various hijinks ensue. Accompanying it all, a full gamelan orchestra, every bit as exciting and subtle as anything you’ve heard at the Schnitz or Lincoln Performance Hall.
The whole thing was suffused with a wonderful humor and pathos which shone right through the language barrier, and I really can’t overstate the power of the show’s spiritual element. If you’ve been lucky enough to have had meaningful religious experiences (not easy in U.S. culture, where religion is almost completely moribund), you’ll have some idea of how ineffably resonant the numinous can be. Combine that with the funniest, saddest, most emotionally complex opera you’ve ever seen and you’ll have the idea. In fact, if you imagine yourself attending Don Giovanni at a time when everyone still believed in liberation and damnation, you’ll be pretty close.
Except this was performed in a little village temple with all the casual seriousness of an Original Practice Shakespeare performance or a Kulululu show. For these abundantly skilled dancers and musicians, it was just another performance.
Welcome to Bali!
Women and wine
Meanwhile, back in Oregon, you’re about to miss out on the neatest concatenation of women composers since CMNW 2017. Out in wine country, the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival is underway, and if you want to hear music by Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Amy Beach, Elisabeth Jacquet, and Joan Tower disciple Jessie Montgomery (this year’s Composer-in-Residence), it’s time to borrow your buddy’s Prius and scoot down to Dayton and environs. (You can read part one of Angela Allen’s Arts Watch coverage right here.)
We talk a lot about women composers, and there are three main reasons for that. One is the admittedly essentialist perception that women do everything better than men (“backwards and in heels”), and it’s the goddess-honest truth that I’d much rather listen to Tower’s quartets than Ferneyhough’s. The second reason comes from the tiny sliver of silver lining on the dark cloud of centuries of patriarchal control over who got to be a composer: paying attention to women composers usually also means listening to new composers.
That’s due to the simple fact that, aside from outliers like earliest-named-composer Hildegard of Bingen and Renaissance woman Barbara Strozzi, there’s this half-millenium stretch of almost no women composing and publishing classical music lasting right up until the early-to-middle of last century, when composers like Tower, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Florence Beatrice Price, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Meredith Monk started challenging all that nonsense (it wasn’t the only thing they were challenging, of course, and the careers of Tower and Monk are especially instructive on this point).
Nowadays, women composers are everywhere, getting published and performed, running their own bands, winning Pulitzers, etc. But since they are still generally less well represented than their male contemporaries, that brings us to our third reason: we want diverse, balanced concerts that bring us a wide range of compositional voices, especially contemporary voices we haven’t heard much of. Everybody loves an underdog, and so much the better if hearing the unheard improves our listening experiences and our lives.
That’s what excites us about WVCMF’s programming this year: like good sommeliers, they’re pairing new works by the likes of Shaw and Mazzoli with older works by Beach and Jacquet. Androphiles will still get their fix, though, with the four B’s: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bunch. It sounds to me like an ideal union of diverse composers across genders, cultures, and eras: exactly the sort of rich, complex, Living Classical Tradition experience we never get quite enough of. If I weren’t in Bali, that’s where I’d be this weekend.
Classical Revolution PDX’s monthly chamber classical jams have a bit of a reputation for being a mixed bag: but noodly and self-indulgent is the price of participation and the spots of brilliance that inevitably happen when you get together a bunch of the city’s more adventurous classical musicians in a quaint old NoPo bar and get them drunk and high enough to forget their rigid training and their teaching jobs and just cut loose for a few hours.
You, my friend, could be one of those drunk, stoned, fancy-free adventurous classical musicians. Their next monthly jam is on the 11th, so grab your violin or your nyckelharpa or your electrified vibraphone or your MAX/MSP-enabled laptop or whatever you use to access The Spheres, head on up to The Waypost on North Williams, and do your best to keep the “Classical” Music tradition alive.
Most of us who write for Oregon Arts Watch live in a state of near-constant guilt. We get a front row seat to all the coolest shit, and our job is to tell you all about it. But since most of us are students, teachers, and working artists, it’s not always easy to deliver timely reportage that’s worth reading. The old joke goes like this: “Cheap; good; on time—pick any two.” Since the only form of payment we demand is your hard-earned attention, the occasional tiny donation (even five bucks helps!) and your patronage of the arts organizations we cover, we hope that’s a good enough trade-off for our tardy but hopefully well-considered journalism.
Summers are the hardest, but we like to compromise by spending First Summer going to concerts and Second Summer writing about them. In the coming weeks, you’ll hear from Arts Watch contributors Damien Geter, Charles Rose, and yours truly, with a wide range of concert reflections covering everything from Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s Florence Beatrice Price celebration to Makrokomos V and the latest in the Extradition Series. Now that we’ve recovered from the five-week Chamber Music Northwest ordeal, we can edit the exclusive interviews we conducted with Shaw and maverick clarinetist Boja Kragulj. And I personally can’t wait to tell you all about the Problem of New Old Music.
But for now, your fearless Music Editor has to bid you “sampai jumpa”—gamelan practice started ten minutes ago!
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