@RebelYellJSWGC: Revolutionary Ideas: Similar Musical Sensibilities from Moscow Monasteries to Indonesian Courts

Our last post -- Going Beyond Pärt's Divide to the Roots of Rebellion --  took us from that composer's 1968 Credo back through a contemporary conductor's insights into the Eastern Orthodox choral tradition that influenced the Estonian Pärt for the rest of his career, first as celebrated dissident, then as merely celebrated.

This post now compares that conductor's insights on Eastern Orthodox tradition to the qualities inherent to the creation and performance of Indonesian gamelan music, a genre ostensibly as far removed from Maestro Gorbik's Moscow monastery as possible: the latter is choral, the former an almost entirely percussive ensemble; the latter is Christian, the former from two islands of majority Muslim and Hindu populations, respectively; the latter is rooted in Western harmonies and notation, the former in two scales not yet subjected to equal temperament and traditionally taught without the benefits and burdens of notation.

And yet -- reflecting on the lessons of Maestro Gorbik at St. Vladimir's, my time in Indonesia, and the few years I spent practicing and performing with gamelan orchestras here in the US -- it is clear that these two forms of music, although sharing no direct lineage, do share musical sensibilities that resonate with Maestro Gorbik's larger, spiritual lessons. Those larger lessons are how a a musical ensemble might actually be our best approximation of the Divine: a revelation of what it means to truly be in the presence of one another and, as a consequence, in the presence of God.

Once again, in the context of the world as we know it, that is perhaps the most disruptive statement we can make as musicians -- a quiet yet confident Rebel Yell.

For example, let us first review some of Maestro Gorbik's analects and anecdotes before proceeding to search for their analog in Indonesian gamelan:

  • "Someone who is not prayerful, for whom singing is not a prayer, may be a wonderful singer, but will ultimately hit a ceiling in their performance, in their contribution to the choir. A lesser singer can be taught to sing; someone uninterested in prayer cannot be forced to pray."
  • "Each choir member must pray, but without pride in their prayer, if the choir is to attain a holy sound."
  • "A choir member came to me—a good voice, singing in a professional choir—and asked for advice, saying that when he sang with the group he could not hear himself. But if you are singing out, and you are part of a professional choir in which everyone sings out, your voice should blend—you should not be able to hear yourself. Rather, in order to blend, in order to be part of a choir, you should be listening to the voices around you. If you can’t hear the person standing four people away from you, you shouldn’t be in the choir."
  • "When you sing too loudly, it is because you think that you’re the savior of the choir. You’re not, nor ever could be. No individual singer can ever save a choir."
  • "Rather than sing too loudly, when a solo, duo or trio finishes its passage and the rest of the choir enters the hymn, there should be no sudden change in volume: the other twenty, thirty, forty, or even one hundred voices come in adding richness and fullness, the music’s inherent harmonies no longer tacit, but explicitly realized, yet still no louder than the solo voice that preceded them—one hundred voices should be just as soft as that one voice alone."
  • "We cannot sing crudely, for we are merely joining our voices to those who are already with God."
  • "I have often noticed that singing in unison, as well as the general desire to sing cleanly, listening to one another, is the audible manifestation of love for one’s neighbor."

Now, keeping those observations in mind -- and how they contrast to our traditional Western conception of the professional musician, professionally produced music, or even any professional setting, our schools and offices included -- let us consider how Indonesian gamelan is perceived, practiced and performed by its adherents:

  1. There is no "soloist"

    Music critics and theorists often speak of composers' and conductors' use of the Western orchestra as an instrument, but the plethora of truly solo music -- not just music for soloist and ensemble -- belie the fact that these are individuals playing their individual instruments in concert. By contrast, in Indonesia, gamelan is the name of the music, it is the name of the orchestra, and it is the category of instruments: the orchestra is the instrument. You don't have a repertoire of chaconne for solo bonang or sonatas for a single set of gong. A gamelan may be small or large, may have a player seated at every mallet or empty seats among them, but it cannot be performed by an individual alone, no matter how good: the whole of the orchestra is the instrument in the same way that Maestro Gorbik described the Eastern Orthodox choir, and which does not have a consistent analogue in the instrumental tradition of the West.
     
  2. There is no specialist

    No soloist, no specialist. When you ask a gamelan player what they play, they state "gamelan", not the individual instruments of the orchestra, for a novice will begin on one set of metallaphones that spell out the songs' underlying structure and then progress over time through all of the elements of the ensemble. Similarly, it's not unusual to see players in an excellent orchestra switch instruments over the course of an evening: they know and can play the song from every seat, every role in the orchestra familiar to them. It would be like watching the tympanist step up to first chair violin between the second and third movement and vice versa -- unthinkable!
     
  3. Collaborative melody instead of point-counterpoint

    Point number two above is both a prerequisite for and permitted by point number three: melody is often collaborative -- in the Balinese gamelan this is true even to the point of  two metallaphones taking every other note of a fast paced melody in turn -- making it impossible to play your part well without knowing equally well every other part in the ensemble. At first glance, Westerners often comment how simple the gamelan is to play -- an absolute novice with no musical training can often be given a role and step in with a good group from almost day one -- not understanding that what takes years, even decades to develop, are the gamelan's demands for listening. Again I think of Maestro Gorbik!
     
  4. Shared conducting with no single point of audience focus

    The flute will often lead the melody, intimating what is to come, while the drum signals section breaks and tempo changes, and the gongs provide the pillars of a song's deep structure, various other instruments cued and cuing exit and entry. Only when accompanying a shadow puppet performance will there be a single person -- the puppeteer -- "leading" the orchestra, and then he or she will be hidden behind a screen, the focus not on the conductor, but the conduct of the characters that conductor creates. Those characters are traditional tales that go back centuries, often as the songs themselves, with no known composer; it makes me think of Maestro Gorbik's comment that "we are merely joining our voices to those who are already with God."
     
  5. "It takes a village"

    Gamelan orchestras, relative to the economy in which they have until recently existed, tend to be expensive: they were owned by a royal court or rural village, all the instruments always housed under a single roof, too heavy to be readily moved, practice a communal endeavor, performance always for the rites and rituals of that community. It took a village to pay for its creation, took a village to play it, took a village to create enough demand for performances to warrant its creation, and so every gamelan also took on the character of that village. Consequently the orchestra itself was imbued with a spirit, and so causing it to sound was a spiritual practice accompanied by prayers, as performance was also often allied with spiritual, not commercial, events: sacred holidays, weddings, births, circumcisions, the rites of death and passage. Unfortunately, with a late 20th/early 21st century decrease in participation in village life, so has there been a demise in the gamelan of Indonesia, just as a century ago in the West the performance of music, the practice of a musical instrument, became largely the prerogative of only the professional and children. The rest of us became too busy. We play the stereo, or our iPod -- the ultimate isolation.
     

So here to add to you iPod, to listen to on your SmartPhone, is something to remind you of the older, more communal side of civilization. Sundanese gamelan is often the most accessible to first time listeners, but for the patient, Javanese and Balinese gamelan will unfold for you in beautiful and exciting ways with repeated listening, rewarding the patient.

And again, it is in that call for patience, for deep listening, for performing as and in true community, that gamelan shares what we found earlier in Eastern Orthodox choral music: a countercultural call that -- by its sacred, ritual properties -- constitute a Rebel Yell.

Sundanese sampler on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nrgTossoB0

Javanese sampler on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekbsR9qCcew&list=RDekbsR9qCcew#t=39

Balinese sampler on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtqGQBp0JlU&list=RDDtqGQBp0JlU#t=7

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@RebelYellJSWGC is 1 of 3 streams of tweets and blogs from Good Counsel.  To learn more, follow me on Twitter or visit the "Read Me" page at goodcounsel.squarespace.com