NEW BRONZE AGE: STREET GAMELAN IN VANCOUVER
By Kaelan Unrau
In the summer of 2015, the Western Front hosted New Bronze Age, a series of events spotlighting West Coast adaptations of Indonesian gamelan music. Performances included proggy cross-cultural fusion, bike-driven creations and a shadow puppet show.
Paris, 1889. Alongside the Imperial Diamond, the Eiffel tower and Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show,” the Exposition Universelle featured a performance by a small percussion ensemble from the island of Java. While most of the details surrounding performance have since been lost, the group—playing a form of Indonesian orchestral music known as gamelan—made a lasting impression on at least one of its audience members. “Do you remember the Javanese music?” the composer Claude Debussy would later reminisce, “able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades…”
In the late 19th century, the presence of gamelan in Europe—slight though it was—served largely to gratify the Western appetite for the exotic. (Indeed, one of the star attractions at the Parisian Exposition was a village nègre.) Yet over the last century, the Indonesian art form has come to assert a deeper hold over listeners and musicians the world over. Nowadays, dedicated gamelan ensembles can be found all across the globe, from Canada and the United States to Japan. In many cases, these groups were founded through a university or a college. But grassroots-based entities, such as Vancouver’s Gamelan Bike Bike, have also flourished.
The term gamelan can be traced back to old Javanese word gamel, meaning “to hit” or “to hammer.” It’s an appropriate name: the music tends to be percussion-heavy, employing a variety of gongs, cymbals, drums and metallophones cast from brass, iron and (especially) bronze. In Java and Bali—the two Indonesian islands most associated with the art form—the typical gamelan orchestra consists of between ten and fifty individual instruments, all of which weave together to form an intricate and polyphonic aural tapestry.
For those used to Western harmonies and rhythms, gamelan music can initially seem both alien and familiar. As a rule, it conforms to one of two tuning systems—a seven-note system called pélogin (Java) or saih pitu (Bali) and a five-note system called léndro (Central and East Java), saléndroin (West Java) or saih gender wayang (Bali)—both of which superficially resemble the folksy pentatonic scales favoured by occidental musicians and composers. However, unlike the “equal tempered” tunings of the West, wherein the octave is divided into twelve equal parts, gamelan music enjoys a far looser approach to pitch, with no two orchestras tuned exactly the same.
In a similar fashion, the compositional structure of gamelan music—intricate, interlocking melodic lines played over rolling bass tones—brings to mind the repeating patterns of American minimalism or even electronic dance music. (Gamelan music has in fact had a direct influence on both of these genres.) Yet because of the exotic instrumentation, frequent tempo changes and idiosyncratic tunings, if any likeness exists, it’s one mediated by an inherent “newness,” a reflection as seen through a funhouse mirror.
Vancouver, 2015. It’s a balmy July evening and I’m waiting for Gamelan Bike Bike to perform in the aptly-named Dude Chilling Park. Although Gamelan Bike Bike has ties to the University of British Columbia’s Ethnomusicology Department, it distinguishes itself from traditional, academically-minded ensembles in several ways. First, the group plays its own original material. Second (and most notable to the casual listener), it forgoes the typical bronze instrumentation of the conventional gamelan orchestra in favour of DIY contraptions fashioned from salvaged bicycle parts and discarded kitchenware.
Even before they play a single note, Gamelan Bike Bike makes for quite the arresting image. Woks and pans take the place of gongs. And whereas most gamelan groups hammer upon metallophones made of bronze, the DIY collective equips these large xylophone-like instruments with tuned sets of sawed-off bike tubing. “The kitsch factor of the bike thing is cool,” explains Robyn Jacob, a classically-trained pianist who has been with the group since its inception in 2014. “But it’s also very functional, so it’s not just recycling and whatever; we’re also pretty serious in building instruments that work for us.”
Gamelan Bike Bike began as a partnership between the University of British Columbia’s Gamelan Gita Asmara and the local arts collective Publik Secrets. Led by the ethnomusicologist Michael Tenzer, Gamelan Gita Asmara’s mandate has been to recreate—as “faithfully and lovingly” as possible—the traditional and contemporary sounds of Bali. With Gamelan Bike Bike, however, cultural fidelity is pursued more in spirit than in letter. “We’re sort of like a weird street gamelan,” says Jacob. “We’re still playing at a high caliber, but we’re writing and composing our own pieces, we practice at my house, that sort of thing.”
Of course, “cultural fidelity” is a rather fraught notion. “There’s all this new music coming out of Bali,” Jacob says, referring to the Western tendency to refer to non-Western musics as “traditional.” “I don’t like to say ‘tradition’ because ‘tradition’ makes it sound very old. There are new compositions that are very cutting-edge. So [with Gamelan Bike Bike], there’s a lot of back and forth, of checking them out, bringing influences back to us.”
At one time, the term “gamelan” could be used to refer to any type of music. It was only after the rise of globalism—when we began to define cultures in terms of each other—that it took on its present-day significance. Yet despite the serious risks associated with transnationalism and global communication, it has allowed for some incredibly fruitful cross-cultural exchanges, and gamelan music in particular has proven itself conducive to cultural redeployment.
“I love when that line between cultures becomes blurred,” explains Jon Siddall, the founder of Vancouver Community College’s Gamelan Si Pawit ensemble. “If we’re talking sort of earthier, funkier music of West Java or perhaps of Bali, then there’s something rhythmic that lends itself well to a [cross-cultural] collaboration.”
In the summer of 2015, Gamelan Si Pawit teamed up with local prog rockers we just stole a car for a night of East-meets-West cultural fusion. Using partial transcriptions of traditional Balinese songs as their starting point, the two groups worked to construct a sonic edifice in which the source material was manipulated and repurposed but never completely obscured. “I’d start by listening to pieces that I liked,” says we just stole a car guitarist John Mutter, “and then just taking small sections of what I really liked and then transcribing it and then taking it as raw material to expand [and] create a larger piece.”
By contrast, Siddall explains that he sometimes tries to evoke the feeling of a piece without referencing any particular musical content. At one point, he found himself fascinated by jaipongan, a style of West Javanese music popular in the 80s. “It’s very high-energy, very physical,” he says, “and I wanted to see if I could put it in a more North American context.” The result was a composition bearing the (rather cheeky) name of “Mypongan.” “It’s not a transcription,” Siddall continues. “It’s just taking that spirit without any specific reference.”
Gamelan music stretches back at least 2000 years and has long existed at the nexus of Indonesian religion, ceremony and art. For this reason, any comprehensive reproduction by a Western ensemble would be—quite simply—impossible. Still, groups like Gamelan Bike Bike, we just stole a car and Gamelan Si Pawit have succeeded in shrinking the cultural globe. At the same time, they have also demonstrated the staggering plurality of human expression, showing that, despite the occasional glimpse of recognition, the world around us remains a fundamentally strange and unknowable place.
Is this why gamelan music continues its hold over Western listeners? For Siddall, the answer is perhaps somewhat simpler than this. “I think people are drawn to it visually,” he says, “and the beautiful sonority of the instruments. It really speaks to something very innate in us. We just like to hit things.”
Kartomi, Margaret J. and Maria Mendonça. “Gamelan.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.
Padula, Alessandra. “Debussy as a Forerunner of Interculturalism.” Review of Artistic Education 7.8 (2014): 20-25.