Esprit /Evergreen: O Gamelan

“O Gamelan” is both José Evangelista’s composition & a handy name for tonight’s program by Esprit Orchestra, suggesting a genuine reverence for the Balinese ensemble of that name.  Many of the works on the program employed some or all of the players of Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, in various constellations of players & instrumentation.  In addition we were treated to a dance performance from Evie Suyadnyani, World Music Visitor at the U of T‘s Faculty of Music (which is perhaps one reason I saw the Dean of the Faculty in attendance). My head is still buzzing in a good way from this exquisitely intercultural experience.

Alex Pauk

Alex Pauk

We began & ended with orchestral works invoking gamelan sounds via conventional western instruments.  Echo Spirit Isle (1983), a work by Alex Pauk (composer & also the conductor & artistic director of Esprit)  started us off.  When the orchestra was playing repeated notes (aka ostinati) I thought of Colin McPhee, a composer whose works suggest Balinese music.  Pauk also generated some big tutti, and passages of neutral colour something like washes of colour on paper.  Pauk’s work was one of the bookends for the evening.   Claude Vivier’s Pulau Dewata (1977), which closed the concert, also had me in mind of McPhee: which is to say that some of the passages sound like attempts to echo or even transcribe a gamelan’s timbres and effects using conventional instrumentation.

Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan (click picture for more information)

Chan Ka Nin’s Éveil aux oiseaux (2005) employed eleven members of Esprit + nine gamelan instruments played by Evergreen personnel.  At times they blend, at other times there are distinct differences in the ways each culture’s instruments are used.  Several moments are wonderfully ambiguous, creating sounds and combinations that are hard to place, delightfully disorienting.  The first sounds we hear reminded me of the deep Tibetan horn-sound associated with Buddhist ceremonies, a sound that gave me chills immediately.  In an evening where Gamelan sounds seemed to instantly guarantee entry into the spirit of another culture, this composition was for me the most authentic, precisely because I couldn’t place it within any culture, any particular place or time.  Very impressive!

Next came something absolutely different in every respect. Lou Harrison’s Threnody for Carlos Chavez for viola and gamelan (1978) suddenly brought us into something intimate and the most tonal work we’d hear all night.  Violist Douglas Perry stood alongside seven of the Evergreen players, as he played something resembling a folk song, accompanied by the most delicate sounds I think I’ve ever heard from Evergreen.  For all intents & purposes, this is a thoroughly sensuous song, with an accompaniment that likely could be handled by one or two players, but instead flitting around seven different players.

Then we came to the work giving its title to the concert, namely José Evangelista’s O Gamelan, using a modern orchestra to suggest the magical sounds of a gamelan.  I was at times unable to figure out what instruments were playing to create the timbres.  Evangelista speaks of the gamelan as a goal, suggesting that its sound is an ideal.

My favourite piece on the program was from André Ristic, a work titled Project “Peuple” for gamelan & ensemble.  It’s a spectacularly clever composition.  If I were to quote the composer’s program notes to describe its ambitions you would likely be struck by the wit of the composer.

Two groups of individuals (the gamelan percussions and winds) are trying to find a “meeting point” through the inspiration provided by a “leader” (the double bass).  They succeed and the leader goes despotic.

Ristic refers to the concerto, in looking at the interactions of these musical forces.  The only work I can think of that’s comparable is Berlioz’s Harolde en Italie, a concerto that dramatizes the Byronic hero using a viola & orchestra.  Why am I not surprised that Ristic is from the former Yugoslavia?  I’ve met so many from this country whose well-developed political awareness boils over in the arts.  At the beginning, the groups of instruments –the western gang & the gamelan—are like political cartoons, satirical caricatures of two wildly disparate groups unable to communicate.  Gradually the double bass asserts itself, leading to one of the most delicious bits of comic virtuosity I’ve ever heard & seen, the bass player like a ferocious demagogue with a bow.

Pauk (conducting the group from Esprit + the Evergreen players) led a delightfully tight reading.

Esprit return January 26th, 2014 with a program titled “Strange Matter”
(…click logo for more information)

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3 Responses to Esprit /Evergreen: O Gamelan

  1. Andrew Timar says:

    I enjoy your perceptive blogs LB. This time I have a (perhaps an insider) quibble. You refer to “gamelan” exclusively as a “Balinese ensemble of that name.” In fact there are many types of gamelans in multiple regions of several islands of Indonesia.

    At the concert last night of music by five Canadian composers (plus an American), however, the only gamelan – on stage for the entire evening – was Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan’s gamelan “degung.” It’s a type of orchestra indigenous to the Sundanese culture of West Java, Indonesia. I ought to know: I’ve been performing with and composing for ECCG for three decades.

    As a long-time fan and sometime researcher of Balinese performance culture I enthusiastically acknowledge the popularity and influence of a few of the two dozen genres of Balinese gamelan abroad. On the other hand as a performer, lecturer on and teacher of some of the varieties of gamelan music practiced on the island of Java – plus its hybrid forms in the diaspora (i.e. ECCG) – I’m keen to dispel the impression that gamelan music starts and stops at Bali.

    Cheers & Goongs,

    Andrew Timar
    Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, pioneers of 30 years of Canadian gamelan
    York University, Toronto

    • barczablog says:

      I am indeed very inexperienced in this whole area, and unsure about the precise application of the terminology. I had a similar thought to one expressed by a fellow critic (who spoke of “appropriation”), but i stopped short of making any mention because i really had no solid foundation concerning what styles of instruments might “belong” to any place or nationality. My default position is one of respect, awe & gratitude, certainly happy to learn more. Thanks very much for the clarification.

  2. Andrew Timar says:

    L.B., thanks for your review which braved this unfamiliar hybrid Indonesian-Canadian musical terrain, and for your open-minded willingness to explore it. ECCG is celebrating its 30th anniversary of Canadian gamelan music this season with several concerts in 2014. Feel free to email me if you have further questions.

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