Lila Bhawa performed Javanese dances, Topeng Gunungsari and Beksan Karonsih, with the Oxford Gamelan Society at East Meets West, on 14th February 2015. Consistent with Valentine’s Day, can you spot the happy Karonsih couple?
The traditional musics of Indonesia, particularly the large percussion ensembles called gamelan have exerted a significant attraction in the West and influenced composition in the west, the development of the discipline of ethnomusicology, and music education in the UK and US.
This interaction started when Francis Drake reached Java during his circumnavigation of the globe in 1579; in contrast to many comments made by explorers of the time about the music they encountered, he described the entertainments provided for him remarkably positively: ‘though it were of a very strange kind, yet the sound was pleasant and delightful!’ Much later, when a troupe of performers from Indonesia was featured at the Paris Exhibition of 1889, a number of composers were known to be present, including Debussy, Ravel, and Saint-Saens. Debussy, clearly impressed by what he had heard, later commented: ‘Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play, and if one listens to it without bring prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a travelling circus.’
This fascination with the culture of Indonesia continued in the next generation of European composers and artists with painter Walter Spies and composer Colin McPhee spending large amounts of time in Bali and introducing Benjamin Britten to gamelan music. At this time the Lithuanian American pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky also visited Indonesia but spent more time in Java than Bali, a visit which inspired his ‘Java Suite’ of 1925.
Although primarily involved in the study and performance of Chinese music, Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was also intrigued by the compositional possibilities available in studying gamelan music and studied with K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat as well as Schoenberg, He and his partner William Colvig built a number of ensembles from scrap metal which they called American gamelan and also made two more traditional style gamelan sets tuned to just intonation rather than either the Javanese scales or equal temperament. These instruments allowed Harrison to write a large number of works combining western orchestral instruments with gamelan, including the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Gamelan. Text by East Meets West programme