Soekarno Blues

Ensemble Gending – “Soekarno Blues”.
Works by Willem Breuker, Per Nørgård, Jan-Rokus v. Roosendael, Sinta Wullur, Roderik de Man, Jacob ter Veldhuis, Klaus Kuiper.
Participants in Ensemble Gending: Armeno Alberts, Alice Emor [1, 6], Saskia van Grevenstein, Jolanda de Heus, Robert van Hulzen, Klaus Kuiper, Rob van der Poel, Michel Ponsioen, Renske Spek, Wim Veenhof [1], Hans Witteman, Hans van Zijp, Monica Akihary [vocal on no. 1], Wouter Hamel [vocal on no. 1], Jurrien Sligter [cond.]
Bvhaast CD 0201. Duration: 73:58.

Gamelan – particularly the Indonesian gamelan of Bali and Java – has won serious acclaim in the west since the 1960s, with a real up-surge in the 1980s and to this day. We have heard many western applications of this very special sound world. We might especially look to the very successful Gamelan Pacifica of the United States, with their CD “Trance Gong” on What Next WN0016 (1994), and we may also take note of the fact that some of the foremost American experimentalists sometimes indulge in gamelan, like Pauline Oliveros in her “Lion’s Eye”, which I’ve heard performed by the Gamelan Ensemble Son of Lion on a private recording from the premier in a church at Washington Square, New York in 1985. It is especially in North America that this interest in gamelan has emerged, making possible the forming of organizations like The American Gamelan Institute; an organization devoted to publishing, recording, distributing, and making available information on all aspects of Indonesian performing arts and their international counterparts [], and through which innumerable gamelan recordings can be ordered. The interest in the interplay of overtones, so rich in gamelan, has been intriguing to American contemporary music also through the so-called minimalism and its repetitive trance music, with phase shifts and layers of sound. Let’s bear in mind also Lou Harrison, and what he did to make this music known, and some of John Cage’s percussive prepared piano sort of adheres to some atmospheric principles of gamelan. Then there is the distinction between religious, liturgic, ritual gamelan, like the Gong Gede of the Bali temples of Batur and Tampaksiring, contrasting with the secular art gamelan of for example Wayan Lotring [1898 – 1983] – and then there is, as mentioned above, the American adoption of this wonderful sound world into contemporary composition – with an added European flavor on this new CD from Dutch company Bvhaast.

This recording was made in the Erasmus Concert Hall in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1999, during a tour, which the Dutch musicians conducted in their former colony! The ensemble does not try imitate the Indonesian way of playing in some kind of forced mimicry, but develop their own style, attaching and incorporating Western aspects into the web of sounds, into the rhythms and the overall atmosphere, which is, none the less, magic!

The man who inspired the forming of Ensemble Gending was the composer Ton de Leeuw, who has spent a lot of energy on fuse Eastern and Western traditions, in much the vein of Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar on a legendary vinyl from 1965 with melodies like “
Tala Rasa Ranga”, Song From the Hills”, “Gat Kirwani” and other famous events, spellbinding a whole young Western hippie generation with his simplified – but incredibly beautiful – gently westernized Indian masterpieces, with master tablaist Alla Rakah by his side. Another personality who has done much to weave a pattern with threads from both the East and the West is of course Terry Riley, who even went to India to study carnatic temple singing with mastersinger Pandit Pran Nath in the 1970s.
Ton de Leeuw stressed that the goal was not to imitate other cultures, but to combine the best of different cultures in new settings. This is what Ensemble Gending is trying to achieve. One of the pieces has a tape part, while others incorporate Western percussion, and one, the first piece, Dutch vocals! Another of the composers combines two of the tunings of gamelan that normally is used separately, creating un-Indonesian tensions.

Willem Breuker’s (b.1944) “
Soekarno-Blues” (1999) is the first piece of the CD, beginning with what could be mistaken for a ritual gamelan, but it is a bit to erratic, and then the vocals of Monica Akihary and Wouter Hamel move the gamelan into the realm of Dutch jazz and blues singing, in subdued voices! There are other interesting anomalities here too, making this a re-listenable event for sure!

Per Nørgård (b.1932) is a Danish composer held in high esteem. He has written much contemporary chamber music. His contribution is “
Gendhing” (1980/1988). The guise in which the piece appears here is a reworking, or an arrangement (by Klaus Kuiper), of the original piece, which also existed in three versions, and the original title was “Variations On a Javanese Melody”.
The piece starts very gently, on high notes, until more percussive intrusions spray the composition with sudden outbursts of hasty rhythms, again slowing down to a trance-like progression, which in turn speeds up and moves sturdily ahead. In other words; the music is varied, dynamic – and always displaying the diamond beauty of gamelan sound.

Jan-Rokus v. Roosendael (b.1960) introduces his piece “
Carillon” (1997), in which the gamelan is regarded and treated as a big carillon. He has woven a medieval melody from the 13th century into the gamelan. Indeed this is weaving traditions together; the age-old gamelan of Indonesia, and an old European tradition, represented from inside the gamelan by a melody used by for example Praetorius!

Sinta Wullur (b.1958) is a native of Indonesia, but she came to Holland at the age of 10. She has studied with Ton de Leeuw and Louis Andriessen. She has made a point of the integration of non-western components in her works. Her piece is “
Kaleidoscoop” (1997). It has the most touching beginning, in fat, solid, shiny spheres of sound, filling your head like the screen-savers filling the screen of your Macintosh, and the sounding space is crowded with colors of the most magnificent radiance. Some really “off” sounds cause stirring bendings of chords and pitch, and it sort of makes you nauseous, dizzy… It’s beautiful! She achieves this by using two different Javanese scales; “Slendro” and “Pelog”. Maybe this is my favorite on this set!

Roderick de Man (b.1941) was born in Indonesia. He has studied with electronic composer and tape music guru Dick Raaijmakers (whose collected tape music on three CDs I have tried in vain to get hold of...). The dynamics are unusually rough, penetrating, reverberating, at the outset of “
Orkes Bercahaya” (1997). The drumbeat hits you in the stomach, and the shiny gamelan lets its gentle fingers trip in a shadow dance across your face. This work is intended for a simultaneous light projection, but I think it functions just fine by itself. The rumble of the big drum really kicks ass! The gamelan gold-plates the patterns!

Jacob ter Veldhuis (b.1951) presents his “
Cannibal Mass” (1998). It was written especially for a tour of Indonesia by Ensemble Gending. This is gamelan rock ‘n roll, forcing its way on ahead, utilizing voices too, in an instrumental way, just to produce sounds of a vocal percussive kind. There’s a lot of drumming here, solid, intricate, violent! It is indeed a gamelan octet!

Klaus Kuiper (b.1956) concludes this beautiful CD with “
Sonata da Camera” (1997). Kuiper has studied with Dick Raaijmakers too, like Roderick de Man. Kuiper is a member of the Ensemble Gending, but also plays in Turkish and Arabic groups. Kuiper uses a tape part in his composition, but all the sounds on the tape originate in the instruments of the ensemble. This is probably my second favorite on this startling CD, with its layers of progressive rhythms appearing through the luster of the gamelan splendor, which attracts the human ear so much. The activity is intense here, loading space with might, and it’s in fact hard to stay still, as the music almost compels you to move in time with the shadows of the sound! The murmur of the tape, that dominates for a while, stretches out like a long distant, extended thunder clap across the horizon, while the rustling of close-up percussive sparkles massage your temples, moving you into a summer day’s hypnosis… until sharp and slicing cuts of seriously manipulated gamelan sounds tear you out of your nose-tip meditation!