Electro-Instrumental Performance and Indonesian Musical Traditions
Moving Beyond Sonic Tourism
Sound technology, by its very nature, is inherently universalist, being simply tools for transmitting and manipulating electronic signals or sample streams of numbers, which on their own exhibit no characteristics of any musical tradition, while simultaneously having the potential to reproduce or emulate the music of any place or culture. While the earliest electroacoustic music emerged largely out of the Western avant-garde tradition, only a few early creators of electronic music — notably the Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh, one of the first generation of composers to work at the Columbia-Princeton Center for Electronic Music (Gluck 2006b) — used these new resources to create electronic music which fit squarely within their own distinct cultural traditions. 1[1. See, for example, Bob Gluck’s interviews with composers Dariush Dolat-Shahi (Iran) and Halim El-Dabh (Egypt) in this issue of eContact!] Most others were drawn to the complete abstraction that is possible when the creation of sounds is untethered from any acoustic instruments.
This attitude is certainly not the status quo today, but the inherently universalist nature of our sound technology has, in some ways, thrust us experimental electroacoustic musicians onto a kind of floating island, far from any fertile cultural soil from which to draw nutrients in the form of a musical lineage or tradition. At the same time, the diverse musical traditions of the world have continued to develop substantially through purely acoustic means in the past 60 years or so since this technology became available.
Some of the earliest roots of our “outsider” status may simply be a result of the historical precedents set by some of the earliest pioneers of electronic music. Many of these composers actively sought out a clean break from musical traditions and electronic music provided a kind of blank slate with which to do that. Even though æsthetics have changed drastically from the 50s and 60s, these pioneers’ work began to define a fledgling genre very early on.
Also, as summarized by this Milton Babbitt quote, the rise of electroacoustic technology pushed human performers into the background (at least in the minds of some composers), placing the sole responsibility of maintaining musical traditions on composers themselves:
As for the future of electronic music, it seems quite obvious to me that its unique resources guarantee its use, because it has shifted the boundaries of music away from the limitations of the acoustical instrument or the performer’s coordinating capabilities, to the almost infinite limitations of the electronic instrument. (Babbitt 1996)
Eliminating performers from the equation cuts the vast majority of the world’s musical traditions out of the electroacoustic “genre”. In nearly all musical traditions, there exists at least some degree of oral-aural tradition that is passed down from performer to performer — without the aid of composers or notation — and in many traditions, this is the sole means of maintaining a musical lineage.
At a July 2012 workshop at STEIM in Amsterdam, composer / improviser / writer Bob Ostertag presented another similar explanation for this situation: “We have yet to develop an electronic musical instrument that someone will spend 10 or 20 years learning to master.” 2[2. Ostertag himself is perhaps the greatest counterexample to his own statement. He performed with a homemade Serge synthesizer from 1978 until 1982 and, after a long hiatus from musical activity, purchased an Ensoniq ASR-10 polyphonic sampler in 1989, which he used exclusively until 1999.] This condition is in part a result of the rapid turnover of the technology used for the creation and performance of electronic music and the inherent interfacing issues of mapping “human motoric input on an acoustic output” (Raes 2007) that are created when technology is involved.
The “10 or 20 years” of practicing required to master most acoustic instruments is itself a means through which musical traditions are maintained and developed. Students at conservatories around the world master their instruments under the tutelage of older or more experienced teachers, often following well-established pedagogical traditions (i.e. the Suzuki Violin School, Dalcroze Eurythmics, or the Arban Trumpet Method). This pedagogical reinforcement of tradition is especially present in cultures where music is taught without written notation, such as South Indian Carnatic singing or Brazilian samba drumming, which are generally taught through an oral-aural teacher-student relationship.
To this end, electro-instrumental 3[3. I use the term electro-instrumental throughout to mean music for live electronics and live instrument(s).] music that interacts with the diverse musical traditions of Indonesia is an excellent “case study” in this current exploration of the possibility of musical traditions in electroacoustic contexts. Besides being the only non-Western / European / Northern Hemisphere musical tradition I can speak with any authority about 4[4. I played in a Balinese gamelan for three years as a student under the direction of master teacher I Dewa Ketut Alit Adyana.], Indonesian music — particularly Balinese and Javanese gamelan (a uniquely Indonesian “orchestra” of percussion instruments) — represents an extremely complex, unique and continuously developing oral-aural musical tradition that has recently attracted the attention of several electroacoustic composers and musicians.
Recent advances and emergent trends in music technology make it increasingly possible for electronic musicians to perform alongside acoustic instrumentalists in live performance, without relying on fixed recordings. This recent electro-instrumental music allows for diverse musical traditions, which have historically been maintained and developed through purely acoustic means, to thrive and develop with the additional sonic resources that electronic technology can offer. As music technology makes it increasingly possible and intuitive for electronic performers and systems to interact with live performers, I believe that we are in a position where we can stop being “sonic tourists” and become active participants in the constantly evolving musical traditions which are still alive and well in the world.
Any discussion of musical traditions in contemporary music inherently touches upon questions of historical and cultural significance in the arts — questions that have been the focus of numerous writings in theories in the fields of postmodern and postcolonial critical theory. The purpose of this article is not to rehash these myriad philosophies and æsthetics, but rather to examine the three primary models that tend to occur when a deliberate attempt is made on the part of a composer or performer of electroacoustic music to interact with a distinct musical tradition. My thoughts about these models are an attempt to apply certain theories about generally representative art forms (film, literature, photography, etc.) to the comparatively abstract medium of music.
Most importantly, I wish to carefully examine three examples of electro-instrumental music that interacts with Indonesian music in order to understand how and if these interactions will lead to the future development of this rich musical tradition.
Three Models of the Use of Culture-Specific Samples in EA
One of the greatest strengths of the electroacoustic medium, and perhaps one of the main reasons that this medium is attractive to a large number of contemporary musicians, is its ability to create sounds that cannot be created through traditional acoustic means. These sounds may be synthesized “from scratch” or they may be the result of manipulating or processing an acoustic sound beyond recognition. Often the mere act of separating an acoustic sound from its visible source (through recording) can be enough to turn an otherwise familiar sound into an abstract, acousmatic sonic element — a technique exploited extensively by composers of musique concrète.
This ability to make music with nonrepresentational sounds (that is, sounds with no obvious, discernable analogue in the acoustic world) is central to the electroacoustic medium, and this inherent potential for pure abstraction draws many musicians to the medium, since it offers them the unprecedented freedom to work with materials that have no embedded cultural or historical significance. The æsthetic focus, then, can be on sound in its purest possible forms; an æsthetic that has been an undeniably strong force in electroacoustic music at least since the early spectral experiments began at IRCAM. Gérard Grisey’s declaration, “We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupuncture” (Fineberg 2006, 105) is as strong a manifesto for pure sonic abstraction as any.
However, it is also possible for the composer of electroacoustic music to avoid any possible “embedded cultural or historical significance” if she makes use of instruments and sounds from outside of her own cultural-historical perspective (and/or the perspective of her audience). For example, to a composer steeped entirely in the Western Art Music Tradition, a dynamic set of formant / bandpass filters applied to a low, overtone-rich static sound signal and the vocalizations of a Tuvan khömmei throat-singer are two different means to (basically) the same sonic end.
In the field of experimental electroacoustic music, which often values a sort of “technological exoticism” (that is, a fascination with new, unfamiliar sounds created through electronic means), instruments and vocal techniques from outside the Western musical tradition are often ideal sound sources for the Western electroacoustic composer wishing to create abstract, non-culture-specific music. 5[5. Conversely, I would like to believe that the sounds of European classical instruments would carry an equal degree of abstraction for the non-Western composer, but I can only speak from my own experience as an American conservatory-trained musician and I fear that such a statement would raise issues of colonialism / postcolonialism, etc. that are beyond the scope of this paper.] Our present ability to view, analyze and manipulate the harmonic spectra of sounds and instruments has further exacerbated this situation, since the defining sonic characteristics of these instruments can be represented by values in FFT bins or FTM matrices (etc.), and can be completely untethered from the physical instrument itself.
Some backpedaling is necessary here.
Obviously, something like my Tuvan khömmei singing example is complete hyperbole. Very few musicians today would actually believe that a synthesized sound is a complete surrogate for a human performer and some early electroacoustic works that attempted something similar to this (i.e. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge) have been lampooned in recent years for operating on such an assumption (Ostertag 2012a). Moreover, in an increasingly globalized world, it becomes less and less likely that a Western composer could create music under the safe assumption that an entire audience would be so culturally oblivious that merely basing an electroacoustic work on samples of a non-Western performer would provide him or her with a completely blank canvas, free from any “embedded cultural or historical significance.” When and if this occurs, it certainly happens only in degrees, with “foreign sounds” 6[6. “Foreign sounds”, that is, sounds that are familiar in a certain cultural context (because of that culture’s unique musical traditions), but are used by musicians outside of that particular culture because of their relative unfamiliarity. In these instances, the appeal of unfamiliar sounds lies in their abstract qualities and lack of baggage within a specific cultural vantage point.] being simply more abstract (or less representational / significant) than culturally familiar ones.
Finally, and most importantly, the idea of a “purely Western” or “purely American” or “purely Chinese” (etc. etc.) composer is virtually a thing of the past. Every individual has varying degrees of global-cultural and/or musical awareness, and the degree of this awareness may be partially influenced by an individual artist’s culture of origin, but the prevalence of expatriation, travel, foreign study, etc., as well as a strong push towards an international dialogue within the artistic and musical community, has made it nearly impossible for artists to create in complete cultural isolation anymore. Even artists who never leave their culture of origin are often acutely aware of other cultures through the global media and higher education.
That all said, throughout the history of electroacoustic music examples abound of composers who have used foreign sounds in their works for primarily timbral reasons. Robert Gluck has assembled an impressive body of research on many of these works, especially from the earlier years of electroacoustic music 7[7. Some of these writings are referenced in the bibliography. [ Also see eContact! 14.4, as well as the present issue and upcoming issues, for a series of interviews made by Gluck in the mid-2000s with composers from the Middle East, China and South America. ]], but some very recent works that fit this category include Jay Batzner’s 2010 work All My Dreams Are Silent (for Chinese transverse flute [dizi], Native American 4‑tone flute, and Irish panpipe, plus electronics) and Mark Phillips’ 2011 work Appalasia (for erhu and Kyma), which used the sound of the Chinese 2-string erhu in an “Appalachian sound palette,” quite far removed from its original cultural context.
In these situations, when electroacoustic composers use a culture-specific sound or instrument for primarily timbral reasons, the performance traditions behind the various instruments used become most often secondary to the raw sound of the instruments. In Phillips’ case, he consciously put the erhu into an entirely different performance tradition, while Batzner embraced the breadth of timbres that can be created by the wide range of instruments that fall in the flute family (and can be played by a single performer).
As previously mentioned, while one of the greatest strengths of the electroacoustic medium is its ability to render familiar, “representative” sounds into complete abstractions, this is also one of the greatest dangers of the medium, especially if (unlike Batzner’s or Phillips’ works) the representative nature of source sounds is central — musically or conceptually — to a piece. In his 1966 work Telemusik, Stockhausen sought “the intermingling and integration of all the earth’s musical cultures” (Stockhausen 1978) by creating a work which used samples from around the world which were then modulated with one another and with synthesized sounds, spliced and arranged in a typically mysteriously Byzantine Stockhausenian manner, and presented via a 5‑channel speaker array. The result, as Frances White has pointed out, is not the “intermingling and integration” that Stockhausen sought, but rather a “unification through annihilation” (White 1990) of the source sounds, which were rendered unrecognizably abstract by Stockhausen’s processing.
The Signifying Sample, or the Rhizome
In works that achieve some degree of pure abstraction by removing sounds or instruments from their original cultural context, any (musical or extramusical) significance attached to the sounds is lost, either because of deliberate attempts by the composer to eliminate these possible signifiers or because certain sounds are only significant in a particular cultural context.
The other great strength of the electroacoustic medium is the direct antithesis of its ability to create purely non-representational sounds; recording technology allows us to capture sounds from a particular time and place and reproduce them exactly in another context, such that (if the recorded sounds themselves are clearly indicative of their original context) they will retain any significance they had when they were recorded. In other words, electroacoustic technology also allows us to create purely representational sounds.
The technique of sampling is a well-known and well-documented technique in nearly all genres of mainstream or experimental electronic music. Samples themselves are often chosen for their purely musical qualities (the famous “Amen break” is perhaps the most widespread example), but many electroacoustic musicians have used this ability to recontextualize recorded sounds in ways that develop the recorded material far beyond its original state.
In a particularly moving example, Ingram Marshall’s Kingdom Come (2008), for orchestra and tape, uses four disparate musical samples, three of which are captured on tape and exemplify specific musical traditions 8[8. The fourth “sample” is performed by the orchestra (rather than the tape); the opening few bars of Jean Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela are played several times by the strings at the beginning of the piece.]: vocalizations and bells in both a Croatian Catholic church and a Serbian Orthodox church in Dubrovnik, and a recording of a Bosnian Muslim gusle singer (Marshall 2008). As a reflection on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the juxtaposition of samples in Kingdom Come creates a place where the music of three cultures embroiled in ethnic conflict can come into harmony or counterpoint with one another, a seemingly impossible event in the war-torn reality of the region where the samples were recorded. The juxtaposition is significant both musically and extramusically; the samples come together to develop a new music that is, in many ways, greater and different than the sum of its parts. As Marshall’s brother-in-law was killed by a landmine in Bosnia in 1994, the symbolism of this convergence can be uinderstood as being representative of the composer’s own stance on the Balkan conflict.
This nonlinear process of signification, whereby sounds take on new meaning in electroacoustic works, is reflective of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s biological analogy of the rhizome. Rhizomic plants, such as ginger, grow and develop in a nonlinear, nonhierarchical manner, spreading outwards from a central source in any direction, unlike a tree, which grows directly upwards from a central trunk. As a model for signification, the rhizome is a system that creates meaning across cultures and points in history. It is not dependent on a culture-specific lineage of ideas, but instead allows for the creation of new signs and systems across cultures and history. These signs and systems are as easily broken as they are created, when a particular signifier is removed and put into an entirely new cultural context (Deleuze and Guattari 1987).
Marshall’s Kingdom Come also demonstrates the danger inherent to this other extreme of electroacoustic music that interacts with culture-specific sounds through signifying samples. Marshall’s samples are significant because of the time in history and the places in the world in which they were recorded. Without knowledge of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, Kingdom Come’s juxtaposition of samples loses its extramusical significance. On its own, this loss of extramusical significance does not in any way take away the purely musical quality of the piece, but if such great lengths are made to ensure the clarity of the samples (which is necessary, lest the sample fall victim to becoming an acousmatic abstraction), often very little is left but the purely musical qualities of the samples.
Moreover, while Kingdom Come will always directly reference a particular time and place in history, our perception and associations with that time and place in history are not constant. As borders and politics change, as cultural wounds heal or new wounds are inflicted, history and perception are often rewritten (both literally and in the minds of those involved), and as such, the extramusically significant juxtaposition of samples in Kingdom Come is only a demonstration of a very particular vantage point in history, a vantage point that must always be communicated to the listener each time the work is performed in order for it to have any of its intended significance.
Beyond any issues of extramusical signification, the use of culturally specific samples does very little to develop the musical traditions that are appropriated in these works. They, too, are fixed in the time and place in which they were recorded and their repeated use as a piece of fixed media only pushes them further into a time capsule, while the musical tradition that was sampled may have changed and developed considerably since the time the recording was made.
At this point, it is worth noting that the model I described under the heading “Sonic Abstraction” can occur in both fixed media or electro-instrumental works, while these works that involve recorded samples essentially require some fixed media elements, even if these elements are triggered in live performance.
Documentary Forms and The Radicant
Thus, in art, video is becoming a lingua franca thanks to which artists, whatever their nationality, can legitimately show off their cultural differences, which are then inscribed in the new context constituted by the technological apparatus, a context that is universalist by default. (Bourriaud 2009, 30)
In his 2009 book The Radicant, modern art curator Nicolas Bourriaud proposed the idea of “documentary forms” as a contemporary response to questions of authenticity and globalization in the arts. He notes that documentary films and videos have, in recent years, become much more commonplace in art galleries than in cinemas, so much so that it represents a significant cultural shift in modern art.
The idea of the documentary form allows contemporary artists to sidestep the issue of “authenticity” when approaching cultures outside their own, since the audience is doubtlessly aware of the fact that they are not seeing an exact reproduction of a particular time and place, but rather the images and sounds of that time and place as filtered through the documentarian’s lens. We are aware that we are not simply seeing the documentary subjects’ natural day-to-day behaviour, but we are seeing the natural interaction between the subject and the artist.
This interactivity is central to the idea of the radicant, which Bourriaud developed in his book of the same name. This theory builds upon the idea of the rhizome, but attempts to do away with some of the inherent inflexibility of the rhizome theory, which does not always accurately represent today’s artists and musicians. Radicant plants, like ivy, grow nonlinearly outwards and take root as they do, drawing nutrients from all that they traverse. Unlike the rhizome, which is always tethered to a central core (like a sample forever tied to time and place in history), the radicant can sever unneeded roots at any time when they no longer are a source of nutrients (Bourriaud 2009).
This biological metaphor reflects the migratory nature of artists and artforms in an increasingly globalized world. The cultural traditions and values of the world’s cultures are still alive and developing, but artists are not inherently rooted in their culture of origin any more than in any other culture which they choose to inhabit. It is through the interactions between cultures that exist within each individual artist that radicant art takes on significance, thus making the documentary form a central concept to this theory.
When applied to music, the idea of a piece for live performer and live electronics being a kind of documentary form addresses some of the issues that have given electroacoustic musicians an “outsider” status. It closes Babbitt’s gap between composers and performers by requiring that a live performer be an essential part of the piece, and this performer brings the 10 or 20 years of practice that the electronic performer may lack, thus situating the piece within or between pre-existing (acoustic) musical traditions
Most importantly, it acknowledges that electroacoustic music has itself become a musical culture and tradition without any geographical boundaries; and that the interaction between electroacoustic sound and a culturally specific musical tradition is a natural meeting of cultures, the result of which can result in the future development of both musical cultures, provided that the defining characteristics of both cultures are intact and audible.
The first two possibilities I mentioned — pure “sonic abstraction” and the “signifying sample”, or pure representation — represent the two extremes of the spectrum that defines our electroacoustic “culture” and medium. The ability to synthesize abstract sounds with no acoustic analogues and the ability to work with sounds recorded directly from the acoustic world are what electroacoustic technology alone bring to the world of music. Working at the relative extremes of this spectrum when interacting with a musical tradition can, I believe, produce the most pleasing results, since they avoid any sort of cheap imitation that would make the interaction seemed forced or unnatural. The result, like a well-made documentary, is a natural meeting and interaction of cultures, without any pretense or attempt to find some shallow “middle ground” that ultimately negates the defining characteristics of both cultures.
The remainder of this essay focuses on three works that I believe represent something akin to the documentary form in electroacoustic music. Some comments should be made here regarding these possibilities.
Abstraction (as defined by Clement Greenberg) is often described as a defining characteristic of “modernism” (Art Story Foundation 2012) and the use of appropriation, sampling, etc. and the idea of the rhizome are typically considered to be part of a “postmodern” æsthetic. Further complicating things, Nicolas Bourriaud’s ideas of documentary forms and the radicant are part of a larger philosophy he termed “altermodernity,” which is an attempt to get past many of the hangups and dead-ends of postmodernism by carefully reconsidering certain aspects of modernism (Bourriaud 2009).
The historical distinctions implied by these terms (modern, postmodern, altermodern) are unfortunate, because they imply that one epoch has ended and been surpassed by another, thus doing away with the characteristics of the previous era. In actuality (and especially in the highly fragmented world of contemporary art music), musicians are creating music today that exhibits characteristics of all three of these possibilities and eras. It is convenient to clearly delineate each possibility from one another for the purposes of examining current works, but through these examinations, one finds that most often two or even three of these possibilities may exist in a single work, and certainly, all three possibilities or philosophies are alive and active in the broad field of electroacoustic music today. As such, they must all be in some way significant to any future development of musical traditions.
In an attempt to shed some light on the broad questions of “Where are we?” and “Where are we going?” in regards to the future development of musical traditions through electroacoustic means, I have chosen to examine three related, but quite contrasting projects through the lens of these three possibilities which occur when electroacoustic musicians self-consciously interact with a distinct musical tradition.
Each of these electro-instrumental examples interacts with a different aspect of Indonesia’s diverse musical traditions — the first with a contemporary Javanese gamelan ensemble from Holland, the second with an instrument builder and classically trained bonang soloist and vocalist, and the third with a traditional Balinese gamelan gong kebyar (the most modern mainstream genre of gamelan in the island of Bali) from Wisconsin. The first example was just completed in September of this year and I was fortunate enough to interview the composer before he finished his piece, so it could be examined as a “work-in-progress”; the second example is an ongoing project that is constantly changing and evolving; and the third example is a closed, finished work that was finalized and presented in February of this year, which (since it is my own work) allows us to weigh the successes and failures of attempting to develop Indonesian music through electroacoustic means.
Finally (and significantly), each of these projects directly interacts with Indonesian music, but none of them have taken place in Indonesia itself, which alone demonstrates the radicant-like nature of these rich musical traditions.
Gagi Petrovic — Van raam tot raam (2012), for Javanese gamelan (pelog) and live electronics
Ensemble Gending is a Javanese gamelan based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, which, since its conception in 1989, has been devoted to commissioning and performing new pieces for the traditional ensemble from composers from the Netherlands and around the world.
The ensemble performs using notated scores and parts, often under the direction of a conductor. The notation system that Gending has developed is essentially Western and allows for the precise notation of rhythms, tempi, etc. However, since the two primary modes in Javanese gamelan (the pentatonic slendro mode and the heptatonic pelog) use pitches and intervals that are nonexistent in 12-note equal temperament, their use of a five-line staff is a kind of tablature for the notation of pitches. In Klaus Kuiper’s “Composing for Javanese Gamelan” (a fantastic primer available for free from the Gending website), he is quick to point out that this use of tablature presents no problems, since, “in the gamelan there is no way one can ever deviate from a given pitch, since the metal sounding components have no means of altering their pitch” (Kuiper and van de Poel 2012). Though this notation system is unique to Ensemble Gending, the generalized (rather than specific) notation of pitch is convenient if works written for Gending are to be performed by another gamelan ensemble, since the specific tunings of gamelans vary, though their mode and interval structures remains largely consistent.
While the use of parts and a conductor is a marked departure from traditional gamelan performance practice, these conveniences have also made it possible for non-Indonesian composers to more easily approach the daunting task of writing for Javanese gamelan. Ensemble Gending has also embraced the use of technology to facilitate the composition of new works for gamelan; in addition to notation guides and the aforementioned composition primer, they have made a remarkably thorough sample set of every instrument (gamelangeluid in Dutch) in the ensemble available for free through their website, as well as Max-based VST instruments that can be used with any sequencer program. 9[9. N.B.: these VST instruments use Cycling 74’s discontinued Pluggo technology, which may render them obsolete.]
This year, Ensemble Gending put out a call for composers to create works that would be premiered at Gaudeamus Muziekweek in Utrecht in September as part of a program called The Fascinating Sound of Gamelan 2012. The accepted composers participated in workshops and lectures with the ensemble, learning the history and traditional performance practice of Javanese gamelan. The composers were then free to experiment with the musicians of Ensemble Gending to find new sounds and techniques. Gending also encouraged the use of live electronics in the new works, but this was not a requirement.
Though I was unable to attend the workshops myself, earlier this summer in Holland I met and interviewed Gagi Petrovic, a composer based in Haarlem, who, at the time of our meeting, was in the process of composing Van raam tot raam for Gending, which was premiered in September. Also present was Tijs Ham, a sound designer from Utrecht who assisted Petrovic with the SuperCollider patch used in Van raam tot raam. Both Petrovic and Ham attended the summer workshops and lectures with Gending.
Petrovic wanted to avoid the potential exoticism that can result when Western composers are confronted with the plethora of unfamiliar modes and harmonies that the gamelan can create (an exoticism that composers as far back as Debussy have embraced), so in their work, each musician in the ensemble performs on only a single gong or bar of her or his instrument, exploring all of its sonic possibilities while also negating any harmonic or melodic movement. Each instrument is closely miked, which amplifies otherwise inaudible sounds produced by the instruments. The performers improvise using extended playing techniques (which are carefully notated) within a larger structural framework (Petrovic and Ham 2012).
While this technique undermines many of the traditional defining musical characteristics of Javanese gamelan, Petrovic maintains much of the large-scale performative hierarchies that exist in gamelan by putting the kendhang (drum) player in charge of the overall structure of the piece. In traditional performance practice, the kendhang is used to signal ends of musical cycles and other sectional divisions, often through the use of penetrating “slaps” or rimshots that cut through the sound of the ensemble.
Petrovic uses amplitude tracking on the kendhang to identify these slaps, which triggers changes in both the ensemble and in the electronic sounds. The role of the kendhang is further increased in this work because it provides the source material for all of the electronic sounds in the piece.
Gentle finger strokes on the goatskin head of the drum are captured and sampled at close proximity in real-time performance and these samples are delayed and granularly re-synthesized to create a swirling sound environment around the rest of the gamelan ensemble. The spectral characteristics of the granular resynthesis accentuate the sounds played by the other musicians, whose material, though partially improvised, still fits within a somewhat traditional musical structure that is governed by the kendhang (Ibid.).
While the end result of Van raam tot raam is a marked departure from traditional Javanese gamelan performance, Gending’s sample sets gave Petrovic (and the other composers in the Fascinating Sound of Gamelan program) the ability to interact with the sounds of the instruments in ways that previously would not have been possible and allowed composers to bring their own unique styles to the gamelan ensemble. The samples and recordings are an exact representation of traditional gamelan sounds, but by their very nature as electroacoustic media, they could be treated as abstract sounds and sculpted into something entirely different by the composers in the Gaudeamus program. 10[10. Ensemble Gending’s premiere of Van raam tot raam can be heard on Gagi Petrovic’s website.]
One Man Nation (Marc Chia) — The Future Sounds of Folk
In many ways, the work of the electronic improvising musician One Man Nation (a.k.a. Marc Chia) and his project The Future Sounds of Folk are an antithesis to the studied, deliberate attempts by Ensemble Gending to maintain and develop the Javanese musical tradition by translating gamelan techniques into a notation system familiar to Westerners. Rather, The Future Sounds of Folk is an attempt to create a “post-folk” that can develop naturally through technological means by forcing the juxtaposition of highly skilled improvising musicians that are deeply rooted in cultural traditions.
In many ways, Marc Chia himself is a living embodiment of today’s globalized world and perfectly represents a radicant artist; he was born and raised in Singapore, where he played in punk and noise bands, studied in Rotterdam, and then finally moved to Yogyakarta, Indonesia before finally landing in Grenada, Spain, where he currently runs an experimental artspace called The Unifiedfield.
The Future Sounds of Folk (which has been produced in collaboration with STEIM in Amsterdam) is not an attempt to preserve or develop any one particular musical tradition, but through this project, One Man Nation has worked closely with two Indonesian musicians. Bambu Wukir is an instrument builder whose electronically amplified creations resemble the types of harps and rebabs found throughout southeast Asia. Iman Rohman (a.k.a. Jimbot) is a classically trained gamelan performer from Java who performs alongside Wukir and Chia on khendang and bonang (a set of horizontally mounted nipple gongs). Rohman is also a vocalist.
In 2011, The Future Sounds of Folk toured the Netherlands as this three-piece improvising ensemble. Two of their performances can be seen here:
In our email discussions, One Man Nation stated that the technology he uses in performances “doesn’t do anything directly in helping [him] achieve the goals (if any) of TFSOF” (Chia 2012), that the technology is just his chosen instrument, like the instruments of his collaborators.
One Man Nation performs using Ableton Live controlled by a 64-button Monome (Ong 2012) and a basic MIDI controller. Contact microphones are attached to his two controllers, so that any interaction with the controllers can itself be a sonic event (Koh 2012). 11[11. This is a technique also used by other electronic improvisers in Holland, including Machinefabriek / Rutger Zuyderfeldt, who just released a collaborative EP with OMN and has also performed as part of The Future Sounds of Folk project.] He uses no monitor in performance, stating: “The computer screen blocks communication in so many ways — with yourself and the people behind it” (Ibid.). This uninhibited interfacing with his performing equipment seems to allow Chia to approach his electroacoustic setup with the same directness of expression that many folk musicians have with their instruments.
Lawton Hall and A.C. Fassnacht — Grattage: Baris Tunggal (2011), for Balinese gamelan and electronics
In February 2012, I presented a work called Grattage: Baris Tunggal with members of Gamelan Cahaya Asri at the Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) national conference at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. This work was created in collaboration with Anne Claire Fassnacht, a gamelan scholar and performer who has studied at the esteemed Çudamani Summer Institute in Ubud, Bali. Her experience and immersion in the Balinese musical tradition made it possible for us to rearrange and reconstruct Balinese gamelan music in an electroacoustic context, while maintaining essential aspects of Balinese performance practice.
The initial impetus for taking on this project was largely opportunistic — I was a member of Gamelan Cahaya Asri while I was a student and couldn’t resist the opportunity to play a Balinese gamelan in front of hundreds of electronic music composers and academics at my alma mater — but the challenges and issues raised by Grattage have fuelled this current exploration into the idea of musical traditions within the electroacoustic world.
In many ways, of these three examples, Grattage fits most squarely within the Balinese musical tradition, even though its electronic elements are equally important as the gamelan instruments. It is essentially an arrangement of a traditional gamelan gong kebyar piece called Baris Tunggal, which accompanies a dance performed by a solo male dancer. The central portion of the piece follows the traditional form of the dance almost verbatim and the beginning and end of the piece are a lyrical improvisation on a traditional penyewak melody played on a set of tenor gongs called a trempong.
The term grattage (French, “scraping”) is a painting technique developed by Max Ernst in which layers of paint are scraped away, rather than added on top of one another, and not only represents our broad approach to integrating electronics into a gamelan ensemble, but also directly describes the way most of the electronic sounds in the piece are generated in live performance.
It seemed impossible (and unnecessary) to add to the already fantastically complex and immersive sound of a full Balinese gamelan 12[12. A gamelan gong kebyar ensemble can consist of upwards of 20 musicians.], so most of the instruments were scraped away, leaving just a spartan group of eight performers. The electronic sounds were then able to fill in the acoustic “cracks” left by the absent instruments, notably the percussive drums (kendong) and cymbals (cengceng) that create the characteristic breakneck driving force of gamelan gong kebyar music.
The electronic sounds themselves are created by literally scraping and sampling the large central gongs with wire brushes and the bamboo flutes (sulings) with the fingertips. The rich, noise-based sounds produced by this scraping could then be looped, filtered and “chopped up” to fill out the sound of the ensemble. The only sounds that were not created in live performances were the samples of nocturnal insects recorded in Ubud, Bali. Coincidentally, the decision to use the central gongs (the “life force” of the gamelan) as a sound source is very similar to Gagi Petrovic and Tijs Ham’s decision to use the Javanese kendhang drum, since both drums and gongs are vitally central to all genres of Indonesian gamelan music.
In keeping with gamelan tradition, all of the instrumental parts were taught to the performers by rote and by ear, rather than through the use of notation. Conversely, the electronic sounds were processed using a Max patch, which required a great deal of planning and programming and kept me focused on the laptop screen for almost the entire performance. The relatively inflexible Max patch also created a sort of hierarchy wherein the performers were forced to adhere strictly to the tempo of the electronics, which felt antithetical to the style of gamelan gong kebyar, as it usually features abrupt shifts in tempo and dynamics. In retrospect, using Ableton Live (and/or Max for Live) may have been more practical and afforded more temporal flexibility, especially since the patch itself required little low-level programming that would necessitate Max.
The past can be a springboard to the future and after six or seven decades of existence and extraordinarily rapid development, electroacoustic music has a wealth of tradition to draw upon and to define a clear, unique musical culture on par with the other musical traditions of the world. We are situated at a point in history where the technological apparatus used for the creation of this music becomes less and less of a hindrance to free, uninhibited interaction with acoustic musicians, each of whom draws upon their own unique cultural nourishment. Though (as the three examples above demonstrate), the exact nature of these interactions and the role of technology within them varies tremendously, they have the potential to result in something greater than the sum of their parts and propel all of the musicians involved towards a rich and fertile musical future.
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