Çudamani: The Seven-Tone Gamelan Orchestra from the Village of Pengosekan, Bali

cudamaniImplicit in the subtitle of this CD is a bit of information that is important in Balinese gamelan music: most orchestras come from particular villages, working in the traditions of those villages. They also compete for honors, reflecting glory not only on themselves, but their home towns. Indeed, Wayne Vitale, in the extensive text accompanying the recording, briefly draws a picture that might raise eyebrows among those not accustomed to the sheer competitiveness often displayed in Asian performing arts: “The most popular forum for gamelan competitions, the Ardha Candra stage at Depasar’s Taman Budaya (Art Center) fills with thousands of devoted and often boisterous fans on the evening of an important match.” Imagine, for example, a Beethoven contest between the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic attracting a crowd akin to that of the NBA playoffs to Chicago’s Soldier Field. To say that gamelan is a living tradition is not overstating the case, by any means.

Çudamani is, to a certain extent, unusual in this context: although based in the village of Pengosekan, this orchestra, formed in 1997, was conceived as a private arts organization rather than the more usual village association; therefore, its members are not all from Pengosekan, and its music is as much a matter of innovation as tradition. The five siblings of the Dewa family, founders of the group, feel that the best way to maintain their traditional forms is to allow young performers to reinterpret them rather than adhering to a rigid standard of preservation. Çudamani has become somewhat of a cultural complex, acting as a home for classes, workshops, several performance groups, and teachers of various performance genres, including dance.

The gamelan is, in essence, a group of bronze instruments – metallophones and tuned gongs – along with drums and flutes. The Çudamani gamelan is tuned to the seven-tone scale, harking back to classical court forms, but the orchestration is that of the more normal five-tone kebyar orchestra. This synthesis represents a late-twentieth-century renaissance of the older seven-tone modes, which were on their way to becoming extinct along with their courtly patrons, and their adaptation into a modern vehicle. This hybrid, known as gamelan semara dana, was the creation of composer and theorist Wayan Berata in the mid-1980s. Gamelan is also, like other Indonesian arts, possessed of an amazing vitality: as Vitale notes, three works that are considered the essential triad of kebyar were composed between 1915 and 1925, taking a very old tradition in a new direction. (To a Westerner, used to thinking of our music as divided into distinct categories and traditional forms as having been “replaced” by newer forms, this forces a reassessment of just exactly where our contemporary music comes from: Mozart’s The Magic Flute is a forerunner not only of the operettas of Franz Lehar, but the Broadway musical.)

One of these three icons, “Taruna Jaya” (“Dance of the Victorious Youth”) is included in this album. The work itself was created about 1920 in the village of Jagaraga by two of Bali’s greatest musicians/dancers, Gede Manik and Pan Wandres. The kebyar style of gamelan, as Vitale notes, in its beginnings was considered somewhat raw and sensationalistic. Now, however, kebyar has become infinitely more sophisticated and complex, emphasizing technical skill, polish, and maturity of interpretation (somewhat akin, perhaps, to the music of Pet Shop Boys as opposed to that of Herman’s Hermits). The version of “Taruna Jaya” performed here has an added bit of history to it: two former stars of the stage in Balinese gamelan, Dewa Aji and his drumming partner, Wayan Gandra, developed a set of drum variations for the work which are included in an older version of the work they recently taught to the members of Çudamani – the version heard on this recording. Dewa Aji’s daughter and four sons are the founders of Çudamani. From the sharp, percussive beginning, “Taruna Jaya” moves almost immediately into a fluid, rhythmic passage, building momentum that is stopped almost short by a series of pauses. The music then follows a course that alternates passages of startling intensity with sections of near-silence: one is lost in the adventure of following the incredibly complex juxtapositions of loud/soft, fast/slow, sharp/fluid, a rich tapestry woven by the bronze instruments and drums until a flute slides quietly in with its own ethereal addition to the experience.

One other characteristic of gamelan that is fairly important: the instruments in a given orchestra will be tuned to the same scale; other instruments in other orchestras will approximate that scale, but there exists no standard, such as our middle C, with a set number of vibrations per second. This tuning is intimately related to the modalities of Balinese gamelan: although the Çudamani gamelan is based on the seven-tone palette of the semar dana, for example, modes rely on five-tone patterns chosen from the set, allowing an enormous range. The first piece in the collection, “Geregel,” makes full use of this in its exploitation of abrupt modal shifts. Created in 2000 by Dewa Ketut Alit, the orchestra’s artistic coordinator, for a “battle-of-the-bands” between Çudamani and Gamelan Sekyar Jaya, the shifts and contrasts of the various pentatonic modes in this work, while discernible, are elusive. In broadly descriptive terms, the opening of “Geregel” is angular and spare and leads into a series of contrasting passages that seem to ride on a strong rhythmic current that relies as much on silence as on sound. The effect is again very complex, subtle, and ultimately fascinating. Vitale points out that “Geregel” is a groundbreaking work, highly innovative in its orchestration, phrasing and overall design and exploiting the full range of possibilities inherent in the Çudamani gamelan.

It is also important to remember that gamelan is part of a social web, with a body of ritual and religious associations that regularly involve performances at temple services both at home and in neighboring towns and villages. Called “ngayah,” this can be entertainment for the congregants, a part of the ceremony, or an interlude. It is also a complete performance experience – not only is this music, it is also dance, theater, and opera, a synthesis of forms that has few parallels in the West.

My own interest in gamelan comes from my enthusiasm for such contemporary American composers as Terry Riley and Harry Partch. One can sense, for example, a strong influence on Riley’s In C of 1964, a seminal work credited with giving the Minimalist school its major push. In C has been performed by groups as diverse as a Canadian rock band with an augmented horn section, a Chinese orchestra, and a group of eighteen marimbas in Mexico that gave a three-and-a-half hour rendition. I bring this up because improvisation plays an important role in gamelan as well: there is more than a casual similarity between Minimalism and gamelan, especially in the degree of subtlety and flexibility displayed in performance. Partch also echoes the feel of gamelan: Partch designed and built his own instruments, and his works, particularly such major pieces as Delusion of the Fury, partake of the same percussive intensity and momentum, as well as a surprising similarity of sound. (It is also worth remarking that performances of Partch’s works are as much theater as concert.)

As far as this recording goes, with the aid of Vitale’s erudite and detailed text (including concise discussions of the five pieces performed), it is possible to learn much about gamelan (there is a lot of information here), and there is a great deal to enjoy once the ears have become accustomed. It is music that is complex, rich, and melodic, music that possesses great energy and subtlety. Given the highly percussive nature of the forces employed, it is worth noting that there are often passages of lyrical sweetness and some of almost mystical quiet that not only provide some of the “shape” of the works, but also serve to underscore the amazing intensity of the performances. One can sense the music’s role in the broader category of performing arts – indeed, the cues are strong enough that one can almost see the dancers and the orchestra itself. Çudamani is one of the star performing groups of Bali, and on the basis of this collection is certainly worth experiencing live if the possibility presents itself.

(Vital Records, 2002)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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