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This past Friday at Emory University’s black-box Performing Arts Studio, the Emory Gamelan Ensemble performed a concert of karawitan music, a type of Javanese gamelan music meant to be heard on its own, rather than an accompaniment for dance or shadow puppetry. In an unusual move, the concert opened with a piece of European music, “Pagodes,” by French composer Claude Debussy, performed by Ryan Sutherland on solo piano. Debussy had heard a gamelan orchestra at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, a world’s fair held in Paris. “Pagodes” mimics east Asian melodies and some characteristics of gamelan–a Westerner’s snapshot of Asian music. Nine selections followed, some performed in the slendro scale, others in pelog. Emory owns sets of both slendro and pelog instruments. They were arranged so most of the musicians faced forward to play the slendro instruments, then made a quarter turn clockwise to play the pelog instruments. That was convenient, as one piece, “Bima Kroda” (“Bima is Angry”), began in slendro but concluded in pelog. Two compositions, “Udan Mas” (“Golden Rain”) and the classic “Ladrang Pangkur,” were performed twice, once in the slendro scale and once in pelog.
Just as important are the rhythmic structures of gamelan music, cyclic in nature and possessing hierarchal and “nesting” qualities, which were readily observable in the deployment of the instruments: colotomic instruments–large and small gongs that punctuate divisions within the rhythmic cycles three drums (one player) which keep time and mark transitions; balungan instruments–metallophones that play a “skeleton” melody; and elaborating instruments–tuned pots and metallophones that fill in melodic details. Other instruments and voice can be included. “Wilujeng” (“Blessings”), featured an end-blown flute (Nathaniel Sawyer) and voice (Marymay Impastato)–the latter a kind of high, nasal singing characteristic of much east Asian musics. Emory Gamelan Ensemble typically draws a sizable crowd to the 260-seat venue. Friday’s thoroughly enjoyable concert was no exception. —Mark Gresham (Photo by Mark Gresham)