Measure by Measure

Indonesia and the West

From Debussy to Lou Harrison

By Sudip Bose | January 31, 2019
Flickr/Ikhlasul Amal

During a six-month period in 1889, nearly 900,000 people descended upon the sprawling Universal Exposition in Paris, the fourth world’s fair to be held in the city, this one constructed in the shadows of the new Eiffel Tower. For the average Parisian strolling down the Esplanade des Invalides, the sight of a Tunisian palace, an Algerian bazaar, or a Cambodian pagoda would have meant pure enchantment, and nobody was more enchanted than Claude Debussy. Inside a replica of a Javanese village, the 26-year-old composer encountered the ensemble of bronze metallophones, gongs, and other instruments known as a gamelan, the musicians in the pavilion joined by a male singer and four young female dancers. For an artist recoiling from the rigid orthodoxy of the conservatory, the music’s bright, sensuous timbres, its feeling of spaciousness, and its vaguely pentatonic scales offered Debussy a path toward something new, even if he struggled to make sense of what he heard in the context of western harmony and counterpoint.

The composer would go on to write several pieces based on his experiences at the exposition, this influence most pronounced in the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra and the solo piano piece Pagodes (though some critics have also detected echoes, less obvious though they are, in the Nocturnes and La mer). Debussy was the first but by no means the last major western composer to be seduced by the gamelan. The year 1931 brought yet another world’s fair to the French capital—the Colonial Exposition—and among the roughly eight million people who attended were Francis Poulenc and Colin McPhee. Poulenc’s introduction to the gamelan from Bali (starkly different in temperament and sound from its more placid Javanese cousin) led to such works as the D minor Concerto for two pianos. For McPhee, a Canadian-born American pianist with a penchant for jazz, the exposition provided a second exposure to Balinese gamelan music. At a dinner party in New York City, he had listened to several 78 rpm records—less than 30 minutes of music, but enough to leave him hungering for more.

After Paris, McPhee moved to Bali, ingratiating himself with the region’s musicians, building a bamboo house in the local style, and assembling a gamelan ensemble. Traveling throughout the island, he exhaustively documented and notated the music he heard. Nobody had done this kind of work before, let alone with such care, precision, and knowledge. As the Second World War approached, McPhee felt compelled to leave Southeast Asia. With memories still fresh of the land he had come to love more than any other, he wrote authoritative books on Balinese music and culture that placed him among the foremost ethnomusicologists of the 20th century. Meanwhile, his scant few compositions—a Nocturne, two symphonies, and a toccata called Tabuh-Tabuhan—were infused with Balinese idioms while prefiguring the minimalism of the 1960s and ’70s. Listen to the Nocturne, for example, and you just might hear the urtext of a movement made popular by Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams.

When I was an undergraduate at Cornell, nearly 25 years ago, I never managed to attend any of the recitals put on by the university’s gamelan ensemble. But last week, in the nave of the National Cathedral (perhaps not the likeliest setting for such an event), I finally heard both a Javanese and a Balinese gamelan. In collaboration with the Indonesian Embassy, the PostClassical Ensemble—one of the most innovative and stimulating groups around—traced the intricate connections between Java, Bali, and the West. In addition to excerpts from the Indonesia repertoire, the program consisted of gamelan-influenced pieces by Debussy, McPhee, Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, and others. There was Debussy’s dreamlike Pagodes (played with sensitivity and imagination by the pianist Wan-Chi Su) shimmering in the watery acoustics of the cathedral, as well as Ravel’s La vallée des cloches, in which the pianist Benjamin Pasternack seemed to mimic the complexity of a gamelan, sounding out many different bell-like timbres as if he were playing a series of gongs. The pieces for two pianos, which Su and Pasternack performed together, were even more compelling. Playing the broad first movement of Poulenc’s Sonata for Two Pianos, as they did, immediately after the first movement of Olivier Messiaen’s cosmic Visions de l’Amen, made for an intensely moving experience.

I have a particular interest in the music of the idiosyncratic, free-spirited American composer Lou Harrison, whose work was shaped by many encounters with the East. (His own lengthy preoccupation with the gamelan began at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition of 1939.) Harrison wrote some 50 works for traditional and American gamelan orchestras, but he could also render gamelan-like effects using only western instruments, as in the two pieces conducted by PostClassical music director Angel Gil-Ordoñez. The Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra portrays the journey from West to East: the joyous Overture has an optimistic New World sensibility, but soon, the music becomes more meditative and elegiac, with the stately chorale concluding the work containing some of the most beautiful passages Harrison wrote. The composer’s colossal Piano Concerto from 1985 is a very different work, and it was the piece I was most eager to hear, its opening movement as vast as a canyon, the second filled with nimble virtuosity, the slow movement an extended prayer that gives way to a fleet finale. Pasternack, who had already played an evening’s worth of music by that point, gave an athletic, deeply felt performance. How could so magnificent a concerto be so woefully neglected? It’s a question that could be asked of all of Harrison’s music, which is in need of just this kind of evangelism.

These days, the word fusion, especially in the context of food but also in discussions of the arts, has become a cliché. But here was a vivid, persuasive argument in favor of embracing a fluid world culture. Works of the imagination should not be limited by borders, or by walls, and when art is born out of reverence, we the public should not be impeded by questions of ownership and accusations of appropriation. Not when the artworks in question move and enrich us all.

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