“How Can the Orchestra Be More Like Gamelan?”

Daniel Goode playing some Gamelan

I read this piece by composer Daniel Goode a few weeks back, but am coming back to it now, especially  in light of the piece about the history of the Cello in Britain and how it describes the communal aspect of including “not so professional” musicians making music with the “elite musicians.”

He opens the piece with:

Gamelan music, which is the national music medium of much of Indonesia, has roughly an equivalent cultural role to that of the Western symphony orchestra. Yet from my vantage point, the culture of gamelan in Indonesia is a healthy arts tradition while the Western orchestra is troubled and, some might even say, ill.

Which is really bold statement to make.  He continues:

I’m a child of the latter. I was exposed to the sounds of the orchestra long before I had ever heard gamelan music. I played clarinet in school and civic orchestras. I composed several orchestral works before I became immersed in gamelan traditions both as a listener and a participant. Since its founding in the 1970s, I’ve been a composer-performer member of Gamelan Son of Lion, a New York-based ensemble specializing in contemporary pieces written for the instruments of the Javanese gamelan. I have also performed American contemporary gamelan music (including my own) in Java.

Here’s the paragraph that really spoke to me, and what reminded me of the article I mentioned above:

An equally important difference between the gamelan and orchestra traditions, from a social standpoint, is the level of musicianship required to participate in them. In some stately court music from Central Java, it is not difficult to play the metalophone and gong parts. Yet the music is still immensely satisfying for players and listeners alike. Beethoven or Brahms symphonies don’t fit that description. The core repertory of the orchestra: the great symphonies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, are not easy to play, and even if school-level orchestras do attempt them, try beginning string players on Mahler’s 2nd! Yet, despite the difficulties involved in playing this music, we can all still take great pleasure in a well-done performance of this music as listeners. I wonder if the difference is a deep one in cultural structure. In both traditions there are respected amateur and professional categories, small and poor to large and well-funded organizations, virtuosi performer traditions, great composers living and dead, learning institutions, and so on. But it seems to me that gamelan music, more often, has audiences eager to experience, ready to take pleasure, even passionate pleasure, in the medium. Satisfactions common to both listeners and players forge bonds, foster community and shared culture. This makes gamelan music really seem a gift to the human race. What I usually feel after I’ve heard a community or school orchestra do a Beethoven symphony is: Well, they got through it! That’s a little short of the pleasure model for music, a little short of the inspiration or celebratory joy I want from music.

If I ever do start a “World Music Orchestra” I would love to find a way to include all levels of skill to make a much more communal kind of experience rather than one of exclusion.  Rather than exploring that communal and non-specialist aspect, he explains the fundations for the reasons he’s started his own kind of orchestral model first by mentioning some things that are wrong with Western orchestral music:

But one of the biggest failures of Western orchestral music seems to me to be the failure to make real the potential hidden in the amazing variety of instruments that make up the orchestra. There’s an inability to grasp the acoustic basis of the orchestra and make good on the flexibility built into that variety. There is no reason, other than history, for the classical orchestra to assume a string instrument as the basis for the massed sound that is the signature of orchestral music. The so-called “choral effect” of many of the same kind playing unisons and many on a part can be achieved with other instruments as well (as is true of gamelan).

I want to reform the orchestra because I love the sound and so much of its repertoire. Composing for the “big sound,” the big ensemble seems to come naturally to me. Yet I feel cheated in my “home” culture not to have such a magnificent organism as the gamelan and its music, its audience. Experiencing other cultural models for the “big sound” has led me to make new and effectiveflexible large ensembles and to call them orchestras, to compose for them, and to also provide an opportunity for other composers to do so.

and his idea of the “Flexible Orchestra”

Three years ago, I founded The Flexible Orchestra to explore a different sound concept.

I guess you could say that in one sense, I am “conserving” the orchestra, because the Western orchestra is also an amalgam of the massed sound of multiples, completed, framed, made dimensional by another group of instruments, not necessarily massed. Ironically, I accept the idea that the Flexible Orchestra is a conservative concept; my musical nervous system was surely created and well-oiled in tradition. (My first flexible orchestra was 12 cellos, 3 winds, a discreet, almost traditional orchestra, but the ’06 flexible orchestra has taken the bracing mandate of the non-string massed sound. This year it became 11 trombones, 2 clarinets [all doublings], viola, and percussion.) A gamelan orchestra also combines the non-string massed sound with smaller groupings of a solo string, wind, voice(s), a soloistic instrument like the gender, and of course, drums, which could be called the “conductor,” or at least the time-keeper. In our American gamelan, the drum is not always used, so it becomes one of the “non-massed” sounds in the ensemble, sometimes there, sometimes not.

Why?  because:

My vision is that synchronous flexible orchestras could spring up anywhere to co-commission and give composers repeat performances in different places, different communities. Rotating instrumentations would result in fresh ensembles, but they would always have a real orchestral sound. No problems then with the conservative nature of our current unchanging symphony orchestra’s structure and repertoire. As long as there is a counterweight in flexible orchestras!

A gamelan is an orchestra, so perhaps I’ve been playing in a flexible orchestra for decades. But, finally, with the Flexible Orchestra, I feel like I have found a Western orchestra that is also a gamelan.

What a refreshing approach to a large ensemble–though I’m slightly disappointed he didn’t pick up on the communal-all ages thing (since that’s one thing that often gets left out of the Pop vs Classical debate) –and one that doesn’t just take an orientalist approach to creating a “non-Western sound” that so many composers in the Western Classical tradition have done for, well, centuries.  This is the kind of fresh perspective that can be had once the borders around Classical music become less, um, secured!  🙂

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