Gamelan – as inspiration for new expressions for the percussion player

Espen Aalberg, Research fellow at NTNU, Department of Music

The goal with my artistic research project is to find new ways of using Indonesian gamelan
(and the related southeast Asian gong and percussion music) as a source for making new music and improvisation concepts in different musical settings. I will try to blend concepts and sounds from this music with western instruments, with a more modern (Nordic-)
improvisational and compositional approach, based on my musical background and esthetic.

As a percussionist I am fascinated by different music cultures. The gamelan music is maybe one of the strongest percussion tradition, where the gong, chimes and percussion are the central instruments for the performance. As part of the larger gong-chime culture of Southeast Asia, with music from Thailand (Piphat ensemble), Cambodia (Gong Gamelan) and Philippines (Kulintang), the Indonesian gamelan music has a rich and long tradition. There are different traditions of gamelan in Indonesia, with the strongest tradition on Java (slow and melodic) and Bali (fast and rhythmical).

Gamelan music got some key musical elements witch I would like to explore, and use as
compositional and improvisational tools. Here are some examples om musical elements:

  • their tuning and scales. Gamelan music is based around 2 tuning systems, pelog and slendro, but have big variations within each system.
  • The music is open in its tonal center, but can be center around the big bossed gong.
  • Cyclic and pattern based structures.
  • The Balinese concept of dualism in music and life, including the kotekan principle; an
    interlocking rhythmical concept where different rhythms are woven together.
  • The Javanese concept of balungan(*)

My approach for this artistic research is to divide my work into smaller goals, where these
smaller goals are different musical settings and ensembles. I will though these different
settings and ensembles make different musical frameworks and compositions. What kind of elements from gamelan music I will use for the preparation, depend on the ensembles form (musicians and instruments), and what my musical goal are within the specific setting and ensemble.

I will in the preparation focus on making solo pieces where I explore the possibilities of using gamelan instruments, and how to use these instruments in the different musical settings. My research is not into the concept of “free” improvisation, but more in common with the Javanese concept of “balungan” – (*)“The center of gravity of a gamelan composition, and the improviser’s guideline, is a melody known as the ‘skeleton’ or ‘framework’, played in a slow, even rhythm on the saron.” Perlman, Marc (2004).

My research will also include working with other composers writing for me and my gamelan instruments.

Research questions:

  • How can I communicate my music and esthetic to the musical collaborators and give insight to my research goals?
  • How will these musicians color my music with their musical presence, and their non-gamelan background?
  • Is it possible to make a synthesis of my musical background and esthetic with musical elements mentioned, and is it possible to create a concept, which will be the framework for ensemble playing?

How do I place my artistic research in the artistic field?
The use of other cultures music as a source for making new musical expressions is not new. In improvisation African music is of course the main influence, but eastern sounds have been used by John Coltrane, Yosef Lateef, Charles Lloyd and Jan Garbarek. These are mostly connected to music from India and the Arabic region. Gamelan influenced music is often connected to contemporary classical composers like Ligeti, Messiaen, Steve Reich, and John Cage, and from more early by Debussy. These composers use elements from this music. Combining gamelan and western instruments is not so much used. Evan Ziporyn, Lou Harrison and Michael Tenzer are composers using this combination. I will especially draw parallels with Ziporyns work and how he uses gamelan instruments, with my approach