Dance, pray, carve
February 12, 2012
My first awareness of Bali as anything more than an exotic faraway place came from reading the liner notes in a recording of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie that I’d borrowed from the local library, as mentioned in my last blogpost. As well as the extraordinary ondes martenot, Turangalîla includes an elaborate percussion section that evokes the clattering metallic sound world of the gamelan emsemble central to Balinese and Javanese traditional music.
A couple of years afterwards my Dad visited Bali en route to see family in Australia. I remember the stories and pictures of mountains, temples, monkeys, dancers, and especially the carvings he brought back: Garuda, king of birds and ruler of the sky, and one of those appealingly scary Hindu goddesses with flailing arms and perfectly hemispherical breasts.
Then I spent a year studying music in York, and that was when I really got interested in Bali and the gamelan. Asian music expert Neil Sorrell had set up one of the UK’s first gamelans in the York music department, and I was able not only to hear performances but even to have a go at playing.
I won’t try to explain Balinese music in any detail here as it’s a huge subject and it’s been done hundreds of times before. Suffice it to say that the gamelan is an ensemble dominated by percussion – particularly gongs, chimes and a variety of instruments with tuned bars similar to the glockenspiel and xylophone. Other instruments and also voices are used, but the overall effect is of a hypnotic, repetitive metallic sound built up of subtly shifting interlocking patterns. The sound is utterly unique because of Bali’s distinctive position as an isolated Hindu culture, preserving and independently developing cultural threads for centuries that have long been lost elsewhere.
I remember reading a quote from John Adams to the effect that great music needs to fully engage the listener’s emotional and intellectual faculties, and mentioning the Balinese gamelan as an example of music that fails that test. Well, possibly … its impact is certainly more on the sensual, psychedlic side of things than intellectual, and I’m sure that partly explains its appeal. It’s often highly reminiscent of seventies minimal music. In my life there has always been room for the sensual, emotional and intellectual in music, and they don’t all need to be present at once. And of course Balinese music only really comes to life in its religious and theatrical context.
The York gamelan is actually Javanese, which is a little different to Balinese, more in performance style than instrumentation. Balinese music is louder and faster and has a reckless intensity quite unlike the beguiling ritual sound of the Javanese gamelan. The other major difference is the social context: the sheer abundance of music all over Bali. Virtually every village has a gamelan, and it accompanies religious rituals from birth to death, plus dance and wayang performances telling the vivid stories of gods and heroes, and has now become a major tourist phenomenon.
So when I set off travelling in 1995 Bali was inevitably going to be a top destination for me. But I didn’t really know what to expect.
I’ve turned to my travel diary to see how I reacted, and it’s clear that there was a double process going on. Firstly, a gradual realisation, including frustration and then acceptance, of how busy, densely populated and simply teeming full of stuff Bali is, with mile after mile of choked streets lined with shops and every kind of trade – immediate abandonment of any fantasy of a conventional tropical paradise being essential. But secondly, a growing awe at the abundance and concentration of art, music, religious observance, myth – and really every form of creative human activity, all apparently bound up with everyday life. A few quotes from my diary:
“first day in Bali and I walked along a black-sand beach lined with fishing boats bearing monster heads with bulging eyes and gaping jaws”
“a disappointing 16-mile walk to visit various crumbling thousand-year old temples surrounded by traffic and wearisome commercial bustle”
“Barong dance far more wonderful, fascinating and entertaining than anything I had expected … a large benevolent monster operated like a grotesque pantomime horse; highly operatic hollering and squealing as the gamelan clanged”
(I also saw the kecak, an extraordinary spectacle in which instruments are replaced by a whole villageful of people crammed into a small space who sort of imitate a gamelan – trancey rhythmic chak-e-chak-e-chak patterns mixed with howls and screeches in old Balinese, while serene dancers face down snarling monsters with angular grace.)
“eerily calm walking past a kilometre of souvenir stalls as I approached the temple in the early morning … only those wishing to pray could enter, but pray and pay seemed to be interchangeable words”
“the aesthetic of Bali: a dancer so heavily laden with costume as to be almost a cube, muscles constantly tense, limbs bent, standing at a wonky angle and always aghast in a fierce bulging snarl”
“an 11km walk to see some white herons … passed football games, outdoor table tennis, a lengthy street entirely consisting of Garuda carving workshops, a tug of war about to be won by a large group of women, and a colourful shop advertising PARASITE – ANGLE – DUCK”
Well I left Bali absolutely loving it.
I distinctly recall meeting an American gentleman who told me his story of having felt a sense of homecoming on first visiting the island, and so had decided to stay, and had become a Balinese Hindu priest. At the time I imagine I was quite challenged not to find that ridiculous. Now, having known so many people who have taken extraordinary paths through life, it makes complete sense to me that an individual could make that kind of choice.
Back home I bought the CDs (see below) and spread the word, and when I started dancing myself later on I drew that spiky monstrous (and anti-monstrous) aesthetic into my own repertoire of movement.
It’s hard to find good quality videos of Balinese performance that give any kind of fair impression – the one below and these here and here are among the better ones. There are also some great images of musicians and dancers here.
I’ve found that many European composers have been drawn to the gamelan and influenced more or less explicitly by it. Here are a few good examples (all links open in Spotify):
Britten’s late work is particularly steeped in Balinese sounds, following his trip there with Peter Pears in 1957. In The Prince of the Pagodas he uses rather intricate forms of counterpoint and polytonality to simulate an oral tradition – the texture and tuning of gamelan instruments.
Finally here’s a ‘Balinese’ étude by Ligeti. Apparently ‘Galamb Borong’ is a made up cod-Indonesian phrase that has no meaning!
Fifteen years later I returned to Bali, with Vanessa and our good friends Matthew and Maureen. I wrote a short guest post on their blog soon after we arrived, describing the unique Balinese urban jungle that seemed largely unchanged, though I’m sure the amount of road traffic must have increased.
I noted that over the intervening years I’d gained much more appreciation of two things that would enrich my experience in Bali – eastern religion and plant life. I still loved the music and dance – we saw the legong, barong, kecak, and also wayang kulit – but this time I was much more drawn to nature, and even more to the profusion of religious art and architecture visible all around.
On our second day we visited a watery palace to the east of Ubud in which I fell in love with the statues in various stages of mossy decay. Everywhere you look in Bali are reminders of impermanance; destruction and renewal. The island is so wet, and so green, that the soft stone crumbles and rots giving a sense of antiquity that isn’t always real. Statues therefore seem more alive, part of the community, than works of art to be admired and preserved. And they are so extraordinarily and publicly abundant.
Looking out from a café we noticed two piles of bricks stacked high, one on either side of an approach to a building. A few days later we were sitting in exactly the same spot when two sculptors arrived with tools and buckets of water and started turning these bricks into art. We watched in fascination. There’s something very palpably Hindu about these ongoing processes of creation and destruction being apparent the whole time in the streets of Ubud.
My fascination with Balinese carvings led to a huge number of photos, and back home I decided to make something as a souvenir. Perhaps encouraged by the startling, luminous, repetitive feel of Balinese music I decided to take a single representative statue and make a bold, simple pop image by manipulating colours in various ways and fixing together a big rectangular array of prints. The image here is just an approximation in Photoshop to give the idea – the real thing is made of many more prints glued together and framed.
A few final words about the gamelan. There are now far more ensembles in the UK than back in 1990 – as listed here – though most are Javanese. Lila Cita is a London-based Balinese ensemble, and the Southbank Gamelan Players perform Javanese traditional and new music on a gamelan that is also available for workhops and courses. This is the second Gamelan I’ve had a chance to try – highly recommended!
The York University emsemble is still active and is in the forefront of composition of new music for gamelan instruments.
For composers and producers who want an easier option, there’s the sample library from Soniccouture.
Recommended recordings of Balinese music: