I’ve been thinking about gingham on and off for quite a few years now, but it’s finally inspired me to return to my blog via a particularly subtle and wonderful dress I encountered just a few days ago, which set my mind spinning, crystallising some vague ideas about fashion, time and change.Bali

Gingham is (usually) a medium-weight cotton-based fabric dyed with stripes in both directions to create a checker pattern. Apparently the name is a distortion of an old Malay or Indonesian word meaning ‘striped’ – there are other theories, but to me this seems quite convincing, having seen it so abundantly displayed all over Bali in both religious and secular settings.

I love what happens when you do a Google image search: a playful riot of colour that quickly demonstrates the basic range of gingham fabrics:Google

Gingham dates back at least as far as the 17th century, and is evidently quite simple to produce using traditional weaving methods. In fact I would say it’s just about the simplest fabric design that is deserving of being given it’s own name. As a concept it’s only marginally more complex than simply ‘striped’ or ‘spotted’. And as a visual phenomenon it has elements of both of those, which I think is what attracts me. It has a kind of spottiness that emerges when the eye focuses on the array of intersection points, and yet also a linear rigour.Multicoloured

It draws me into a kind of gentle visual grazing that I’ve done a lot of all my life. I find my focus wandering softly over the texture, my mind unconsciously sifting the pattern, feeling my way into it as it repeats across different depths of dye – intense at the cross points, milder between, and then the white – and noticing how it inflects with light and shade, the curves of the body, and movement. It’s a visual rhythm basic enough to pull me into a state of trance-like fascination sometimes (e.g. in business meetings), and I suspect that this potential for a strong aesthetic response, despite being so simple to make, is why it’s been popular for so long.

So Gingham represents a long line of tradition. As well as in Bali, where what I think of as Holy Gingham – usually in a bold black and white – is one of the distinctive sights of the island, adorning almost every statue, pillar and lingam in every temple, it’s found widely across Asia in various forms of traditional dress. An example is the gamucha, a thin towel / scarf worn by men in India. I believe in Bali the pattern has some kind of yin / yang resonance, which makes complete sense to me.Statues

It’s also been used for centuries in the western world, typically for blouses and dresses, but also for curtains, tablecloths, aprons, etc. and even furniture and crockery. It’s one of the staples of design. But what meaning does it carry; what is its stylistic significance?

A whole book could be written in answer to that – and of course it changes with time – but what I sense is a combination of childlike, whimsical, and relaxed, with suggestions of country, prairie, and a sizeable dollop of kitchen. To which must be added that it now references historical periods when it has been most popular – particularly the 50s (Dorothy), but also to a lesser extent Victorian times, plus mods and skinheads. It can be found in the V&A collection as an example of 1970s skinhead clothing.Dorothy

In this sense, with its modest range of colours and variations, gingham is always with us, morphing very slowly, picking up meanings over decades.

But what has caught my attention more recently is the way, over the past decade, it seems to have perfectly exemplified what I think of as the process of fashion.

The way a simple design meme becomes a heightened subject of creative attention, is subjected to waves of development and elaboration, changing, expanding, and distorting, until it eventually subsides and declines. Over a period of years, season by season, designers copy and inspire each other, competing to develop the basic form in what seems to me a process of squeezing every last drop of meaning from it.

Firstly, the basic traditional form of gingham simply becomes more fashionable – I can’t recall exactly when this happened – then, in the space of a few years, something like this takes place:

– Giant gingham

– Micro ginghamBen Sherman

– Diagonal gingham

– Double gingham

– Multi-coloured gingham

– Gingham on black

– Rectangular gingham

– Curved gingham

– Patchwork gingham

– Collage gingham

– Gingham with skulls

– Gingham / plaid hybrid

– Deconstructed gingham

This proliferation that takes place during the fashion cycle has other dimensions too. The range of fabrics is gradually expanded, as is the range of garments and other artefacts decorated with it: pants, bras, notebooks, umbrellas, laptop covers, corsets, shoes … in all sorts of fabrics, natural and synthetic, printed as well as woven. Latex gingham? Of course: the specialist is William Wilde.DM boot

Which leads us to the point at which the fabric ceases to be gingham at all and simply becomes a historical reference in the designer’s palette. It then subsides into the background ready to be reborn at some future point, presumably when a new generation of shoppers has arisen who are largely unaware of it. The basic forms continue to be available in conventional ways, but as a fashion phenomenon it is dormant.Cath Kidston ipad

To me it’s the perfect symbol of the creative process as applied in contemporary culture. It also exemplifies the pace of contemporary design. My (very limited) understanding of Roman culture suggests that fashions from haircuts to togas, while important, played out over many decades, presumably due to much slower transmission of ideas. The gingham fashion cycles centred on the 50s and in Victorian times seem to have been slower, less frantic, variants on what I’ve seen in the 21st century.

So gingham has a background meaning, which is itself quite complex and slowly shifting, touching on Balinese gods, prairie life and the fifties, but also a foreground meaning, which spins out in an exaggerated creativity with the waves of fashion. And whenever those waves return they will be different, because they speak specifically of the patterns of their own times.Dita Von Teese

These layered processes at multiple paces of change apply everywhere across our culture – music, painting, interior decoration, food and drink, technology, typeface etc. – though with variations depending on the economic context. The application of developmental processes to a basic phenomenon both exemplify and symbolise change, growth and decay. Which in a way takes us back to those Hindu gods wrapped in cotton.

Gingham makes me smile because it seems such a transparent revelation of the way almost everything happens in the great game of social and economic creativity. And I can enjoy reflecting on that while looking at frocks, which is always one of the happiest ways to practice philosophy. I could bring Wittgenstein, Husserl and Barthes into the conversation but I’d rather explore their vintage wardrobes.TJ shirt

To finish on a personal note, my own inventory consists of one single gingham garment: a linen shirt acquired in Top Shop, Birmingham on a business trip circa 2009. It’s completely classic, but for me it’s the absolutely perfect example. The only trouble is, it now sends me spinning off into philosophical daydreams.


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.Bali satellite

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.Gamelan (Lila Cita)

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.

Bali from Lombok

First sight of Bali from Lombok

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”Barong

(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.)Kecak score

“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):

Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie

Debussy – Pagodes

Poulenc – Concerto for two pianos

Britten – The Prince of the Pagodas

Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

Cage – A Room (for prepared piano)

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.Statue 1

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.Statue 3

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.Carving bricks

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. Statue 2

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.24 statues

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.Soniccouture

Recommended recordings of Balinese music:

Gamelan of the Love God


Gamelan & Kecak


Kecak Ganda Sari