How Can the Orchestra Be More Like the Gamelan?

by danielgoode

How Can the Orchestra Be More Like the Gamelan?
by Daniel Goode

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.

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.

Yet, rather than always thinking in “gamelan language,” a large percentage of the twenty-five or so compositions I’ve made for gamelan over the past thirty years have consisted of ideas that I have transferred mentally from a potential Western orchestra piece into gamelan language. Sometimes overlaps and synchronicities in concept between the two is a happy result. For example, my orchestra language includes noise, so my gamelan language finds a wonderful, subtle noise orchestra in the metal, wood, and leather materials which make up keyboards, mallets, gongs, and drums: all frequencies are represented.

My own shuffling of ideas between the Western orchestra and the gamelan has made me ponder the further similarities and disparities of these ensembles.

When harmony is considered, the differences between gamelan and Western orchestra loom larger than similarities. Differences in tuning and temperament make Western-style harmonic relationships piquant, ineffective, new and interesting, impossible, or just plain different, depending on your point of view. Gamelan scales do not have twelve equal semitones; rather, as a result of combining traditional 5 and 7 note scales, there can be up to ten distinct tones, but they are not equal. Modulation means more of what it meant before equal temperament: You change the tonal center and you thereby change the internal relationships among the sounds. This can be turned to your advantage, or can sound awkward and strange if not planned for.

I found an interesting overlap of concept between the Javanese “end-gong” structure and the Western final cadence for which the preceding phrases “strive.” There is a similarity, but they part company decisively in the Javanese tradition which begins the piece with the final gong, throwing the Western mind into a flurry of syncopated anxiety. One’s cultural background is often what triggers perception, so this can be a mind-bending difference to a Westerner.

One of the differences that has always intrigued me most is the reversal of roles between percussion and the rest of the orchestra in the two media. You could say that the gamelan orchestra stands the Western orchestra on its head, making metal and wooden keyboards the massed sound, and the single string and single wind instruments into solo sounds intermixed with the metalophones—not in the Western sense of concerto soloists, but in a very subtle mix of single and massed texture.

Of course you can’t talk of the make-up of each kind of orchestra without laying out the very different music that each is designed to make. Very briefly, traditional gamelan is based on heterophony: the same melody transposed in very structured ways from the highest (fastest moving) lines to the lowest with the fewest notes. And punctuating gongs, also part of the melody, mark the hierarchies of phrase structure. As you move lower in the high-to-low range, the harmonic implications (through overtones and reinforcement at the octave) become evident. But it is not the harmonic structure of chord progressions, even though changing fundamentals and mode or scale changes do parallel some aspects of Western harmony.

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.

Still, these satisfactions can be, and sometimes are, experienced in Western orchestral music culture but against great odds. The complicated nexus of art and capitalism, art and compensation-for-work, are some but not all of the reasons for these great odds. Another is the penchant for “high art” to deny clarified simplicity, the kind that I mentioned that you can get from the very old court music of Java. Early modernism tried to kill simplicity with complexity, and succeeded more in erasing the continuum between amateur and professional, beginner and master which you find in gamelan culture. The costs are great in my estimation.

Beyond this, there is the following truth which is obvious to any one who has been around or in an orchestra: Orchestra musicians often feel oppressed by management or music directors and fail to take pleasure in the music and the music-making. The factory model for the orchestra which R. Murray Schafer brilliantly exposed in The Tuning of the World, has prompted labor (the musicians) to even consider becoming owners of the factory (the orchestra) and to decapitate the leader (as has Orpheus, a conductor-less orchestra). But even if “revolutionary” behavior were to help the players, we live in a corporate world, and orchestras are part of that with all that it implies about the bottom line in all things. Art is not happy with the bottom line.

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 effective flexible large ensembles and to call them orchestras, to compose for them, and to also provide an opportunity for other composers to do so.

Many composers have previously explored the use of one timbre in isolation. There is a very special modernist tradition of writing for multiples of a single instrument: Henry Brant and Heitor Villa Lobos were some of the earliest composers to champion this idea. Recently, Lois V Vierk, Wendy Mae Chambers, William Hellermann, Mary Jane Leach, Charlie Morrow, Glenn Branca, Steve Reich, and many others have created compositions exploring the massed sonorities of instruments ranging from trombones and clarinets to pianos and electric guitars. These make for wonderful sounds and some great pieces, but their exotic limitation is their charm. These ensembles are hard to write for, and sometimes it’s hard to listen to a lot of this literature. Nevertheless, these “multiples” orchestras are startling and dramatic when juxtaposed with other standard ensembles.

Three years ago, I founded The Flexible Orchestra to explore a different sound concept. Call it dialogue, dialectic, group-and-individual, perspective-added, framing device—these descriptive terms are also the signature of the Western orchestra—in that there is both the massed sound plus the contrasting timbres of other, smaller, differing groupings that can either unite with, or contrast with the massed group. Probably the idea of a massed sound in classical music that is not that of strings came to me subliminally from years of work with gamelan sound. Of course, we already have jazz big bands as well as wind ensembles and symphonic bands. But, similar to the western orchestra, they too are haunted by their own traditions. All were progressive at one time, but now they seem academic and in fact, most of these ensembles are based in educational institutions.

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.

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!

I hope my work contributes to a renewed orchestra culture right here and now, but I know that one rather small “large” ensemble which can only afford to perform once a year with only two, three, at most four slots for new works cannot do this renewal all alone. Others must help.

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.