I had the idea to bring Gamelan and Debussy together quite a long time ago and I was delighted last year when everything fell into place! The day actually exceeded my expectations and this was mostly due to the expert facilitators, Mike Simpson from Inspire-Works and the pianist and Debussy/Ravel expert Paul Roberts. However, watching everyone taking part start to realise the connections between the two workshops was also wonderful.
I will try to share some of this with you.
The Gamelan session was led by Mike Simpson from Inspire-works; Mike is 'a man in a van with a gamelan'! A classical percussionist by training, he and his wife went to live in Bali for a year and whilst there he had daily lessons on the Balinese Gamelan. He also had a bespoke Balinese Gamelan made which was shipped back to the UK. Now, with the help of his van, it is taken to schools all over the UK so that children can be introduced to its magical sound.
Here is the Oxford Piano Group playing the Warrior Dance after just a couple of hours of playing! The music is all generated from the one melody and emerges in layers and lines of sound - harmony as a concept does not exist in Balinese music.
Here are a few things to listen out for:
- The drummer (in this case Mike) is the leader
- The music has a cycle of 8 counts, starting on 8
- The 3 gongs play in the same place within each cycle
- The rest of the players all play versions of the same melody.
- The first group comes in with a slow version, just playing 2 notes, followed by slightly faster and 4 notes.
- The main melody itself has 8 notes
- Above that the higher bells play the melody doubling each note
- The 'reyong' players are seated on the floor and are the last to join in with a more complex and brilliant part
- The tempo of the music fluctuates
The sound is quite unique and cannot be related at all to the Western sense of tonality or scales.
(my apologies but this video clip does take quite a while to load. Alternatively you can find it posted on my timeline on facebook)
Paul Roberts pointed out, however, that only one of Debussy's piano pieces directly alludes to the gamelan. Pagodas (from Estampes) has layering just like gamelan and draws out the bell like sounds of the piano with gongs whilst the melody can be heard at double speed and half speed.
With his vast knowledge and understanding of Debussy Paul was able to demonstrate how experiencing the sound of the Gamelan had influenced the composer's treatment of a piano's sonorities. Paul exampled how, in Cloches a travers les feuilles (Bells through the leaves from Images Book 2), the five interlocking parts, the wide use of the keyboard and the whole tone scale 'took music into a new realm'.
The feedback from the members of the Oxford Piano Group was overwhelmingly positive. As one person commented; 'A chance to try other instruments than the piano was great, because it was worthwhile to know more about different cultures, scales, modes. It has inspired me to search for different sounds at the piano'.