Gamelan festival glides into new territory at Roundhouse

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      With ensembles representing the traditional musics of Bali, Java, and Sunda, the two-day Gamelan at the Roundhouse festival offers local listeners a useful survey of classical sounds from the Indonesian archipelago. But this year, more than ever, it’s also a crash course in how gamelan, the intricately rhythmic and primarily percussion-based music of that region, continues to influence and interact with the rest of the world.

      A case in point, Gamelan Gita Asmara director Michael Tenzer says, is the career of the UBC–based ensemble’s latest guest artist, I Putu Gede Sukaryana, who performs under the stage name Balot.

      “He’s 30, and basically he never knew the old Bali of the romantic, idealized ‘other’ culture,” the UBC ethnomusicology prof explains in a telephone interview from his Point Grey home. “Ever since he got into music as an early teen, he’s always been about collaborating with people from all over.…He also plays tabla very competently; he does all sorts of world percussion; there’s a couple of pretty well known metal guitarists in Bali that he plays with. He's just partaking of all of that, so most of his work is collaborative, and often more small-scale.”

      The multimedia work Balot will premiere this week, Kala Raung (Time and Space), is going to be typically forward-thinking. “He’s got a style which is influenced by all of these collaborations he’s been doing and an open ear. It’s not signature Balinese stuff anymore,” Tenzer says. “He doesn’t think in terms of his cultural inheritance, necessarily. In fact, I think he kind of wants to get away from it.…So a lot of his music involves conceptual thinking: working out of patterns, some mathematics, designing patterns of different lengths that go together in interesting ways.”

      The conceptual framework for Gamelan Alligator Joy’s contribution to Gamelan at the Roundhouse is somewhat different: the local ensemble, whose mandate is to play contemporary music for traditional Javanese instruments, is collaborating with pianist Rory Cowal to look at how that most European device, the piano, can coexist with tuned bells and gongs. Cowal will join Alligator Joy to perform an excerpt from intercultural music pioneer Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Piano With Javanese Gamelan, and then will star in the premiere of a new work by composer Michael O’Neill, Mode of Attunement. In that, he’ll play an electronic piano tuned to match the nonwestern tuning of the gamelan ensemble—or, rather, the tuning it had before it was reworked last summer. The effect will be to change the inflection of the keyboard, while offering a shimmering ghost image of how Alligator Joy sounded for the first part of existence.

      “When the gamelan was retuned…I found that one thing that I liked had disappeared,” O’Neill notes from his East Vancouver home. “So what I did was retune the piano to the pitches that used to be, which gave kind of delicious, very small intervals that created waves or beating—which in Java and Bali is called ombak. So I brought that back to a large degree; some of the parts of the piece are expressly about that, about that close tuning.”

      Alligator Joy and Gita Asmara are the two longest-running ensembles in the program, but such is the strength of the local scene that they’ll be joined by a number of new or newish groups, including the Sunda-inspired Gamelan Si Pawit; Gamelan Bike Bike, a band formed by Gita Asmara alumni that performs original compositions on recycled bicycle parts; and O’Neill’s own Beledrone Ensemble, which performs new music for bagpipes, Balinese instruments, viola, and Ukrainian singers. If Balot wants to make music that’s inspired by Indonesian tradition but expands the language of gamelan, he’s going to be in very good company.

      Gamelan at the Roundhouse takes place at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Thursday and Friday (April 26 and 27).