I must admit the first time I came across a gamelan orchestra I thought the band that had been booked had pulled out and someone had raided the kitchen, grabbing all the pots and pans they could to make a din. The only thing missing, to my untrained eye, and ear, was a few upturned Tupperware dishes.
It’s not, of course.
In fact, “Like many other music with a primarily cyclic approach to melodic and rhythmic organization, Balinese gamelan music of the court or court-derived traditions relies upon symmetries of one kind or another for structural coherence. Gamelan genres originating in other Balinese historical or cultural contexts have different, often more asymmetrical, kinds of organizing principles. (Where) a set of Balinese concepts of melodic motion are used to develop a theory useful for analyzing the variety of symmetrical and asymmetrical structures evident across the repertoire.”
Not my words, but the words of a gentleman who fell in love with the haunting strains of the gamelan in the 1970s when the rest of the world was getting to grips with spiky-haired teenagers spitting at passersby and calling themselves punk rockers.
Michael Tenzer is, today, a Professor of Music at the University of British Colombia. Born in 1957 in New York City, Tenzer has been involved with Balinese gamelan since 1977. Since then he has carried out research into the music, written books and earned the accolade as the first western composer to write for Balinese ensembles, surrounding himself, as he says, in a cocoon of Balinese music.
His eclectic output matches his own influences; fusing traditional Balinese sounds with Indian and European elements.
1n 1979, Tenzer took his passion a step further when he formed his own band. He teamed up with I Wayan Suweca, his former teacher, and Rachael Cooper who had taught English in Indonesia in the early 1980s before joining the Asia Society and is now Director of Global Performing Arts and Special Cultural Initiatives.
Gamelan Sekar Jaya (translated as Victorious Flower), has been described as ‘the finest Balinese gamelan ensemble outside of Indonesia’ by Tempo magazine and has featured gamelan gong kebyar, gamelan angklung, gender wayang, and gamelan jegog in its performance portfolio.
Peopled by local enthusiasts, the group has performed across the US and have also toured Bali itself; along the way picking the prestigious Dharma Kusuma Award for Cultural Service from the island’s local government.
His journey into what would have been a strange new world of sounds, for a youth who had grown up with the accompanying soundtrack of the Vietnam War and hippies, began in 1976 when he overheard the word ‘gamelan’ accompanied by a heap of superlatives.
His musical curiosity aroused, he headed down the music store (note to readers aged below 25; before MP3 and ITunes we had to physically drag ourselves down to dedicated shops that sold pre-packaged music). Within 10 minutes of putting the vinyl on the turntable he was hooked and looked up Bali on the map.
20 years old with a handful of letters of introduction he set off to Bali; still then relatively untouched by the tourist hordes waiting round the corner. Reading between the lines of his preface to the first edition of Balinese Gamelan Music, he flew into Jakarta; took the train along the east coast as far as Banyuwangi where he caught a ferry across the narrow strait to Bali itself and a love affair that continues to this day.
He must have had some list of contacts. Whereas most first-time visitors made do with a Lonely Planet guide book and a cheap losmen by Bemo Corner, Tenzer headed to the puppet-making village of Peliatan where he crashed with the painter Ketut Madra.
Instead of hitting the beach during the day and the bars during the evening, Tenzer enrolled at the KOKAR School of Music and Dance where he studied under the tutelage of Nyoman Sumandhi. Getting to grips with melody, ornamentation and drumming, he would learn twice a day while also being shown the island on the back of his teacher’s motorcycle.
His would have been a Bali that the likes of Colin McPhee and Walter Spies would have recognized. A Bali where looking over a verdant sawah would have meant nothing more than opening the front door; a point Tenzer alludes to as he penned the introduction to the third edition of his book. Recalling how he had written the first edition in the very same spot he writes, “The pondok is faded and worn, and the rice fields have receded behind multi-story buildings, thus diminishing much of the creature chorus”, which pretty much sums up how much of Bali has succumbed to concrete; indeed a glimpse of sawah now often needs a lengthy excursion along narrow roads as others flock to see the same sight they have travelled thousands of miles for.
That initial six months in Bali pretty much decided his future career. He was enthralled by what he had learned and what he had seen; “my years of experience with this music have turned me into an enthusiastic disseminator, in reverence of this artistic tradition and the people and culture that posses it.”
He goes on to say “No other music in the world can corner the market on beauty, sophistication, subtlety or any other aesthetic identity, but Balinese music does possess a singular mix of orchestral complexity and a strong commitment to group interaction that makes it inspirational.”
Tenzer today spends most of his time pacing the corridors of his university but you can be sure his IPod is filled to overflowing with the pipes and drums of his beloved Bali.
For more information about Michael Tenzer and Balinese gamelan, check out his book Balinese Gamelan Music which comes with an accompanying CD and goes into great detail about the music and its subtleties as well as the role it plays in Balinese society.
Alternatively, check out his website www.michaeltenzer.com.