Music from the Morning of the World – various artistsMusic for the Shadow Play – various artists
Nonesuch Explorer Series 79714-2
Nonesuch Explorer Series 79718-2
In his wonderful book Ocean of Sound, David Toop traces what he calls
"open music" – a grouping that connects dub to ambient to Sun Ra to John
Cage – to the introduction of gamelan to the West at the Paris Exposition in
1889. Describing what the made the music so revolutionary to Western ears,
Toop quotes Leonard Huinzinga: "This music does not create a song for our
ears. It is a 'state', such as moonlight poured over the fields."
Robert E. Brown recorded Music for the Shadow Play in Bali, trying to
bottle the same moonlight, in July 1969 — the same month that Man bounced
along the lunar surface for the first time. And, in general, the same
broader developments of the Space Age soon allowed gamelan music to be
dispersed about the globe. Nonesuch Records began to issue their seminal
Explorer series, a 92 volume collection of music from around the world. And
it's beautiful, go figure, despite being compressed into the Western form of
the LP (most gamelan performances are extremely long). The moonlight
Going back to my first
gamelan experience several years ago, I suspect that my feeling is
pretty much the same — a fairly wide-eyed wonder at this magical music that
still sounds like a thousand toy pianos twinkling to me. My first
impressions were entirely unschooled. The disc didn't include liner notes,
so all I really knew about the music is that it was from Bali. Since then,
I've taken a world music class, gone to a couple of gamelan performances,
collected a few more albums, and the like, but the long and short of it is
that though the initial shock has worn away, most of what remains
otherworldly is still very much an active part of the music.
The interactions between the instruments are incredibly complex. Even if I
can't always parse it, it's hard not to instinctively grok the fact that
there is a rich organizing principle to the warm metallic cacophony. Even if
one can't count the time signatures (I sure can't) or distinguish between
the twenty or so percussive voices, there is still an obvious language being
employed. For those reasons, I value my first gamelan experience as one of
the purest listening experiences I've had.
But having access to the liner notes of Music for the Shadow Play is
just as cool. Describing "Rundah": "Designated as the proper ending for
daylight performances, such as tooth-filling ceremonies, this music may also
provide the background for the meeting of important characters. Because of
its auspicious nature, it could be played in cremations, at crossroads, or
other dangerous places to placate the demons as the tower is carried to the
burning ground." Cool. Concept album? World music? Total bullshit?
Who cares? The Explorer series earns its name, and its stripes.
The music has its own standards, its own ways of functioning, its own place
within a community. It is part of a total system. One's ears instinctively
begin to classify this stuff, to sort out the rhythms and the spaces. And
that's refreshing. It's unconscious, I think. I can just put it on and do
something else, and it feels like a little burst of air or a cool shower to
have the rhythms going while I do whatever it is that I'm doing. It's not
the exotica of gamelan, I don't think, and that's something pleasant to
realize. It really is a genuinely musical quality – the state of listening
to it – that produces its beauty to my ears.
So, word up to the Space Age — to the folks with tape machines and high
fidelity microphones, to the international conglomerate distributing it, to
the Moon, to the man walking on it, and to all of their shadows.