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Published: 2006/05/14
by Pat Buzby

Metal Notes – Gamelan Son of Lion

Locust Music 78

I haven’t thought much of my gamelan ensemble experience since it happened in 1995, but this CD brings it back. Aside from five-note scales and kneeling over large xylophones with a mallet, one thing I remember is that the leader of the group had a taste for John Cage and led a few improv exercises. Since most of us had only a month’s experience with the instruments, these improvisations were very random. We included a couple of those in our concert, and it sticks in my mind as one of the few concerts I’ve played where the audience may have had a much better idea of what music was occurring than I did.

If you haven’t heard the steady patterns and strange overtones of traditional gamelan music, your musical experience has a notable gap. Gamelan Son Of Lion, though, moves away from tradition into approaches influenced by Cage and minimalism on Metal Notes, originally released on cassette in 1985 and excavated by Locust Music.

About half of the music here connects, while the other half may have come across more easily to those in the room than it does on CD. The opening suite, “Gamelan NEA,” alternates ethereal, high-pitched patterns (a bit reminiscent of the early “little instruments” experiments of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) with solemn gongs. Denise Rightmire-Womelsdorf’s “Keith Rays” is an effective elegy for a friend killed in a car crash. Peter Griggs’s “Through the Looking Glass” is a variation on traditional music with similar charms.

Elsewhere, this music reminds us that there are two forms of minimalism. One kind, more popular, involves a few things happening often, and loudly. The kind heard here involves a few things happening not-often. While this music might remind you of the fact that any chance events can take on musical qualities, it doesn’t achieve a lot which you couldn’t get if you had a tape recorder, a temperate environment and a neighbor with wind chimes.

Like the improvs in that 1995 concert I played, these are collections of sounds which leave the listener to determine whether music is happening. The best moments of Metal Notes achieve it. Elsewhere, these events happen in front of the listener, but don’t absorb attention.

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