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Cultural Fusion: The Gamelan Experience

THE BEST CLASSICAL MUSIC EVENT of 2019 by Washington Classical Review

Claude Debussy heard a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exposition of 1889 – an epiphany. He later wrote: “But my poor friend! Do you remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts? . . . Their school consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises . . . that force one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”


Our three-hour mega-concert that spanned the Great Nave, with a Javanese gamelan ensemble at one end, and a Balinese gamelan at the other, both with costumed dancers. In the middle: PostClassical Ensemble and three pianos.


The evening began with a seamless transition from Javanese music and dance to Debussy’s Pagodas for solo piano. The topic was the impact of gamelan on Western concert music (no other non-Western musical tradition has impacted as profoundly). The different gamelan traditions were juxtaposed and explored. The composers were Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Messiaen, Colin McPhee, Bill Alves (DC premiere), and Lou Harrison (whose Piano Concerto was the evening’s main event).


I finally heard both a Javanese and a Balinese gamelan. In collaboration with the Indonesian Embassy, the PostClassical Ensemble—one of the most innovative and stimulating groups around—traced the intricate connections between Java, Bali, and the West. . . .


Lou Harrison’s colossal Piano Concerto from 1985 . . . was the piece I was most eager to hear, its opening movement as vast as a canyon, the second filled with nimble virtuosity, the slow movement an extended prayer that gives way to a fleet finale. . . . How could so magnificent a concerto be so woefully neglected?


These days, the word fusion . . . has become a cliché. But here was a vivid, persuasive argument in favor of embracing a fluid world culture. Works of the imagination should not be limited by borders, or by walls, and when art is born out of reverence, we the public should not be impeded by questions of ownership and accusations of appropriation. Not when the artworks in question move and enrich us all.
                                             – From Sudip Bose’s review in The American Scholar

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