Saturday, July 14, 2012

Cacophony in Bali

A brief story of found sound in Bali, Indonesia.

The drone and chant are ancient and powerfuls forms of collective musical experiences. Their appeal lies in a primal, wordless, communal experience. Raw emotion, sublime, and earthy feelings, exactly the type that music best epitomizes, and expressed in the way that only music allows.

Indonesian Gamelan

The music played by Gamelan ensembles in Bali, and Indonesia as a whole, has long been a source of fascination for composers and musicians. After it's 'debut' at the Paris World's fair in 1889, it shook some of the foundations of music composition and harmony that had long been taken for granted in the western classical tradition. With it's complex rhythms, and well organized and principled dissonance, it offered new avenues of freedom for composers struggling to expand their methods of musical expression.

Among the rice fields of Jatiluwih, in Bali, there is a small village where I happened to find myself last week. The village had arranged an array of cultural activities in anticipation of our visit, and it was here that I 'heard' Balinese music for the first time. Before this experience I had 'listened to' the music many times, both recorded and in live performances. I even felt I had an appreciation for it after having studied the music in an attempt at mastering polyrhythms. None of this, however, prepared me for coming face to face with the music as I did in Jatiluwih.

Jatiluwih Rice Terraces

The village is primarily laid out in a straight line, bisected by what in Bali serves as a highway. The buildings are quite foreign, and indistinguishable to my eyes. Each property laid out in a simple square, walled off from its neighbors, with ample space devoted for a Pura, a small temple, with offerings littering the ground in front of the gateway entrances.

The Village

One of the buildings - maybe someone's home

As we walked along the main road, we were briefly told what each property was. "this is the primary school", "so & so lives here", etc. I would be hard pressed to explain how, without foreknowledge, any of the buildings could be identified, each, to me, looking much like the others. The overall effect, however, was not unpleasant. The Hindu designs have a lot of complexity to them, with multiple layers of rock added on top each each other, and ornate finishings added wherever possible. The only distinguishing signs I could identify we're those of wealth - or possibly devotion - with the more expensive buildings being those that had more carvings, compared with the humbler building where the emulation of a skilled hand was created by the layering of obviously prefabricated pieces.

At the end of the road, where small children ran playing with seemingly communal dogs, we turned into the last enclosure. Inside was a 'U' shaped arrangement of buildings, with a large open area in the center. Waiting to greet us was a small troop of Balinese dancers dressed in their traditional clothing of bright colors and fierce makeup. Without accompaniment they began their dance but my attention was immediately pulled away by a remarkable noise coming from one of the buildings along the side.

Long and narrow, the building was divided into several small rooms, each only a few square meters large. Walking inside I knew what the sounds was, but had trouble believing what I was hearing. Maybe twenty or so musicians sat on the floor around their instruments banging away with a metallic rhythm. Inside that small room with its hard, flat surfaces, there was no respite from the cacophony.

And none was needed.

The sounds completely filled that space, forcing me, really for the first time, to hear Balinese music. The piece they were playing had a plodding nature, individual instruments would go through changes in tempo, or octave, but overall the effect was of an endless outpouring of oddly tuned clanging and bangs.

There was nothing narrative about it, nor emotional in the expressionistic sense. It was otherworldly, inhuman, whether by design, or from cultural distance, I don't know. Standing in that room, after passing through a stage of excitement from this new experience, I felt nothing. I don't mean to say that I was unaffected, quite the opposite, instead there was no emotion I could connect to that music. It was more like a buzzing in my consciousness making me extremely aware, while also strangely distant from the earthy realities of that small poor village.

The musicians had an air of casualness to them. At times a man would stand up and walk away to have a cigarette, or change positions with someone new who had arrived. Their expertise was micro, some playing just a few notes in a fixed pattern, the effect came from ensemble playing together. I do not know what the music meant, but I do know that the collective group experience was a part of it. It was a moving musical event to part of, something I'll not likely forget from that trip.

Recordings from a mobile phone, apologies for the poor quality

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