Gamelan and Western Classical Music

Brett Campbell on August 15, 2011

An excerpt/sidebar from the article American Gamelan's Pioneering Flower Still in Full Bloom follows:

“Do you not remember the Javanese music able to express every nuance of meaning, even unmentionable shades, and which makes our tonic and dominant [musical notes] seem like empty phantoms for the use of unwise infants?”

That’s what Claude Debussy wrote to a friend after first hearing Indonesian gamelan music during an 1889 Paris exposition celebrating the centenary of the French Revolution. That summer, an exhibit featuring the gongs, metal xylophones, drums, and sometimes the singers and dancers of Javanese gamelan inspired both Debussy and Maurice Ravel, both of whom later wrote beautiful music influenced by gamelan.

Later composers, including Benjamin Britten (in The Prince of the Pagodas) and Colin McPhee (Tabuh-Tabuhan and many others), also embraced gamelan influences; the latter was especially taken with the music of Bali. The most prominent 20th-century composer for gamelan, as well as the godfather of the American gamelan movement, was Bay Area–based composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003), who composed dozens of beguiling works for that ensemble, sometimes fetchingly combined with Western instruments such as violin, cello, and piano. Harrison also employed gamelan techniques and even tunings in some of his music for Western orchestra and chamber ensemble. Today, many composers both in the West and in Indonesia continue to write music for the instruments and in the tradition of gamelan, which remains a vital, living musical tradition.