Emory Gamelan Ensemble (credit: Mark Gresham)

Emory Gamelan enchants with mix of old and new, East and West

Mark Gresham | 23 OCT 2019

On Saturday evening the ever-enjoyable Emory Gamelan Ensemble presented a concert entitled “Musical Confluence of East and West,” combining traditional music for Javanese gamelan, along with western classical music inspired by it and contemporary gamelan music. The performance took place at at Emory University’s modest but well-suited 260-seat Performing Arts Studio, the group’s home venue. The ensemble continues to delight with its ever-improving skill and exploration of repertoire.

Once again, Indonesian gamelan master and composer Darsono Hadiraharjo, a visiting fellow at Cornell University, was the ensemble’s esteemed guest artist, leading them while playing the the double-headed drums known as kendhang — which made him responsible for keeping the tempo, changing the rhythmic density and signaling transitions between sections and the ending of each piece.

The program began with “Ladrang Wilujeng Pelog Barang,” a traditional song used to open an event with a wish for a safe and blessed life.

  • Spivey Hall - Organ Discovery Day
  • AD SPIVEY HALL Sheku & Isata Kanneh-Mason 600 x 250

Next came two works by Western composers: the first movement from the gamelan-inspired Java Suite by Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870 – 1938), appropriately entitled “Gamelan,” for solo piano, followed by “Threnody for “Carlos Chávez” for viola and pelog-tuned gamelan instruments by American composer and adventurous “musical outsider” Lou Harrison (1917 – 2003). Emory owns sets of gamelan instruments in both pelog and slendro scales. Both were used in this concert and the ensemble’s set-up makes it easy for performers to switch between them for different pieces.

Godowsky’s piece was performed by pianist Alejandro Arzú, an Emory junior double majoring in biology and human health and native of Guatemala, where he began his piano studies with Consuelo Medinilla. The bold piano work emphasized rhythmic figures inspired by the gamelan’s bonang, a collection of small gongs with a central boss, suspended horizontally together in a single wooden frame.

Harrison’s “Threnody,” which calls for the solo viola to be tuned up a whole step, featured Leslie Conner, a local freelance violinist and violist who holds a master’s degree in Baroque violin and early music from Indiana University. The scordatura tuning and straight-toned approach to playing the part gave the viola a brighter, more reedy tone, not unlike the rebab (an Arabic “spiked fiddle” brought to the far east by Muslim traders) that is sometimes used to play a sustained melody with a gamelan.

  • ECMSA 2122 ad
  • Spivey Hall = Jeremy Denk
  • ASO-2122-CS03 (Ad)

The ensemble followed those with a new, original work for gamelan, “Lagu Sungai” (“The River Song”) by Anuja Veeraghanta, a senior student at Emory, who is majoring in political science and music composition. She began music studies at age five, trained in both Western classical and Hindustani classical music, and joined the Emory Gamelan Ensemble in 2018 to further broaden her understanding of the world’s music and cultures. Although for traditional Javanese gamelan, Veeraghanta incorporated some stylistic and structural elements from western traditions into her music, in line with the program’s theme of confluence of East and West.

Another contemporary gamelan piece, by guest artist Darsono, was one they had played before with him: “Ketawang Panembah Slendro Sanga,” which the composer describes simply as “a musical prayer humbly offered to the Supreme Being.”

The final four works on this delightfully imaginative program were “Ladrang Duporo Slendro Manyura” by K.P.H. Notoprojo, who taught Lou Harrison about gamelan; “Ladrang Westminster Slendro Sanga,” a 19th-century composition which imitates the familiar chimes of London’s Westminster Palace (the clock tower bells which include “Big Ben”); “Ladrang Pangkur Pelog Nem,” a classic from Central Java; and finally “Bubaran Sembungguilang Slendro Sanga,” a traditional piece used to bid the happy audience a fond farewell at concert’s end. ■