Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm - Café Racer - Seattle, WA

Evan Woodle - December 18th, 2011


For this installment of the Racer Sessions, I have composed a piece of music heavily inspired by Indonesian gamelan. Joining me in its performance will be King Tears Bat Trip.

Since its inception a little over a year ago, the essential sound of KTBT has comprised a fusion of Haitain Vodou music and free jazz, with the latter style being most notably in the vein of Albert Ayler. This piece is my attempt to essentially replace those Haitian influences with Indonesian ones, hence posing a new challenge of finding a balance between two contrasting musical styles.

I was introduced to Indonesian gamelan music this Fall Quarter through an Ethnomusicology class at the UW. I vividly remember being completely blown away after the professor played a 10 second sample of the music on the first day of class. Everything about it was foreign and extremely intriguing to me: The pitches, which come from a unique tuning system that utilizes microtones, were clearly not of the Western, equal tempered variety; the organization and conceptualization of rhythm was unlike anything I had ever heard, as it has several layers of complexity as well as a particularly mind-bending factor of melodic tempo fluctuation (called Irama); and the way a vocal soloist elaborated upon a skeletal melody (called the balungan) was profoundly beautiful and awe-inspiring. 

Ladrang Pankur

Now, there are many elements of gamelan music that I would be simply foolish (at this time, anyway) to try and recreate in a manner that even approaches authenticity. For instance, the rhythmic concepts with which a gamelan hand drummer improvises and the techniques with which a gamelan vocalist elaborates upon a balungan are far beyond me, and shall remain as such unless I were to study the music regularly, diligently, and with a master practitioner in the art.

Certain elements, however, are more reasonably transplantable; I was able to incorporate gamelan concepts of form, melody, and rhythm into my piece. My piece also uses a pelog scale (below), one of the two essential gamelan scales.

Pelog scale (the numbers on the left indicate the scale degree, and the “+” and “-” signs indicate whether the pitch is to be played up or down a quarter-step, respectively):

1: D+

2: E

3: F+

4: Ab+

5: A+

6: B-

7: C+

With regards to form and melody, parts of my piece essentially follow a basic model that is widely used in gamelan music. Check out the following notation (which also uses the pelog scale) for a balungan to accompany a traditional Beskalan Putri dance (read one line at a time, from left to right, then repeat; the periods indicate a beat although there is no note to be articulated):

. 2 . 1    . 2 . 6    . 2 . 1    . 6 . 5

. 6 . 5    . 4 . 2    . 6 . 5    . 2 . 1

The rhythm of the melody here is stagnant in relation to the “pulse,” though the “pulse” in gamelan music is quite elastic. After some time, the above balungan is to be followed by the one below, which contains twice as many notes at twice the frequency:

6 5 6 1    3 2 1 6    4 5 6 1    2 1 6 5

2 1 6 5    3 1 3 2    5 6 5 4    2 6 2 1

You will perhaps notice that neither melody uses all seven pitches of the pelog scale. This is a common practice in gamelan music, as it is generally favored to pick a subset of pitches that outline a certain mode. In writing my piece, however, I found the melodies I ended up with to contain all seven pitches. This was likely just a result of me paying more attention to my intuition than to the rules of gamelan.

With regards to rhythm, I took the concept of rhythmic elasticity that is abound in gamelan music and interpreted it more broadly to apply to certain sections of my piece. For instance, one section features three drummers maintaining a steady groove while one improvises in a more liberal manner. Another section of the piece features drum patterns derived from rhythms played by a gamelan gong beleganjur ensemble during a post-cremation purification ritual called memukur.

Music for Memukur Procession

Finally, a group improvisation section I’ve included in the middle of the piece serves not only as a bridge between two disparate composed sections, but also as a chance for the group to display its true character in the context of these new influences.