Behind the Scenes: The test of the gamelan (Part Two)

The first episode described how a veteran Portland community music ensemble, Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan, decided to take on a difficult but potentially enormously rewarding new set of repertoire and performance challenges for its 31st anniversary concert, which transpired last month at Lewis & Clark College. In this episode, the stakes involved grow and the preparations intensify to meet the challenge.

Venerable Showers of Beauty 30th Anniversary Concert November 2010

So far, the November concert was shaping up to be like our breakthrough 30th anniversary concert last year — a whole new set of more sophisticated traditional Javanese repertoire than we’d ever faced, and a major new (to us) Lou Harrison work (we played two smaller ones last year, with Lewis & Clark faculty musicians on horn, viola, and flute) that also required working with Western classical music soloists.

This year’s program would have been seemed daunting a year ago, but having surmounted those challenges in a sold-out concert featuring two dozen musicians onstage (including our old teacher from Java leading us), it now looked like a perfect next step for the band.

After hitting a trough in the years following Midiyanto’s departure, VSB was clearly on an upswing, handling more and more sophisticated repertoire and adding several new members even in the year since the anniversary concert. One was a composer who had worked for Harrison and played in his gamelan in California in the 1980s. Another was a member of Gamelan Pacifica who had moved to Portland and was familiar with the Double Concerto and other Harrison works — I’d seen Adrienne perform with Gamelan Pacifica in Seattle and was glad to add her to the team.

A superb pianist, Adrienne could read Western music, and so we assigned her one of the gamelan parts in the second movement. The other went to another rookie member, Matt, a trained percussionist. Both would need to read the Western music score the classical soloists would be using. The rest of us would use the Javanese cipher notation we were used to, with only a few wrinkles added by Harrison.

Two Plus One: Mass Appeal

Then came the third challenge. Our music director, Mindy Johnston, returned from a conference in London, where she’d looked in on a gamelan ensemble there. They happened to be rehearsing the world premiere performance of a brand new work written by the English composer Neil Sorrell, author of the most popular textbook on gamelan and an old friend of Midiyanto’s. Although Mindy much preferred traditional to contemporary gamelan music, she was transfixed by the beauty of Sorrell’s Missa Gongso, a six-movement work that set the Latin Mass to a gamelan accompaniment. After we heard the rough recording she made there, so were we.

Mindy asked Sorrell if we could play the American premiere, and he agreed. Then she asked L&C’s director of choral programs, Katherine FitzGibbon, if she’d be willing to let her community choir take it on with us. Dr. FitzGibbon, who already required her students to sing some works outside the narrow Western European tradition, was all for it — but since she was going on sabbatical, the only chance to perform it would be in the upcoming November concert that was already overloaded with tough new material. We gulped — and decided to add the Mass to an already packed and difficult (for us, not the audience) program. We didn’t really realize what we were getting into.

Composer Neil Sorrell

Missa Gongso posed challenges of the sort the group had never faced. Gamelan music is directed aurally — by a drummer who signals section and tempo changes, and permutations of irama, a difficult concept to translate to Western music that has to do with the rhythmic density of the piece. Western orchestras and choirs, in contrast, rely on visual cues from a conductor, but sometimes the gamelan and chorus actually perform in different rhythms. So we would have to look up from our scores and switch from being guided by our ears to FitzGibbon’s hands — not as easy as it sounds for amateurs who’ve never done it. Moreover, the piece contained all sorts of gestures and effects, a few of them very fast, utterly unfamiliar in traditional gamelan music. But again: it was a rare opportunity too good to pass up.

Lewis & Clark College Director of Choral Studies Katherine FitzGibbon. Photo: Gina Emerson Photography

Musical Community

The stakes were high. The group’s decision to take on these three challenges reflects a common conundrum among Portland amateur musicians: Do we stand comfortably still, or push ourselves to move up to what the sports cliche machine calls the next level?

On one hand, there’s a real pleasure in just gathering with your friends and sharing familiar tunes in a low-pressure situation, whether it’s picking guitars on the porch, singing shape note songs or even joining a church or amateur choir.

That’s especially true in gamelan, a quintessentially community form of music making in which the interweaving parts, not the solo contributions, are the key. The music’s extremely collaborative nature served as a kind of metaphor; it was more important to Midiyanto that everyone get along than it was to play a piece perfectly at the expense of the group’s comity.

The pressure of public performance of difficult music could threaten that relaxed vibe. I’d seen VSB and my previous group lose members when we pushed to perform publicly more often and raise our musical standards.

But for me, Mindy and others, there’s an even greater pleasure in sharing the music we love with the public, exposing them to beauties that never fail to bewitch them. (It’s not really about us as performers; the music itself is so shimmeringly beautiful that it sells itself.)

Moreover, performing live, especially challenging repertoire, forces you to get better, to sharpen your skills and amplify your engagement with the music. And taking on more ambitious repertoire brings its own pleasure, the reward for effort expended, like adding a mile to your run every year. New works and new kinds of music also keep the experience fresh, and that means we attract and keep members who’d be bored by simply repeating familiar repertoire in our studio every week.

Cultural Clash

We trusted Mindy to make those decisions for us, after some informal discussion.

“In some ways, not having the experience of being professional musicians, maybe they’re more willing to take risks,” she wrote in an email. “Because we have such an amateur group, most of them don’t really know how challenging something is or is not, and I’m the one who has to decide if we’re going to do it or not. So ultimately I can jump into something that maybe we’re really not cut out for — but maybe nobody knows if we are or not (and the people who DO know are up for the challenge, generally!)… and I just plow ahead as if we are, and then we do it!”

VSB music director Mindy Johnston and Midiyanto at rehearsals for the 31st anniversary concert

 We quickly realized that our standard weekly two-hour practice wouldn’t be enough to handle the complex new repertoire. Individual practice is much less of an option in Javanese music than in Western music. Western classical musicians can practice a piece at home with their own instrument and notation and are less dependent on group rehearsals to learn the notes. Conversely, in Java, gamelan musicians learn by playing over and over again together until every member of the group really gets it. Except for a couple of virtuosic instruments, practicing individually is less helpful because the real challenge is integrating your part with the whole, and the instruments (ours are owned by the college) stay in the studio. Everything depends on listening and responding to what’s going on around you, and that ultimately requires a lot of confidence gained from frequent practice with the group.

“Playing gamelan, especially for a performance, is an enormously challenging process in so many ways,” Mindy, who’s a trained violist, explained, “and it requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness and patience. It is really about the group, not about individual desire, so I understand why it pushes buttons for some people. It really is hard to go through this process and is different than Western music precisely because it relies on the group for the learning to happen.”

“And that’s different than Western musicians,” she continued. “They wouldn’t rehearse nearly as much as we rehearse. With semi-professional musicians, there’s an expectation that you’ll put in a lot more rehearsal time by yourself, but we can’t do that, so we need more time getting comfortable by rehearsing a lot together. It is hard to put the group needs first and maybe let go of the place you think you should be. But ultimately, it offers great rewards and I think can be a very positive experience for everyone if you can let go and surrender to that process.”

The extra rehearsals added pressure. “It being a community based group, we draw so many kinds of people to the group who have different scheduling issues,” Mindy wrote. “All of that feeds into how much we can do. This year we also had a bunch of new people to add at the last minute, and a couple of members worried that we were biting off more than we could chew. That kind of questioning throughout the process also adds a lot of extra work in getting them caught up, and puts a lot of pressure on the group.”

We wound up scheduling a half-dozen extra rehearsals leading up to the show, and we needed every one of them.

Three to Get Ready

We had less than three months to prepare three major concert components: the half-hour, three-movement Harrison Double Concerto; the six pieces of new Javanese music; and Sorrel’s half-hour Missa Gongso.

We spent the most time on Sorrel’s mass, mostly because it demanded extensive stop-and-start sections with lots of fast cues as the gamelan alternated with and then accompanied the singers — nothing like the leisurely, cyclical songs we were used to playing. We had a choral score in Western notation and a gamelan score in cipher notation, but no master score to see how they lined up!

So we relied on the recording and Mindy’s ability (along with that of a few of our other players with Western music experience) to bridge the gap. Much of the music had to be mastered by sight reading and practice, because it didn’t conform to the standard Javanese techniques we’d honed over the years and relied on. The new Javanese music and the Harrison concerto basically used techniques we already knew, just at a higher level. But performing the mass would involve learning a fundamentally different kind of playing.

“Even something as simple as figuring out where to start, where you have to stop — those are time-consuming things if you’re dealing with Western music and gamelan together,” Mindy pointed out. “Getting things in sync with both Lou and Neil’s pieces, dealing with Western scores — that was a challenge.”

The bonang barung and bonang panerus often play beautiful interlocking elaborating parts

We thought we were doing OK until October, when our first run through with the L&C Community chorus (itself an amateur community group that had convened for the first time only a few weeks earlier and had never worked with a gamelan) revealed that we weren’t even close to being able to play the piece in real time.

Rehearsals immediately became a lot more intense. For instance, I had to switch six times among three instruments in the course of the piece. Those parts were hard enough, but it wasn’t until dress rehearsal that we figured out how to make that work without distracting the audience, in part by positioning the instruments so I could turn around and play one of the bonangs upside down for several measures before returning to the other. New challenges spark new solutions. The piece teemed with similar uncertainties, and some parts were just hard to play.

Also, we were extremely lucky to add two new members with extensive Western musical training; Bonnie and Amelia became our “ringer singers,” running the soprano choral lines with us in rehearsal so we could hear how it all fit together.

In our few rehearsals with them, the community choir struggled with some of the writing in Sorrell’s piece. But with a constantly upbeat attitude yet crisp and precise instructions, the cheerfully unflappable FitzGibbon gave the amateur choristers as much as they could handle through each run — and no more. Though rough patches remained even at dress rehearsal, I was impressed at how adroitly she managed to fix each difficult section, one by one, keep the singers’ spirits high, and give both groups exactly what we needed simultaneously.

Lewis & Clark Community Chorale and Venerable Showers of Beauty rehearse Missa Gongso

Watching her work out these cultural translations and collaborations with Mindy (who has a master’s degree in mediation) made me think that if we could turn over the world’s diplomatic problems to these smart, cooperative artists, the world would be a much more peaceful place.

The Javanese material also proved harder than expected, especially for us singers. We didn’t have a good recording of how a couple of the songs were supposed to sound. Eventually, Mindy asked our generously patient instrumentalists to play easy (for them) sections for us over and over, while we singers worked out each phrase by phrase, until we were able to really sing with confidence. But because Midiyanto was drumming/conducting for us, and we hadn’t worked with him since the first day almost three months ago, and we’d have three wonderful guest musicians from Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica and Peni joining us the day of the show, we didn’t really bring those pieces together until the two rehearsals with everyone together on stage.

Jesse Snyder from Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica

And the stage made a huge difference. Unlike Western music, gamelan depends so much on hearing each other to know where you are that when you switch venues, it’s often a struggle to stay together, because sounds you were (sometimes unconsciously) cueing from in weeks of studio rehearsal suddenly aren’t audible on stage. For a group that had hitherto performed in public only in music we’d typically played for years, all this was scary.

But last year’s concert and others we’d played recently in various venues paid off: Our group quickly adjusted to the new sonic environment — a sign of its growing skill. By rehearsals’ end, just like last year, we were ready to play the traditional material.

However, all the work on that and the Missa Gongso left us little time to work on the third major challenge: Harrison’s powerful Double Concerto. Our soloists were busy professional classical musicians with teaching and performing gigs, and one, University of Oregon faculty violinist Fritz Gearhart (a superb Oregon musician whose performances with the Eugene Symphony and Oregon String Quartet and others I’d much admired), had to drive up from Eugene. S o we got only a couple of run throughs with the soloists.  We never did run the whole piece (the second movement required only two of our members) complete before showtime.

Fortunately, most members could rely on their experience interpreting traditional Javanese classical music to get through the piece. Unfortunately, thanks to Harrison’s thorny obbligato part I’d recklessly signed up for, I wasn’t one of them. And now we simply didn’t have time for me and the others who faced unusual tests in that piece to practice. The concert day had arrived.

And I was sick.

To be continued…

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