By Rupert Bottenberg
“We couldn’t do a three-hour show, people would be driven mad,” says Nino Gabrielli, co-director with Éric Vandal of
A bold assertion, but then Gabrielli is talking about Indonesian gamelan music—and what the ensemble, two dozen members strong, does with it. For centuries, the Southeast Asian archipelago has sprouted gamelans, orchestras of xylophones supplemented by drums, flutes and strings, and while a host of varieties have evolved (Giri Kedaton, founded in 1995 out of Université de Montréal’s gamelan workshop, specialize in the Balinese “gong kebyar” style), the music’s haunting tones and timbres, as inviting as they are alien, remain a constant. Add that to the complex, vigorous tempos, mysterious melodies and the gilded eye candy of the instruments, and you have an almost overwhelming experience.
“It’s really loud and really compelling, rhythmically,” says Gabrielli. “People are rapidly absorbed by the force the instruments have, and the instruments themselves because they’re all hand-carved and painted red and gold.”
And that isn’t even the whole picture. This weekend’s recital by the ensemble showcases their 2009 album Projet Bali X, for which they composed and performed fascinating fusion pieces. “The album reflects us as composers, and how we came to gamelan music. When he was a teen, Éric Vandal was what we call in French a ‘métalleux.’A group I love is Radiohead—we do a cover of ‘Kid A.’ There will be a piece with real-time electronic treatments of the instruments, there’s a surf-rock piece—all our backgrounds are in there.
“People will come and hear it and think it’s coming out of nowhere, but it’s a lot more tradition-based than one might think. In fact, the most traditional piece on Bali X is the heavy metal piece. When you hear it, at first, you’re thinking, okay, they’ve brought a bit of xylophone—they’re metallophones, actually—to a heavy metal band, but it’s really the metal band that follows the gamelan.”
It’s important to note that Giri Kedaton isn’t just having fun with a petrified folk music, but contributing to the evolution of gamelan music, which continues to this very day as Indonesian composers conjure up new spins on the old, old sound.
“It’s a traditional but modern art. It’s not folkloric, in the sense that you play always the same old things. They keep a very strong tradition, they continue to have that repertoire, but a project like ours, we often present it as iconoclastic and eclectic but it’s not really that crazy for the Balinese because they do exactly the same. There’s no desecration.”
Not that I Dewa Made Suparta, the ensemble’s 29-year-old, Balinese invited artistic director, would allow it. “Even though he’s young, he’s a virtuoso,” says Gabrielli. “We’ll perform a piece by him at the show that, when we talk about traditional but modern, really reflects that.”
Suparta’s skill needs to be emulated if not outright matched by the emsemble, Gabrielli says. “Gamelan is either played with virtuosity, or not at all. It’s so fast, the melodies are so interlinked, there’s no room for improvisation or error. It takes perfect technique.”