Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Gamelan Dharma Swara’s 2008 Fall Show

For those new to the concept, gamelans are the community-based bell-and-percussion orchestras common throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Sunday afternoon, Gamelan Dharma Swara, New York’s very own Balinese-style gamelan treated a standing-room-only crowd to a performance that was as beautifully hypnotic as it was bracing. In keeping with tradition, this group is a community organization, holding an open workshop on December 7 for anyone interested in joining. True to form, this group of 24 musicians plus dancers is multi-ethnic and represents a wide range of ages including a young guy who is their star performer and looks about 12. Musicians from a wide range of completely unrelated styles have found a home in this group, including the bass player from Chicha Libre, one of the singer/arrangers from Brooklyn Balkan folk choir Black Sea Hotel and noted Chinese guzheng player Wu Fei.

 

Bell players in a gamelan typically play a set of four. Because the bells have so much sustain, half the work involves muting them, requiring both split-second timing and impeccably precise teamwork. This group excels at it. Their percussion includes hand drums as well as a boomy one-piece tom-tom played with a single stick, and a set of two massive gongs that produce resonant, echoey low bass tones. Perhaps also in keeping with tradition, everyone in this group multitasks: dancers play, players dance, percussionists switch to flute or bells and vice versa. Each of eight pieces they played featured a different crew, but regardeless of who was doing what, the result was equally captivating. The most intricate, lush pieces of the afternoon opened and closed the show, the first featuring a quartet of dancers who closed by pelting the crowd with flower petals, the second illustrating a mythical battle between brothers (one ends up killing the other – but then he gets up and starts dancing again) featuring some remarkable call-and-response between the flutes and percussion. To the eyes of one not versed in traditional Indonesian dance, the dancers seem to blend a herky-jerky, googly-eyed eeriness with slowly undulating grace, and to the group’s credit, they made it look perfectly natural.

 

The rest of the program was a mix of hypnotic lushness and percussive fire, frequently in the same piece. The quietest and most captivating featured a trio of bell players set up in the middle of the stage doing a traditional gender wayang piece typically used as a musical backdrop to Balinese shadowplay theatre. The most intense and percussive piece was in the barong style, in its loudest moments something like a more mellow, less chaotic Chinese New Year celebration, the group’s young star dressed in a strikingly elaborate, oversize dragon costume, keeping perfect time as he clacked the creature’s big wooden jaws together. Unlike Western music, the gamelan repertoire doesn’t utilize chords per se, although a couple of the pieces the group played actually did have chord changes along with some dizzyingly repetitive melodic hooks: one that kept coming back again and again was a 1-3-4-3 progression (for those who don’t play an instrument, that’s the intro to Add It Up by the Violent Femmes – catchy, huh?). In addition to a set of program notes handed out before the show, the group’s spokesman would often entertainingly explain the mechanics and stylistic differences of the various pieces.

 

One unexpected if very auspicious development was to see how popular this group has become, and not simply among the expat population: the crowd was every bit as polyglot as the crew onstage. Adventurous listeners interested in Gamelan Dharma Swara’s next show should plan on getting tickets the minute they go onsale, considering how quickly both this past weekend’s concerts sold out. 

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November 26, 2008 - Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. What a lovely read. Thank you.

    Comment by Becky | November 29, 2008 | Reply

  2. […] to use Technorati.com — thanks to Dr. Lieb —to find a blog on Indonesian dance and I found a concert review that relates to what I’m looking for. The group is located in New York City and I think the group […]

    Pingback by Research#4: Traditional Art Groups « Awis Mranani | June 9, 2009 | Reply


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