War of the Music Worlds: Western vs. Gamelan Orchestras

A couple weeks ago I saw this gamelan opera called A House in Bali. It was pretty wack. I wrote a review of it for my music class, so if you want to read all about how it failed, you can follow the jump.

A House in Bali is Evan Ziporyn’s operatic culture clash of Bali and the West. I saw the performance on Sept. 27 in Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley, and while I am glad I went, I cannot help but heavily criticize many aspects of the production.

The opera is based on the true story of Canadian composer and musicologist Colin McPhee, who traveled to Bali, Indonesia in 1932 and was so taken by the native song and dance that he returned to study and document the art forms. He analyzed the traditional gamelan music and instruments, and was one of the first to present these styles to the Western world. McPhee eventually became alienated in the foreign society and fled. True to McPhee’s journey, the opera presented a purposeful clashing between the West and Bali’s language, music and dress.

To symbolize McPhee’s dueling worlds, the opera featured the Bang on a Can All-Stars (a six-piece Western orchestra) and Gamelan Salukat (a 15-piece gamelan orchestra). The Western ensemble contained all the traditional instruments: piano, cello, guitar, upright bass, violin and drum kit. The gamelan also contained all its traditional instruments: gong ageng (large hanging gong), bonang (row of smaller, horizontal gongs), sarons (metallophones), genders (metallophones with bamboo resonators), ketuk (single horizontal gong) and kendang (multiple wooden skin-headed hand drums).

The gamelan alone sounded beautiful. Balinese gamelan is some of the most high-energy, mind-boggling music I’ve ever seen performed. It sounds as if the musicians are playing at lightning speed, but one of the tricks of gamelan music is that pairs of players interlock their lines to sound like one continuous, inhumanly fast melody. All the instruments (except the drums) are cast in bronze, a chemical amalgamation that allows an amalgamation of sounds: full, warm tones from the large gongs and sharp tones from the smaller metallophones.

However, the gamelan rarely played on its own, instead layered under the Western ensemble. The two groups playing together was chaotic, as it was supposed to be, but to the point of being unpleasant and almost unlistenable. The gamelan’s colotomic structure clashed with the Western’s more through-composed structure, the gamelan’s unique pentatonic tuning system clashed with the Western’s Western tuning, and the gamelan’s dynamic mix of warm and sharp timbres clashed with the Western’s (may I say) boring timbres.

There were only two instances when I felt the blending of the ensembles was successful. At one point, the two alternated, with only the Western drum kit gracefully ushering the transitions. In the same number, the Western’s wooden xylophone beautifully matched the warmer tones of the genders. Other than that, the music was muddled between both groups.

Maybe it was Ziporyn’s intent, but there was also a clash of time periods. McPhee’s journey took place in the 1930s, but in the opera he was dressed in Dockers and a Macy’s dress shirt, followed around by a similarly dressed man with a camcorder that projected unflattering footage of the actor on an overhead screen. When villagers trashed McPhee’s new house in Bali, they did so with Domino’s Pizza boxes. Only the Balinese actors were dressed appropriately for their time and place; the two females dancers especially wore beautiful, colorful traditional costumes.

Besides the action on the stage, the scenic and lighting design also left much to be desired. The set seemed like a half-baked plan, with a full (plain) backdrop and wings exposed. The gamelan players were, for the entirety of the opera, flooded with harsh yellow light, and the first thing they teach you in theatrical stage lighting is that everyone looks bad in yellow light. Even the dancers, with their complicated and subtle movements, were not even allowed a spotlight.

For all its flaws, the production did have some clever moments. For instance, the single Dutch officer who came to bust one of McPhee’s German cohorts is portrayed in costume and direction as a clown. And the silly, slapstick humor in the story reflected another popular Indonesian performance art, wayang, fairy tale-type stories enacted by puppets or shadow puppets. Ziporyn also incorporated one short but necessary moment of kecak, beatbox-like a cappella Balinese trance music.

There’s good reason McPhee fled the now-tourist-destination island: Western and Balinese worlds are very different, in terms of people, culture and music. McPhee disrespected many of the Balinese people’s customs and ideals by forcing on them his own, just as I feel Ziporyn has disrespected Balinese gamelan by forcing over them his Western ensemble.


October 17, 2009. Tags: , , , , , . music.


  1. Adilla replied:

    Excellent review Elisa! Great combo of sharp observations and thoughtful interpretations. 🙂

    I agree with you — perhaps Ziporyn clashed the two musical styles on purpose, but having cacophonous music for *most* of the show kinda defeats the purpose of an opera, doesn’t it?

    The best Western + gamelan blends I’ve heard so far are mostly Malaysian gamelan ones, which isn’t surprising since Malaysian gamelan is tuned in diatonic! (but Lou Harrison’s piece with the degung + French horn is awesome, too!)

    • Elisa replied:

      Thanks, Adilla!

      I’ve never heard Malaysian gamelan – you should send me some! And yes, that Lou Harrison song is the best. I wish we could play it again.

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