Philip Corner, Gamelan Son of Lion and “Gamelan in the New World”

These liner notes were originally published in the 2004 Locust Music CD re-issue of The Complete Gamelan in the New World. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

If you picked this cd up because of the title “Gamelan in the New World” with its suggestion of folkloric and ethnomusicological authenticity, expecting traditional Javanese or Balinese sounds, you will probably be in for a surprise when you encounter the joyous clattering of fluxus composer Philip Corner’s “Gamelan P.C” or Elena Cary’s “DNA”, in which the structural relationships between the four bases that compose the DNA strand are explored by being transposed to the gamelan. Although the gamelan had been an inspiration to generations of American composers, from Cowell, through Cage to Reich (and before them of course, back in the Old World, there was Debussy), the freedom with which these 1970s heads, high on the wondrous metallic resonances that the traditional Indonesian instruments make available, is eye and ear opening stuff. One of those chance encounters that irrevocably create a “New World” in the split-second before all the opposing forces of academe, orthodoxy and political correctness has the opportunity to stop it from happening. In 1972, ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary took a position in the music program at Livingston College, part of Rutgers University in New Jersey, whose faculty then included Philip Corner and electronics composer Daniel Goode. In 1974, at a summer program for the study of Asian culture, she met West Coast composer Lou Harrison, who, after extensive study in Indonesia, produced a number of works mixing gamelan with Western concert instruments. “Lou was very encouraging for us to produce works for the gamelan”, Benary recalls. “We used his own gamelan which was home made. Four or five of us who played on those instruments went on and found other Gamelans, one of whom was Dan Schmitt, with his Berkeley Gamelan, another one was called Gamelan Pacifica. They wrote and performed their own compositions.” Upon her return to the East Coast, Benary decided to build a Javanese gamelan, which beginners in the program could use as part of a study group, to gain hands-on experience in ethnic music. She built the gamelan, using directions written out by fellow former Wesleyan student Dennis Murphy, buying an 8 by 4 sheet of steel, and having it cut into strips for the keyboards, and building resonators out of discarded pet food and grapefruit juice cans. The Asian Music Performing Group at Livingston started using it, and Corner sat in with them. In 1975, when Benary was pregnant, the group joined and merged with Corner’s New Music Performing Group (her “Sleeping Braid” is “an accompaniment for Lyra Samara Silverstein, then six months old”). Benary had initially been against composing contemporary music for the gamelan, feeling that traditional instruments should be used for traditional music. “I just hadn’t heard anyone do it in a persuasive way,” she says. “With Phil, I didn’t think he was doing a disservice to traditional music, because what he was doing had absolutely nothing to do with traditional music. I know some people, like Steve Reich, were bothered though.” So the group began performing contemporary pieces written by various group members, and gave concerts at the school, at Princeton, and at lofts in New York. The name of the group, Gamelan Son of Lion, comes from translating Benary’s surname – which means Son of Lion in Hebrew. In 1976 or 1977 Benary was denied tenure at Livingston, and the gamelan was moved to Corner’s New York loft. Corner continued composing for gamelan until he moved to Italy in 1992, when the gamelan was moved to Goode’s loft – where Gamelan Son of Lion still rehearses and performs, incorporating wayang kulit shadow puppet shows to the music. While Harrison, and other American predecessors, such as Colin McPhee, who’d lived in Bali and written compositions for the gamelan, were careful to preserve relatively traditional structures in their work, Corner and colleagues approached the gamelan from a Cagean perspective, as a set of sound producing objects whose nature was to be explored, free of any pre-existing determining forms or structures. And yet, in the course of his encounter with the gamelan, Corner found his own composition methods changing rapidly: “I had been working for years with resonant metals and gongs, cymbals, meditative things,” he recalled recently. “There’s even a piece for audience participation called “Metal Meditations” that I did. So I was really involved with resonant metal in a contemporary idiom. My first impulse was to take one of those pieces and transcribe it to gamelan. I immediately realized that was totally absurd. The nature of the gamelan is like having a keyboard with a scale of notes, and which note do I pick for repetitive cluster like sounds? On what basis do I limit it to some of the choices of the gamelan and end up with something that would actually sound better? So I decided that to go further I would have to accept what the gamelan gave which was essentially the scalar pattern.” Corner’s exploration of the gamelan’s pattern-creating abilities brought with it a reconciliation with a former enemy – numbers. “I’d been totally into this intuitive, irrational Zen approach, and that seemed like a great liberation because it permitted a complexity which the numbers always seemed to inhibit. But, in the fifties, there were also pieces where I explored pulses, or pieces that were based on polyphonic pulsations ebbing and flowing. The gamelan brought me back to that. But I wanted to add this idea of repetition, of measured relationships and extreme simplicity without renouncing anything that I had been doing, or which had been culturally achieved by irrational values, indeterminacy, silence, noise, improvisation.” Curiously, as Corner himself has noted, in using mathematical structures to organize the gamelan’s pattern making abilities, he ended up reproducing some of the structural underpinnings of Indonesian gamelan music. While much process-based composition can look and sound as dry and cold as those early personal computer program instructions that were circulating in the late 1970s, here was a metal-based musical form that thrived on numbers and processes without ever sounding machine-like (even when, on Dika Newlin’s “Machine Shop”, the piece is “suggested by the sounds of presses, paper-punchers, electric staplers, and electric comb binders in the print shop of Beneficial Management, Morristown, N.J.). Metal has its own magic, and the gamelan instruments a life of their own, which emerges out of the resonant properties of metal, and the individual pieces of metal being tuned together as an inter-connected set. Corner explains: “The reality is the group, the instruments: the people come and go, the instruments stay the same, they’re matched and they go together. So you have the sense of joining something which already exists as a metaphysical phenomenon. Then, the physical aspect of it, sitting on the floor, taking your place before the instrument in an almost necessarily homageful posture. Relating to everyone in the way that the instruments are set up. Even when, as some people did, they did pieces from music with a music stand, it still had that feeling of being in it together, playing together, listening to each other and contributing to a whole.” In the accompanying sleevenotes, Corner and co. display a determined refusal to abandon their search for their own (“American”) relationships to these instruments. Although he has since had his works performed in Java and Bali, collaborated with Javanese masters, and invited Javanese groups to play in the U.S., Corner only visited Indonesia for the first time in 1986 (he also studied with Lou Harrison in 1982). While much of the West Coast based gamelan music affiliates itself with the idea of a pan-Pacific culture which it then becomes a legitimate part of, the more geographically distant Gamelan Son of Lion is defiantly rooted in the Cagean experimental tradition of the New York avant garde, and its search for the New and the Marvelous. In an interview made just before Corner’s first trip to Indonesia, he observed: “You can’t run away from who you are. You can’t immerse yourself in another culture and pretend to be them. I think you have to go there knowing who you are, and then relate to them out of who you are and where you are.” The question as to Who We Are, or for that matter, what kind of a “New World” this is, remains open. As Benary says, many of the battles fought in the 1970s have been won, and the encounter of contemporary and traditional ethnic musics is an accepted part of the musical landscape, in the U.S. and Europe. Still, these CDs bear testimony to the possibility of a more radical encounter between traditional music, with all it’s accumulation of richness and detail, and the avant-garde’s raw apprehension of the sound universe in its totality. In Benary’s words: “Outside me musics are in categories, A flux of contradictions. But the flux which is my life is one thing Within me categories fade. The synthesis within is creation From here music is taken To return to the flux From which its pieces come.”