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Influenced by Gamelan: the Music of Gareth Farr

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The influence of gamelan on the music of Gareth Farr

With a tradition dating back well over 500 years, gamelan music continues to be an iconic feature of the Indonesian performing arts. Gamelan music has been of interest to the scholars of Western music for some time: European composers including Debussy, Ravel, and Bartók as well as American composers such Cowell and Partch, wove the unique scales and timbres of gamelan into their own music; today, the gamelan is a mainstream component of most ethnomusicology programs. The majority of gamelan instruments are forged from bronze, ranging from smaller keyed instruments hit with hammers to large gongs struck with soft mallets. New Zealand ethnomusicologist and composer Jack Body remarks that gamelan can reflect the character of these cultures: “Javanese gamelan is more refined, reflective, and conservative while Balinese gamelan is more extrovert, dynamic and open to exploring new things.”

Gareth Farr (1968) credits the experience of hearing a visiting gamelan orchestra as a defining moment in beginning his now over 20-year career as a composer and percussionist. While studying at New York’s Eastman School of Music in the early 90s, Farr had also become intrigued by how French impressionist composers such as Debussy responded to their exposure to the Javanese gamelan, which was famously showcased at the Paris Exposition in 1889 (Farr eventually purchased a set of Balinese gamelan instruments in 2003 and brought them to New Zealand. The set is housed in Victoria University’s music faculty and is played by Farr’s gamelan ensemble Gamelan Taniwha Jaya). The characteristic rhythms and textures of the Indonesian gamelan have become hallmarks of Farr’s own composition, ranging from works for Balinese gamelan ensemble itself to piano, percussion and full symphony orchestra. Farr explains:

"Pukul (PE096) is the piece I’d wanted to write for years, after my epiphany of discovering Balinese gamelan music in the late 80s. I made many pilgrimages to Bali to hear the incredible music there, and was blown away by the complexity of the rhythms that the musicians were able to perform. I got totally hooked, particularly on the bombastic playing style called kebyar, which is a relentless explosion of unpredictable rhythmic patterns. Seeing an ensemble of 25 people playing these types of patterns in perfect rhythmic unison often leaves the audience completely baffled. At the time [I wrote this work], there was no Balinese ensemble in New Zealand, so I started trying to incorporate these rhythms into my works for Western instruments."

While this early influence permeates much of his writing, Farr’s unique compositional voice still cuts through. The style of Farr’s music reflects his personality – bold, brash, or delicate and sensuous, but always engaging.

Works for percussion

One of Farr’s earliest works influenced by gamelan is Kembang Suling (1996) for flute and marimba (PE001). This work has now become a standard in the repertoire for flute and percussion. The first movement draws influence directly from the magical island of Bali – the flowing gamelan melodies intertwine with the sound of the suling (Balinese bamboo flute), forming rich colourful tapestries. The marimba and flute start out as one, their sounds indistinguishable. Bit by bit the flute asserts its independence, straying further and further from the marimba melody. An argument ensues — but all is resolved at the climax.

Another percussion work, Pukul (2003) for percussion quintet, takes influence from the percussion music of Bali and the Cook Islands (pukul translates as ‘strike’ in English). The work begins with a long cadenza reminiscent of the kebyar Balinese performing style. The complexity of this kebyar-inspired mix of erratic rhythms and radical dynamics is revealed when represented in Western notation (unusual time signatures such as 27/32 and 41/32 appear throughout).

Dialogue (2005) for vibraphone and marimba is another percussion work of Farr’s that incorporates elements of gamelan music (PE083). In the Introduction, each part takes turns holding long sustained chords while the other has more fluid rhythmic lines. The second movement Kotekan (translating as ‘patterns’ in English) features Balinese interlocking techniques in which each part has an independent rhythmic pattern played simultaneously, which shifts and overlaps in subtle and intricate combinations. The final Moto Perpetuo movement is virtuosic and recalls the kebyar-style complexity with mixed meters and fast syncopated rhythms.

Piano Works

Perhaps most illustrative of Farr’s interest in gamelan is the set of three works for piano: Sepuluh Jari, Tentang Cara Gamelan, and Jangan Lupa (published in a volume entitled Balinese Pieces (PE128)). Sepuluh Jari (1996), meaning ‘ten fingers’, is a toccata, its harmonic material drawn from the Indian saraswati scale and the Balinese pelog scale. Tentang Cara Gamelan (1994), meaning ‘on the technique of gamelan’ was written by Farr during his time studying at the Eastman School of Music. The third, Jangan Lupa (2003), was written in memory of the victims of the terrorist bombings that took place in Bali on 12 October 2002. The commission was one of a number of Bali-inspired works commissioned by Indonesian pianist Ananda Sukarlan in response to the bombings. Farr was deeply affected upon hearing of the bombings, reflecting that the Balinese are “incredibly forgiving and get on with life — their music and dance reflects this and keep going undeterred.” The most emotionally direct of the Balinese Pieces, the pianist and will find Jangan Lupa’s journey through catharsis, hope and sorrow to be a worthy test of their expressive capabilities.

Dua Lagu is also a piano work inspired by gamelan. It was written for six hands, to be performed on one piano (published in Firestarters 4 (PE097)). In Dua Lagu, Farr draws influence from the Indonesian islands of Bali and Java. The gamelan music of these islands is usually written in one of two modes – pelog and slendro. The pelog mode is similar to a natural minor scale with a flattened 2nd degree. In Java, it is a seven-note mode, and in Bali the fourth and seventh scale degrees are usually omitted. Slendro is a pentatonic mode, with intervals similar to the black notes on the piano. Farr transposes and tinkers with these modes throughout Dua Lagu, resulting in a work that is intriguing to study and enjoyable to perform.

Sea Gongs

Farr’s best-known orchestral work From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs (1996) brings the exotic sound world of gamelan into the symphony orchestra. The work celebrates the music of the Pacific, and also includes elements of Māori kapahaka, Rarotongan drumming and Japanese taiko drumming. As such, one of the most striking features is the prominent role of percussion, reflecting much of the music found throughout the Pacific. This work was commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its 50th anniversary in March of 1997. It has since become a classic in New Zealand’s orchestral repertoire with regular performances and broadcasts, in addition to featuring in the curriculum of music study for New Zealand secondary schools.

The influence of gamelan music in From the Depths Sound The Great Sea Gongs is evident from the work’s opening moments. The featured celeste bears a timbral similarity to the bronze keys of gamelan instruments, while the rhythmic character of its opening material is intentionally reminiscent of Balinese processional music. Later in the first section of the work, Farr employs ten roto-toms to generate exciting interlocking rhythmic material in homage to the reyong, a long row of small gongs requiring four players at once. Farr cites the reyong as his favourite of the Balinese gamelan instruments, due in part to the choreographic quality evoked by the movements of the four reyong players as their mallets dance across the row of gongs. This visual element of reyong performance is transferred to the roto-tom material in From the Depths Sound The Great Sea Gongs, with Farr stipulating that the percussionists be arranged in a straight line at centre stage within the orchestra. The second section of the work sees other members of the percussion family take on the tonality and interlocking rhythmic qualities of gamelan music, with instruments such as glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone and crotales combining with celeste, harp and piano to conjure up an orchestral realisation of the gamelan ensemble. 

Image caption 'Gareth Farr and Gamelan Taniwha Jaya', Te Ara: Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

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