Gamelan composition in Britain: case studies

Wednesday 8 June 2011, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Ginevra House


Composing for gamelan in Britain: whose music is it anyway? Although ostensibly about gamelan composition, this seminar poses questions that are relevant to composers, musicologists and anyone involved in collaborative or cross-cultural performance.  The issues I'll be looking at are some that the department gamelan posse have been discussing over many beers, but I'm very keen for input from those working in other areas and thinking about music in different ways.  So more than an abstract, this is a plea for anyone interested in the areas below to come along and share their thoughts.

Composition for gamelan kicked off in Britain in the early 1980s, with the first performing UK ensemble, the English Gamelan Orchestra. Thirty years on and it is an integral part of most performing groups around the country.  Despite hugely varied approaches to composition, from works based entirely on Indonesian (usually Javanese) forms to the avant-garde, from through-composed to fully collaborative, there are some common issues that seem to come up again and again. 

  • Identity: Who writes for gamelan and why?  Where does Indonesia stop and Britain begin?  Where does the individual stop and the group begin?  What about the identity of the instruments – can you ever escape the weight of context?  
  • Ownership: The Javanese way of working where players 'realise' their parts from skeletal information is often reflected in new compositions.  If a work is created collaboratively, who owns it?  To what extent has the Western idea of the composer influenced Indonesian culture?  To what extent has the Indonesian way of composing influenced Western ensembles?  What are the parallels and differences with jazz or rock bands?
  • Transmission: The eternal headache of notation.  The amorphous nature of the work.  Where does the piece exist – on paper, in the heads of the composer, in the hands of the players, in performance, in recordings?  The difficulty – sometimes impossibility – of performance by a different gamelan.
  • Impact on the British contemporary music scene: That binky-bonk music. Contemporary concert programming (the Turangalila syndrome).  Aesthetics – who can say what makes a good gamelan piece?  Novelty value/ curse - the accessibility of funding and the inaccessibility of competitions. 

Location: 107