Nigel Morgan writes on 9 January (updated on 17 January):
Today’s blog follows closely on Friday’s when I made available the draft full-score of Blaze, a six-minute piece for percussion ensemble. Now I’m posting the five reference recordings that will act as a rehearsal aid for the eight percussionists from the Hexagon, the East Riding Music Centre in Beverely (director Christopher Sykes). The recordings are simulations of the score using sound samples of percussion instruments. The recordings do not include the electroacoustic material currently being put together by students at Hull University or the layers of textural interventions. Together these two elements make for a sonic kaleidoscope of timbres and dynamic effects that in performance will often momentarily hide the background rhythm, melody and chordal material. So it makes for a better reference recording to ignore these elements at the outset of learning the music. Later on when the electroacoustic material is in place I’ll add this to a new set of recordings together with some of prominent textural interventions. Some of these interventions use instruments that don’t feature in my sample library, like the musical saw (or metal wobble sheet).
The other kind of reference material I often provide are MIDI files. Unlike the MP3 files below these have to be played on a MIDI sequencer. The files contain control data to playback sound samples stored on a General MIDI synthesizer. Most computers now have such a synthesiser in software, but originally composers used standalone MIDI modules. I have used these devices for making reference recordings since the late 1980s. Indeed I have several in my studio, but the current module used for the Blaze recordings is a Roland Sound Canvas SC-D70 from 1993. The module contains a vast library of percussion sounds including a whole gamelan and many exotic instruments I’ve never heard of. The advantage of MIDI files rather than MP3s is that they can be made to play at any tempo and you can mute tracks of the orchestration you might not want to hear.
There are many musicians I know who simply won’t give reference recordings houseroom. They are an anathema to some who, if you say ‘would you like to hear the piece you’re currently studying?’ will, on principle, refuse. Others, including many professional musicians I’ve worked with, embrace the reference recording with enthusiasm. When I first worked with BBC NOW in 1999 I was, it seemed, the first composer in the orchestra’s experience to offer players access to such recordings on CD, and if I didn’t make a reference recording available for a new piece I was quickly asked for one! I found performers would listen to these recordings whilst driving the car or on those tedious coach journeys the orchestra often made across Wales. Now access to the Internet has made the CD irrelevant. The reference recordings go on smart phones and e-books, downloaded as MP3s from the web.
I mentioned gaily to some of my musical colleagues that this new percussion piece referenced the gamelan orchestra of the Indonesian archipelago. It was certainly a term most people had heard but some confessed they knew very little about the medium. This set me thinking about when I first discovered this beautiful ensemble. I reckon it was in references to the experience of composers Debussy and Ravel who visited the Paris exhibition of 1889 and were entranced by a gamelan orchestra of native musicians from Java.
In a 1913 Revue S.I.M. article, Debussy writes:
There used to be–indeed, despite the troubles that civilization has brought, there still are–some wonderful peoples who learn music as easily as one learns to breathe. Their school consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises, which they listen to with great care, without ever having consulted any of those dubious treatises. Their traditions are preserved only in ancient songs, sometimes involving dance, to which each individual adds his own contribution century by century. Thus Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint which make Palestrina seem like child’s play. And if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a travelling circus. (Debussy on Music, trans. Richard Langham Smith, [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977], quoted in Tamagawa, p. 22)
For Debussy the resonating piano was his own gamelan. Listen to Pour le Piano, Pagodes and L’isle yoyeuse.
For me the attraction of the gamelan has not been so much a musical one, but as an example of a phenomenon of democratic musical activity. The nearest equivalent to this we have in our culture is the amateur or voluntary brass band. I was privileged to spend a year in the early 1990s as National Officer for the British Federation of Brass Bands and had the experience of seeing many bands in which young and old, beginners and consummate professionals sat side by side – just as they do in the Indonesian gamelan orchestras. Jazz and rock bands and some ensembles focusing on systems or minimalist music have something of the gamelan aesthetic too – being able to work on intricate scores from memory, knowing the whole score rather than just one part, being flexible in the structuring of musical sections.
It is very easy to be seduced by the sound of the ostinato, which plays such a part in Gamelan music, as a structural device. In Blaze the necessary brevity of the five pieces precludes this. But the influence is there, particularly in the fourth section. This brings together a gentle, rather measured, sequence of music marked pp with a fiery and double-speed interjection played fff. This is a common ploy in gamelan composition, possibly to grab the attention of the audience who may be dozing a little. Traditional gamelan performances can go on all night.
In our time we’ve been fortunate to have the transcriptions of composer Colin McPhee who lived in Bali with his wife Jane Belo ( a disciple of Margaret Mead) in the 1930s learning to play gamelan music and then transcribe it for modern. It’s his work for pianos and orchestra Tabuh Tabuhan that he’s best known.
McPhee’s transcriptions have been a valuable reference source for composers such as Benjamin Britten who not only visited Bali himself but also wrote a full-length ballet The Prince of the Pagodas in which he simulates the gamelan orchestra with a large tuned percussion section.
If you’ve haven’t yet downloaded the score of Blaze from last Friday’s blog now is a good time because it’s in its final draft with a full introduction, a guide to performance (how players might negoitate the 55 instruments required in the score), a full instrument list and a couple of pages of performance notes. Eventually they’ll be several extra pages explaining the musical basis of the piece and detailing the technical aspects of the electroacoustic part. One thing to say here though is that this piece joins other pieces in the Shoals sequence in being created out of the Deep Sea Diver poem. Word letters and syllabic content are brought together to make the core material of the music. The poem is split up into 5 sections. In Movements 1 and 2 you can clearly see/hear see the downward aspect of the melodic phrases, though each phrase ends with an upward phrase. In Movements 3 – 5 this is reversed, with an upward aspect in the melodic phrases, but with each phrase (usually) ending with a downward phrase.
Unlike the gamelan Blaze does use changes of tonality within some of the five pieces, particularly in the ‘gamelan’ movement No.4. Here there are in fact two tonality sequences present, one pentatonic, one chromatic. Gamelan has its own special scales, the five-note slendro (Javanese) and the seven-note pelog (Balanese).
Maybe someone can tell me if there’s a gamelan in or around Hull? - I did receive a comment from an anonymous source who assures me there is one at ‘the music centre’, but hoped I wouldn’t ask to use it! Sadly, he concluded his comment by saying he’d had to attend another rehearsal of Sounding the Deep describing the experience as ‘a waste of time’.
Update, 17 January:
Here is a link to the score of Blaze, including graphical notations for the textural and electroacoustic elements and indications of how the eight performers might negotiate their way around the 55 instruments required by this composition. Here is a link to the reference recordings of Blaze in MP3 format as a zip file.