When the gamelan met electronica

Claude Debussy’s swooning epiphany at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris is usually cited as the first instance of a gamelan’s influence on western musicians. After hearing a performing community in the mock-up Java Village, he compared the sound of gamelan music to “a fantasy of countless arabesques”, made it the subject of theoretical study and sparked a hungry interest in friends and fellow composers.

The gamelan – a musical ensemble that typically includes drums, gongs, xylophones, bamboo flutes and strings – comes from Bali or Java. In fact the one that so impressed Debussy may not have been the first in Europe: scholars now believe the French baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau owned something akin to a Javanese gamelan, and two gamelans are known to have been imported into the UK by Stamford Raffles at the end of his governorship of Java in 1816. But it is only within the past century that western musicians have truly embraced the instrument. Some have used it as a springboard for cultural exchange, others have sought the easy allure of ethno-chic; either way the gamelan provides a link between an astonishing range of artists, from Benjamin Britten and György Ligeti to King Crimson and (that notorious dabbler) Björk.

More recently, a trend has evolved within electronic music for DJs and laptop artists to mash gamelan samples or improvisations with slick technological noise. It’s a thread of influence that has so far gone largely unacknowledged but an upcoming collaboration between Plaid – electronic duo Ed Handley and Andy Turner – and London’s Southbank Gamelan Players (SBGP) seeks to explore its potential more fully. Having performed a one-off gig together at Southbank’s 2009 Ether festival, in which they premiered a specially commissioned work by the great gamelan master Rahayu Supanggah, the musicians have reconvened for a UK tour of the piece.

Turner describes its initial conception as a sort of musical Chinese whispers: “Ed and I started by putting some ideas down for Supanggah, basically loops with some development, then he scored it for the gamelan, and then we took the notation back again and elaborated it with the electronic element.” Throughout a live performance of the piece the gamelan players present their own score while Plaid mix their own set over the top. “We have several elements that we introduce and build throughout the piece, and can alter to quite a high degree sonically,” says Turner.

John Pawson, gamelan tutor and SBGP member, describes the pairing as a “marriage made in heaven” but it has not been without its difficulties. The Southbank gamelan, which was presented as a gift from the people of Indonesia to the people of Great Britain in 1987, comprises gongs, metallophones and xylophones, two-stringed fiddles, double-headed drums and a bamboo flute and is therefore virtually impossible to close-mike and amplify. Tuning is also a challenge: the gamelan pitch is unique to each outfit and also immovable.

However, in many ways the collaboration has proved revelatory. “A lot of music programmes people use to create electronic music, whether it’s dance tracks or more ambient music, use loops and that’s an obvious link to the cycles in gamelan,” Pawson says. Not only are both types of music characterised by powerful melodic hooks but each tends towards an overall musical structure that is cyclical and repetitive, as opposed to linear and progressive. That’s not to suggest simplicity: contemporary electronica often makes use of elaborate conceits, and gamelan orchestration has been described as the most complex musical form.

The gamelan’s ancient, ethereal sound can offer a perfect foil to the cool astringency of electronic music. Aphex Twin (dubbed `“the Mozart of techno”) betrays the influence of gamelan in a handful of tracks: “SAW2 CD1 TRK2” throws ghostly chimes over a stuttering pulse while “Jynweythek Ylow” and “Kladfvgbung Micshk” sound more lyrical. Likewise, Squarepusher’s aggressively titled “Acid Gong” turns out to be a gentle jangle. And Four Tet adds exotic flavour to “Suns Drums and Gamelan” by coupling brisk percussion with melodic tinkling and a thick, insect hum. Gamelan music – or an approximation – can also be identified in tracks by Insane Logic, Dan Deacon and Kode9.

Both Turner and Pawson allude to gamelan’s physical effects. The larger gongs produce extremely low resonances similar to those emitted from the longest organ pipes (or modern subwoofers) which, according to new research, can produce mysterious and euphoric feelings in the listener.

Euphoria or not, there is no doubt that the gamelan will add visual interest. Electronic artists supplement their live sets with a barrage of video art, but here Plaid will be supplemented by 13 percussionists playing the gamelan in synchrony.

I ask Turner whether his contemporaries in electronica have recognised the wide-reaching role of gamelan music. “A couple of people have commented, ‘Oh, gamelan again!’,” he laughs, “but there’ve been no real discussions.” That’s something this project will surely prompt.

UK tours June 4-11 and September 29-October 8; www.plaid.co.uk

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