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May 13, 1997

Modern Composer

[Music of] Ton de Leeuw, Barbara Woof, Paul Termos, Will Eisma, and Armeno Alberts.

Ensemble Gending, Jurrien Sligter, conductor. (NM Classics, CD # 92062) 1996.

This new album from Dutch label NM Classics presents five modern interpretations of traditional gamelan music. The word gamelan literally means "to hammer," but the term most often refers to the percussion orchestras of Java and Bali. The principal instruments of these groups are gongs, metallophones, and hand drums, with cymbals, bamboo flutes, spiked fiddles, and vocals sometimes also used. Gamelan music employs one of two non-tempered pentatonic scales, called pelog and slendro, and is marked by rhythmically precise interlocking parts ("kotekan").

Gamelan music is still something of a fringe phenomenon in this country, but it is popular in some parts of Europe, including the Netherlands. The composer perhaps most responsible for the status of gamelan music in Holland is Ton de Leeuw, whose 1975 work "Gending: a western homage to the musicians of the gamelan" is the centerpiece of this album. De Leeuw (1926 - 1996) was one of the most honored and most respected musical figures in the Netherlands during the 1950s. After his first visit to India in 1961, his career turned almost entirely to possibilities of uniting western techniques and eastern philosophies in his music.

De Leeuw says that whereas "people in the West are more expansively oriented, more enthralled by creation of tensions, the Asians have discovered a few fundamental values in life [such as] a continual search for balance." Unlike western music based on development through movement and tension, "the music of Java...[is] time conveyed in music. It does not develop; it is," says de Leeuw. To de Leeuw, gamelan music places a much greater burden on the listener than does western music. Rather than passively letting the music take control, the listener must actively put himself into the essence of the music, and absorb the essence of the music into his soul. In this way, says de Leeuw, "music and listener will meet each other somewhere in the middle."

Ton de Leeuw's 1975 composition had such an impact on Dutch musicians that in 1988 a group of the musicians who had been recruited to perform Gending formed their own ensemble, "dedicated to the performance of modern compositions for Central Javan gamelan," and gave the group the same name--Gending. Since its founding, Gending has given annual commissions to composers "for an innovative vision on the theme of East-West Acculturation." Composers are encouraged to follow Ton de Leeuw's example: "to write new music, with respect for the instrumental [gamelan] organism, but without leaning on traditional Javan ways of thinking." The most successful of the commissioned pieces have developed an entirely new form, layering highly personal western perspectives and attitudes onto traditional gamelan forms. Four of the compositions on this album resulted from those commissions, and each is a distinctive interpretation of the challenge of the commission.

All five compositions in this collection encourage the listener to abandon the usual expectations regarding development and to have the patience to allow the music to unfold at its own pace and in its own direction. Ton de Leeuw's Gending invites the listener into a rich musical experience, but it is one that the listener must actively participate in. It's worth the effort.

You can hear Gending by Ton de Leeuw on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, May 22 at 7:30 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950. 22:18 -- J. Green


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