Work for Javanese gamelan and string quartet

Work for Javanese gamelan and string quartet

One of my aims this year is to share far more of my music. I will be using this blog in conjunction with Soundcloud to present a few snippets of music I’m working on, or that have been lurking in dark corners of my hard drive for far too long.

One of the pieces I had in mind when starting my Masters was a piece combining the forces of the Javanese gamelan (which I studied at Kingston University), and western orchestral forces. Owing to issues of tuning, I thought it best to use string instruments – which resulted in the use of the string quartet. I had previously played twelve bar blues on gamelan with a bass guitarist (bizarre, I know!), and knew that by tuning the E string of the bass to the 2 of the slendro gamelan, the two could play more or less in tune.

The structure of the piece was based around standard gamelan structures I was familiar with at the time. An A section would repeat over and over, until it slows into an irama change (irama meaning rhythm, here meaning the change in the basic tempo of the patterns of the decorating instruments in relation to the balungan, melody). Section B would then be presented, and the two would alternate until the piece speeds up to its original irama, before slowing down to end. I chose the standard gamelan instruments for two reasons – firstly because I’d have to record them all myself, and am unable to play all of the more elaborate ones – and secondly, because I wanted the piece to be playable by a range of ensembles, including children, should they wish. I therefore based the instruments on those that I remembered playing when I played gamelan at a younger age – the standard balungan instruments, the peking, kenong, kethuk, bonangs, kenpuls and the gong.

The structure of the string quartet’s music works in and around that of the gamelan. To begin with, they play a string chorale, which changes into a shimmering, unimposing accompaniment when the gamelan moves into the B section of the piece. The strings then begin to move away from the gamelan, firstly by taking a more leading role, before finally breaking out towards the end of the piece, playing a more elaborate version of the original chorale, though this time in 5/4.

The gamelan samples, used in this recording, were recorded in January 2010 by myself and my husband, having realised that I needed to be able to show others how the piece would sound. Having played gamelan for a few years, I could hear the combination of sounds in my head, but it wasn’t working when I presented the piece to others – in particular, my attempts to recreate the stratification of the gamelan ensemble in Sibelius! The samples were recorded using Kingston University’s gamelan. Sadly, the microphone we used wasn’t brilliant – there is some background noise on the samples, which isn’t a huge issue, but it failed to capture the beauty of some of the instruments, the kenpuls and big gong in particular. Creating the gamelan section of the piece from the samples was no easy task!

Originally, I was planning on re-vamping this piece before uploading it. Tweaking the samples, spending some time with the violins, and adjusting the levels. However, I have decided to upload it in the original spirit the track was intended – as a mock up. I was originally in discussions with a couple of string quartets about performing this piece; however, it was at a bad time of year (coming up to college exams!), and the plans fell through. As a result, the track below features some questionable glissandi, and interesting tunings (as, although the E is tuned, other notes are out!). However, it still paints a picture of how the completed piece will sound. The levels are particularly bad!

Although I have many potential names bouncing about for this work, I haven’t yet (or hadn’t yet) decided upon one!

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