Composers are often asked about what in particular influences their work. I find this a particularly troublesome question. So many things have undoubtedly had a huge influence on who and what I am musically, and on my developing compositional voice – from jams in music departments of schools I went to, to school ensembles, to university experiences, to my favourite composers and pieces of music throughout the years.
I say “developing” compositional voice as I believe nobody’s compositional voice is fixed. Just like our views and opinions, they grow and develop throughout our life as we are exposed to new experiences, ideas and influences – both musical and non-musical.
Something that has, however, had a large influence on my compositional voice is that of the Javanese gamelan. Those that experienced my final composition recital for my MMus might say a bit too much – although they should be aware that music for that recital was deliberately themed around ideas and thoughts from gamelan (pieces such as Reflections, Surakartan Haze and Paradoxical Exchanges). I haven’t always used the gamelan influence in such a conscious way as within that collection of works – however, I’m sure it has influenced my musical thinking for several years.
My first experiences with gamelan were at 9 years old, when our music teacher had the gamelan brought to our school for two weeks – a practice that happened twice more while I was at that school. We had the opportunity to play both in class and in extra-curricular clubs, of which I was a member of as many as I could be! We also got to do performances, both at our school, and in Cambridge. This experience was purely in slendro (major pentatonic), so I wasn’t fully aware of the full gamelan soundworld until later. However, the practice of working in cycles, of simple melodic concepts that are elaborated upon, of repetition and of punctuating instrumentation (learnt by rote – tuk rest tuk nong tuk pul tuk nong tuk pul tuk nong tuk pul tuk gong !) seeped into my musical being.
Years later, when looking at universities, the fact that the one I had fallen in love with had its own gamelan sealed the deal for me. I went to the gamelan taster session during the first week, and attended all the sessions religiously throughout my first year. In the second year I was asked if I wanted to take modules in gamelan performance, which I did, enabling me to gain a deeper understanding of a few of the more complex areas of gamelan performance. I now take gamelan classes at the South Bank, and am part of the community gamelan performance group Siswa Sukra.
I’ve already posted a couple of video links on Twitter, but I thought I’d link to a couple on here.
Warung Pojok performed by Siswa Sukra
Two completely contrasting pieces. For other gamelan videos (Siswa Sukra, South Bank Gamelan Players and others, see MbaksoLondon’s Youtube channel.