30 October, 2006

Wagner, gamelan, gozzuti

Listening to The Ring cycle, you feel walled in, held immobile by formalism on the grandest scale possible. My old mentor, who persuaded me of the joys of Wagner, and who would later play passages of the cycle at my wedding—soon-to-be Mrs. Roth walking the aisle as the gods crossed Bifrost—gave me a book once, Ernest Newman's Wagner Nights, which lists all the motives and their interrelations—I was amazed that one could build the Rhine out of an E-flat major; Valhalla, Nothung and the ring itself out of the Rheingold. It seemed like Vitruvius construing temples out of Pythagorean harmonics—music as modular architecture, or an ars combinatoria. What could be finer?
A confused mixture of a poet feeble in style, and a painter lazy of brush, with a Javanese 'gamelang' accompaniment buzzing in between.

— Max Nordau on Richard Wagner, 1892.
If you wanted a relief from Wagner's monumental melodic formalism, a good bet would be a gamelan record. Of course, all music has structure—otherwise it would be white noise. But with the possible exception of silly La Monte Young drones, gamelan is the most random music I've ever heard. I used to play in a small gamelan group—in fact I played in two, one in York, with the (apparently) great Neil Sorrell, and the other here in Tempe. These were Javanese gamelans, 20-piece orchestras on metallophones (saron, gender, demung, slenthem, peking), breast-shaped sitting gongs (bonang, kempul and kethuk), larger hanging gongs, two hand drums (gendhing and ciblon), and the rebab or fiddle—probably the saddest, reediest instrument you'll ever hear. Aside from drums and fiddle, these instruments are visual knockouts—hulking bronze forms set on carved and crimson-painted wooden frames. The groups would attract misfits—hippies, narcolepts, home-brewers, metalheads, activists, coasters, musicologists, piano-teachers—amateurs of every description. I would generally turn up and leave in silence, preferring not to mingle with them. What a pleasure to disappear into a group for two hours a week, forgetting my academic concerns in the lull and haze of an endless dissonance.

We would play 20-minute pieces consisting mainly of disconnected repetitions slowing and speeding up at the beck of the guide drum. When we played audiences, they clapped politely for the ethnic music, but really they thought it was horrible. (Mrs. Roth admitted as much, though as a former ballerina she enjoyed the professional Indonesian danseuse our group hired to accompany the music.) The music is horrible, like free jazz. But liberating and powerful, too. My favourite part was when, playing the saron, I got to break step with the other sarons and play the upcoming countermelody backwards and at double speed. That was about as great a challenge as my puny musical ability and manual dexterity could handle. We sang too, extremely badly:
Parabe sang mara bangun
Sepat domba kali Oya
Aja dolan lan wong priya
Gurameh nora prasaja.
As for listening, I prefer the Balinese kebyar gamelan, more dynamic, rhythmic, staccato, unpredictable. I can't imagine how anyone could even begin to play this stuff; Gawain, a frequent visitor to the Balinese Arts Festival, no doubt has no need of imagining, and could fascinate you silly with his encyclopaedic knowledge and connoisseurship. I'm listening to the standard compilation, Nonesuch's 1967 Music from the Morning of the World; several 'songs' give you the impression of being bludgeoned by professional assassins, then soothed for a moment, then bludgeoned again. The synchronism is remarkable. I have no idea how they even make some of those sounds.

There's one piece called the monkey kecak where assembled hordes do ape-impressions in perfect rhythm for 25 minutes—no, really! Actually, the Sigma Kappa boys in my apartment-block give an excellent rendition of it every night. I'd been wondering why they whooped incessantly—had my arch-enemies given them my whereabouts? Were they yawping in homage to Mr. Keating? Or just expressing existential ennui? They whoop, and they laugh, too, ad nauseam, like cretins. As Castiglione (Il Cortegiano, 1528) put it:
Cosí ancora quando vedete uno che guarda troppo intento con gli occhi stupidi a foggia d'insensato, o che rida cosí scioccamente come que' mutoli gozzuti delle montagne di Bergamo, avvenga che non parli o faccia altro, non lo tenete voi per un gran babuasso?
Thomas Hoby's 1561 translation:
So in like maner whan you see one gase earnestely with his eyes abashed, lyke one that had lytle witt: or that laugheth so fondly as do those dombe menne, with the great wennes in theyr throte, that dwell in the Mountaines of Bergamo, thoughe he neyther speake ne doe anye thinge elles, will you not counte him a verye foole?
Notice the translation of scioccamente ('foolishly') as fondly, which makes us think of Lear as a 'very foolish fond old man'. Hoby glosses the dombe menne as 'Gozzuti, men in the mountaines with great bottles of flesh under their chin, through the drinking of snow water'. A 1901 translator notes that these 'goitrous mutes. . . still abound near Bergamo'. This website transcribes an 1858 study of the gozzuti—the first cause being, with my translation:
Dalle acque calcari in eccesso che sono bevute da quei terrazzani, comecchè se una certa quantità di sali calcari sia necessaria per l'igiene, dannosa è ad ogni modo l'eccesso di saturazione, e i primi effetti si riscontrano nel sistema glandolare e più che altrove in quel delicato organo glandolare che è il tiroideo.

An excess of calcareous water is drunk from the roof-terraces; although a certain quantity of calcareous salts is necessary for good health, an excess saturation is always harmful, and its first effects are on the glandular system, and especially on the thyroid, that delicate glandular organ.
From Wikipedia, omitting a slew of juicy and much-recommended etymological speculation :
Cretinism is a condition of severely stunted physical and mental growth due to untreated congenital deficiency of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism). . . Endemic cretinism was especially common in areas of southern Europe around the Alps and was described by Roman writers, and often depicted by medieval artists. Alpine cretinism was described from a medical perspective by several travellers and physicians in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At that time the cause was not known and it was often attributed to "stagnant air" in mountain valleys or "bad water".
The great gamelan is sort of a gozzuto music, ugly and raucous, played by gymnasts and jesters for connoisseurs; it is, naturally, a lot of fun once you get used to it.


Pretzel Bender said...

Nice blog. Wagner has some stunning horn music. Literally. I tried the Long Call from the Ring Cycle once on a loud party and it worked like a charm.

Sorry I missed your gamelan concert.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Eh, you wouldn't have liked it. No, really. Thanks, though. When are we going to read about Tesla?

Anonymous said...

Conrad, the cak (or kecak) was written for a western audience, and, moreover, western UNCOUTH audience (of no nothing tourists), who were really interested in SPIRIT POSSESSION and nothing else. it is a sort of spirit possession dance and quite unlike the rest of balinese ouvre (however one spells it). it is, by the way, musical accompaniment for a dance which represents a rampaging monkey army (quite like your frat boy neighbors). otherwise, there is nothing random about Balinese music -- all that kebyar you write about is ENTIRELY precomposed (it has to be for orchestras of upwards of 30 instruments).

Conrad H. Roth said...

Oh, I know it isn't really random... it just sounds that way.

Reid said...

Thank you for your perceptive thoughts. Care should be taken in describing music as "random", because all it usually means is lack of familiarity. Early European explorers thought Africans had no sense of rhythm; European music was so rhythmically simple they couldnt comprehend polyrhythms.

Modern kecak was derived by Walter Spies from Sanghyang Dedari, a trance posession dance. It is primarily enjoyed by tourists. However, some modern Balinese composers have done interesting things with it. The vocal parts use the same interlocking rhythmic construction as Balinese gamelan.

Balinese music tends to be entirely precomposed then learnt by ceaseless repetition. I speak from experience! Javanese music, appears initially chaotic, but is almost entirely composed of formulae ingeniously and subtly recombined.

I agree with your comments about the type of people gamelan attracts. I'm part of group of gamelan misfits in Vancouver - and I'm no exception. Our music sounds more random than it should!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Reid. Yes, as I said to Gawain, my use of the word 'random' should be taken with a grain of salt. I am quite aware of how complex gamelan is, and how it is learnt. Part of the problem for us as players, however, was that the version we were playing were so simple as to lose a great deal of the structural complexity (and thus coherence) that I've heard on professional recordings.