Hypnotic harmonies

A worthwhile musical journey to Indonesia.

Based in Seattle, the Northwest's Indonesian-style orchestra, Gamelan Pacifica, performs sophisticated music from a long tradition that remains vital through constantly changing expression. It can be listened to on several levels, from an undemanding, let-it-wash-over-you mood to an attentive hearing of the myriad styles, timbres, and mutations within the music.

On Sunday afternoon at Cornish's PONCHO Hall, Gamelan Pacifica added the pleasure of an Indonesian dancer in full regalia. The orchestra's instruments consist of a melodious collection of tuned gongs, types of marimba, xylophone, zither, tuned sets of covered brass bowls, and hand drums, all but the drums in elaborately carved and decorated frames. Sitting on the floor, players use wooden and felt-covered metal mallets to create the resulting booms, clangs, rings, and plinks.

Gamelan Pacifica

Cornish College of the Arts, PONCHO Concert Hall, February 14

The basic rhythm, a steady count of four, was consistent for almost all the works on the program. Sometimes it slowed down or sped up, sometimes it sounded softer or louder. The harmonies, too, were easily accessible to the Western ear, though the intervals of the scale are sometimes slightly different from those we are used to. The music is tonal and modal, within a fairly small range from high notes to low, but amazingly intricate, as were the internal rhythms within the beat.

A voice added a different dimension to Sunday's concert, with the vocal line more rhythmically fluid and much wider-ranging in pitch than the instrumental music. Jessica Kenney, a regular gamelan member and a proficient jazz and blues singer, visited Indonesia recently and studied with one of the country's great singers, Bu Padmi.

The results showed in her nasal tones and slightly glottal ornaments, with an edge that cut through the music. Her virtually perfect pitch, plus the serenity of her presentation, lent a hypnotic, peaceful atmosphere to the music. At times hers was merely one among other instrumental timbres, at others her voice was allowed to come through and her words could be heard.

It would have added a lot if translations of the words had been made available, or at least a synopsis of the songs she sang; these included the words of the poet Rumi, which she sang in English translation as set to music by Gamelan Pacifica director Jarrad Powell.

Dancer Enda Retnowuri from Surabaja, Java, a graduate of Seattle Art Institute and currently living here, studied for five or six years at the Indonesian equivalent of the School of American Ballet: Bulaibudaya, the national dance school of Indonesia. Retnowuri chose a traditional dance in an aristocratic style. The instrumentation, however, was written in the 1960s—this is a musical tradition that is alive and well and continually being renewed and refreshed. Not even the gamelan players had seen Retnowuri's costume (given to her by her teacher's father, a puppet master) until she appeared on stage. Dressed in a form-fitting black halter-and-culottes-style garment encrusted with gold embroidery and braiding, shins and arms bare and encircled with armlets, bracelets, and anklets of gold braid and filigree, she also wore a magnificent headdress of shining metal surrounded by a long red feather boa and long sashes, which she used in her dance. This was surely the most exotic outfit ever to appear in Cornish's plebian concert space.

The style of Retnowuri's dance was instantly recognizable from paintings. Her bent knees and flexed bare feet and toes, her fluid arms and delicate use of fingers, crooked individually in ways no one untrained would be able to do, her slow and expressive body movement sinuous and sensuous like the accompanying vocal line, brought a tiny piece of her culture to us in a rare and appreciated performance.

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