AS PART OF THE HOUSTON SYMPHONY’S SONGS OF THE EARTH FESTIVAL, GAMELAN MUSIC IS BEING PAIRED WITH DEBUSSY.
“To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests!…” – Claude Debussy
With the Webb telescope, many have been held breathless seeing the earth’s place among the galaxies and how closely connected we are to one another on our planet. And so what more timely a series could Houston Symphony music director Juraj Valčuha have planned than Songs of the Earth, exploring musical conversations between European and Asian composers from the early 20th century until today.
GAMELAN IS THE TRADITIONAL ENSEMBLE MUSIC OF INDONESIA, COMPOSED OF PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS THAT CREATE A SPELLBINDING SOUND EXPERIENCE.
A Houston Symphony concert this Thursday, February 16th will open with the exciting opportunity to hear traditional Indonesian music performed by Houston’s Gamelan of the New Moon. Gamelan is an ensemble of primarily percussion instruments, such as tuned gongs — metal instruments struck with mallets — drums, cymbals and xylophones. They’re sometimes accompanied by bamboo flute, dance and even voice.
The instruments are generally categorized as loud and soft with a traditional scale of five pitches spaced about equally over the octave. Each piece is based on the principle of a core theme played simultaneously with several melodic layers of elaboration in different registers. The music is captivating and, to this writer, beautiful.
DEBUSSY INCORPORATED ELEMENTS OF THE GAMELAN FORM IN HIS BELOVED STRING QUARTET.
“I wish only to render what I can hear. There is no theory. You have only to hear. Pleasure is the law …” -Claude Debussy
Brilliantly, Valčuha programmed Debussy’s “String Quartet in G minor” to follow the gamelan experience. Debussy was exposed to gamelan in 1889 when he was one of 25 million visitors to the 1889 International Exhibit in Paris, a world’s fair on the Champs de Mars with its then-recently completed landmark the Eiffel Tower. Among the most popular exhibits was a replica of an Indonesian (“Javanese” as it was called then) village where Debussy is said to have returned many times.
There, he is believed to have been introduced to gamelan’s many combinations of delicate shadings, sonorous gusts and cross rhythms, elements that would come to infuse his later soundscapes. It is also reported that he enjoyed the graceful Javanese dancers and choreography.
Although Debussy’s gorgeous piano piece “Pagodes” is the most commonly used example of gamelan in Debussy’s work, his String Quartet displays similar and easily identified gamelan markings if you listen for them. These include the clear introduction of the theme and then lines and instruments playing both their own songs and against each other, like soliloquies and conversations.
Of course since it’s Debussy, there must be emotion, lyricism and beauty. And even when the first two might be left with a question mark, beauty lingers in the air.
DEBUSSY’S STRING QUARTET IS STUNNING. ONCE HEARD, YOUR’RE UNLIKELY TO FORGET IT.
The String Quartet is a wondrous piece of music. Hearing it for the first time, it is already striking in the vitality and passion it evokes based on the theme clearly set out in the first of four movements. Listening again, it’s easier to identify the various moving parts and hear the influence of the gamelan form.
Debussy’s instructions for each movement hint at the mood he will set
I. Animated and deliberate
II. Lively [heads up for the pizzicato in the opening]
III. Lightheartedly slow and expressive
IV. Moderate — building little by little — hectic and with passion.
To all romantics, be sure to listen especially for the third movement, so exquisitely ethereal, tender, soulful and pure. It will likely stay with you even after the last measures end in a dazzling fugue, leaving you spent.
To come back to yourself, you will want to enjoy the Gamelan Petting Zoo after the concert when the audience will be invited to try out the instruments for themselves.
“The Art of Indonesian Gamelan,” performed by Gamelan of the New Moon and the Debussy “String Quartet in G minor” played by members of the Houston Symphony, will take place at Jones Hall for the Performing Arts this Thursday, February 16th at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $20.