Saturday, October 29, 2011

waves beating on sand

waves beating on sand,
leaves fluttering in wind, sunlight
shimmering on water

A group of musicians are walking up the main street of Nyuh Kuning, carrying all of their gamelan instruments and playing the ones that can be played while moving. The music is repetitive and droning. Pak Win says this processional style is called beleganjur. The music gets faster the closer they get to their destination.
          At the odalan for a new house at the north end of town, the musicians arrange their instruments in front of the area for a dance performance. This is a kebyar band with sixteen musicians. Two men play bamboo flutes, two beat large kendang drums, another pair pluck string instruments. The rest of the musicians are playing percussion instruments: small bronze reong pots, ceng-ceng cymbals with big bells, a rack of gong chimes and a long metallophone with bamboo resonating tubes. Like a family, each group of instruments lives together in the central village bale and they are tuned to each other in such a way that the instruments cannot be interchanged from one gamelan to another. Since Nyuh Kuning is a woodcarver’s village, this refined craft is reflected in the intricately carved and gilded wooden frames of the instruments. All of the designs as well as the tuning form a matching set.
           As I listen to the music, it seems both exotic and familiar. Pak Win tells me that the scales, called pelong, are based on five tones per octave, with intervals that vary from approximately half steps to whole steps to major thirds. The effect is complex and vibrant. The tunes are particular to each gamelan and to each type of performance. The gender wayang pieces we heard earlier at the wayang kulit shadow play were slow and serene, whereas this dance music is fast and lively. Pak Win explains that the themes are divided into several interlocking parts, which allows for a fast tempo. Players trade pitches to create a musical line, a technique known as kotek. Pairs of instruments are played in an interlocking movement, with one instrument tuned to the true scale and the other slightly flat to produce a tremolo. He points out particular moments in the dance movement when there is a break in the repeating musical line and at other times there is a dramatic outburst. Like ballet or opera, the dance and the music form two aspects of a single artistic expression.
          After we have listened for awhile, Pak Win draws my attention to the three-fold hierarchy of the music: the basic form carried in the low pitches, the melody in the middle range and the variations in the upper register. So much of Balinese culture is expressed in hierarchical triads: the mountains where the gods reside, the rice fields where humans live, and the ocean, the realm of the demons. 
          The overall effect of the music feels like waves beating on sand, leaves fluttering in the wind and sunlight shimmering on water. And now I realize why it seems familiar. It sounds like an outward manifestation of the sounds I hear inside when I meditate -- a low hum, pulsing mid-tones and high, shimmering bell-like tones. With that realization, I close my eyes and sink down into the music.

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