Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gamelan Gong

The young couple buying my piano told me they live in a neighborhood in Carmel Valley where most families are Indian or Asian. When they stroll down the street at night, the sounds of kids practicing cello, piano, violin, flute, saxophone drift out of most houses. If they can't hear practicing they can hear "Tiger Moms" yelling at the kids. 

She is Asian, he is not. The player piano is mostly for her - she intends to use the auto play feature. He wants to actually play and teach their young daughter. She's only a year at the moment but they want her to grow up with the sound of the piano and the constant presence of music in their home.

The conversation reminded of our last trip to Bali. In a cab going somewhere, our cab driver laughed when I asked him if he played in the gamelan orchestra. "Oh yes", he replied. "I play the gong. Three times. Once at the beginning again in the middle and at the end. Very loud." He paused for a moment and then added. "Not many notes - but very important. If wrong, everyone gets very mad at me". He laughed and we laughed with him. This is usually a good question to ask males in Bali. They all do something in the banjar, musical or artistic. If they don't play gamelan, they paint or sculpt. It's considered essential for humanness.

There is no standard tuning for a gamelan orchestra. In fact, they try to tune their instruments in a unique way so that it can be distinguished from other orchestras in other banjars (villages). Gamelan accompanies all events of significance. They say "It isn't official in Bali until the gong is rung". Many people don't like the sound - it drives my musical brother-in-law crazy.

After a few days, in Bali, my ear adapts to the strange scale and western tuning starts to sound harsh to me. Balinized.

I've wondered recently if I perceive this sound differently than people with full hearing and that accounts for why I like it so much.


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