Everything You Wanted to Know About Javanese Gamelan But Were Afraid to Ask: John Pitts’ “Extreme Heterophony”


This is John Pitts‘ second incursion into adapting non-western music for the conventional piano. In doing so he follows a long tradition of fascination with non-western musics by western composers. Listeners will likely be familiar with Beethoven or Mozart who imitated Turkish music to add an exotic dimension to their compositions (Beethoven with his Turkish March sequence in the finale of the 9th Symphony; Mozart imitating Turkish music to add the exotic sound to enhance the geographic setting of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio). This fascination gained traction over the years as the great romantics such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Debussy (whose encounter with gamelan music at the Paris World Fair was formative), and their successors took on similarly exotic interests in their music.

Serious study of non-western music with attention to tunings and rhythms is virtually unknown in the western canon before the twentieth century. Colin McPhee, the Canadian-American composer did his landmark study of Balinese Gamelan music in the 1920s and 1930s (some of which is influenced Benjamin Britten’s ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas) which was the first of a series of such explorations done subsequently by the likes of Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Alan Hovhaness, David Fanshawe, and others of Balinese, Javanese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other cultures. Unlike their forebears, this new generation studied tunings, instrument construction, rhythmic construction, performance practice, compositional methods, etc. instead of basically just fitting the music to the mold of the western paradigm.

The present volume is, as mentioned, the second such effort by British composer/musicologist John Pitts. His first effort detailed suggestions for playing Hindustani Ragas (raags in the British spelling) and was reviewed here on this blog. In that study, as in this one, Pitts takes the fixed tuning of the piano that is familiar to western ears as a given, without getting into the complex issues of tuning (that is a subject unto itself). Neither Hindustani Ragas nor Javanese composition can be played on pianos tuned to the current western standard of twelve tone equal temperament but there are riches to be had in understanding compositional techniques other than tuning and harmony. Pitts uses the piano as a starting point from which to learn about music of other cultures. This appears to have grown out of his own efforts as a western trained musician trying to learn what techniques can be incorporated into the creative processes of western music. Many of the author’s compositions appear to be in part the product of lessons learned from his study of various musical systems including gamelan (Javanese and Balinese), Hindustani raga, and balafon music from Burkina Faso.

For the present volume Pitts consulted with western gamelan masters including Jody Diamond and other members of the international gamelan community. He did his homework well and one of the strengths of this book is in its remarkably lucid exposition of javanese music in a way that is understandable by anyone with a reasonable grasp of western music theory. Here is where the use of the piano serves as a springboard from which one might grasp this musical system in part via the differences in the two. It is this pedagogical aspect to which I refer in my parody in the title of this article. As one with a largely self driven learning of music this volume presents an opportunity to expand my knowledge of gamelan music. It is a friendly approach which makes me no longer “afraid to ask” or afraid to learn.

In the space of approximately 50 pages the author provides a marvelous distillation of the essentials of gamelan music including terminology, descriptions of the various traditional instruments commonly used, and, most crucially, descriptions of some of the processes of composition, melody, and performance practice. There seems to be more data here than one would reasonably expect to fit in those pages. It is a concise reference which many listeners and musicians will want to keep close at hand. These pages alone are worth the price of the book.

What follows is about seventy pages of transcriptions by the author of a traditional javanese composition playable by one or more pianists. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t simplify the learning of these processes. Rather it clarifies the material so that these concepts are learnable by motivated individuals. The transcriptions are the musical description, if you will, of the processes outlined in the preceding chapters. These are basically teaching etudes in lucidly engraved western notation. Even if the reader lacks sufficient skill at the keyboard (as is the case with your humble reviewer) to actually play these works, the illustration of the concepts described verbally can be understood more completely when one sees them in western notation.

As a listener to a wide variety of music I personally find it useful to be able to learn about music which had previously been just a bit out of reach due to my perception of its impenetrable nature and the lack of easily accessible guides such as this. While it has taken me a while to grasp some of the concepts so as to be able to write a reasonably coherent review of the book I’m gaining insights that are aiding my understanding of gamelan music. The book requires some work to understand largely due to the unusual nature of this music but grasping more as I continue to read and re-read, I find it both compelling and rewarding.

Mr. Pitts concludes with a comprehensive and insightful description of his justification of using the ubiquitous piano as his starting point. He compares it briefly with the common nineteenth century practice of imitating various asian musics with western instruments as noted at the beginning of this review and goes on to enumerate other benefits to be had by using the piano as a learning tool in the study of this music. The book concludes with a very useful bibliography and links to internet resources for those who want to go further in gamelan studies. Far from the dreaded “cultural appropriation”, Pitts’ work is more of a respectful anthropological exploration which acknowledges the value of this music and looks to learn from it. That is celebration and it is invaluable.

Written for Jacob Greenberg: Bright Codes


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Jacob Greenberg will be a name familiar to many primarily for his essential role as the keyboard artist in ICE, one of those fine New York based new music ensembles that can play just about anything. At one time composers were forming their own ensembles to play the strange and difficult music they were writing (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Martland to name a few). Now ensembles like ICE are ready made, able to provide a flexible instrumentation and, with each musician, a stunning level of technical competence and a true affinity for the music of now.

Mr. Greenberg here is one of those multitasking, technically refined artists whose curatorial ear makes him an artist you need to have on your radar. In an earlier blog post I reviewed his solo (mostly) piano release Hanging Gardens in which he created an insightful contextualization by the choices of repertoire he made for the album. In response to this review he sent me a copy of this, the latest of his solo piano (mostly) projects.

The context of this album is of compositions all commissioned by Greenberg and written for him over the span of 2013-2019. It is a marvelously diverse collection which speaks to the wide scope of his interests and skills as well as the range of personal relationships he cultivates with other musicians.

The disc begins with music by probably the best known composer on this release, Japanese composer Dai Fujikura (1977- ). White Rainbow (2016) is a sort of tone poem for harmonium evoking the visual atmospheric phenomenon of a “fogbow” or “white rainbow”. It has an impressionistic feel much like Debussy. This is followed by the more experimental “Bright Codes” (2015-2018) for piano, four pieces which can be played in any order, but with the caveat that they be played without pause.

The next 5 tracks are dedicated to the 2018 “Funf Worte” (Five Words) by Amy Williams, five miniatures, each exploring a single German word. The piece is for harmonium and voice and the voice is the wonderful new music soprano, Tony Arnold. This is followed by a much larger piece for solo piano, “Cineshape 4” (2016) developed after the structure of the film “Run, Lola, Run” (1998). this virtuosic piece starts three times, each time developing differently analogously to said film.

“The Memory of Now” (2021) by IONE. This is a work for harmonium and voice. This time the voice is of the composer IONE, poet, dramatist, musician, playwright, and life partner of the late, great Pauline Oliveros. The piece has improvisational, indeterminate elements which require the performer(s) to listen to internal and external sounds.

The album ends with two large and powerful pieces by Nathan Davis. “Ghostlight” (2013) and “Seedling” (2019). Ghostlight is for “lightly prepared piano” and evokes the ambiance of those small single lights that shines on a darkened stage when the theater is closed. The preparations hep produce the ghostly microtones and gong-like sounds.

Seedling for harmonium and electronics brings us back to the sounds again of a harmonium. This is the only track which has appeared before and it was on the wonderful ICE release on Starkland Records (On the Nature of Thingness).

This sampling of some of the latest in contemporary composition reflects the use of extended instrumental and vocal techniques. It also makes use of experimental compositional techniques that demand deep involvement of the musicians in the execution of the music in ways that diverge from the conventional classical music paradigm. And it is the expansion of old paradigms that are ultimately what makes Greenberg and his ICE colleagues so compelling.

Political Classical: Dai Fujikura’s Piano Concerto No. 4 “Akiko’s Piano”


As it happens the digital file of the performance of Dai Fujikura‘s Piano Concerto No. 4, “Akiko’s Piano” (2020) was kindly sent to me by the composer. As is clear from the album photo the CD release also contains other music performed at the concert which contained this work. So this review is focused only on the concerto.

It is worthy of noting the musical pairings on the disc which add to the melancholy of the concerto, the lovely but somber Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major. The music is said to reflect Beethoven’s sadness over his unsuccessful love life. That is followed by a true classic of beauty and melancholy, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The last piece is an arrangement (by Hideo Saito) of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D minor solo violin Partita. This ethereal music presumably providing some abstract solace in this sad concert which also happened to occur during the height of the global Covid Pandemic which continues to exert a pall on life in these times.

This is the fourth of Fujikura’s concerti for piano and the first this writer has heard. The recording here is of the world premiere and the composer did the mastering. The pianist is Mami Hagiwara playing both the concert grand and the upright piano (Akiko’s piano). The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra is led by Tatsuya Shimono. The piece is dedicated to the Hiroshima Symphony’s Peace and Music Ambassador, Martha Argerich.

The appellation, “Political Classical” is this writer’s own proposed genre and one which identifies a series of articles and reviews of music on this blog which I believe fits this definition. And this work fits nicely in that it memorializes a tragedy in the hopes of raising awareness and, hopefully, conveying a lesson and expressing a hope that this little story from history might not be repeated.

What story, you ask? Well the composer’s brief notes tell us that the upright Baldwin piano used only in the final coda of the work was the one used by a then 19 year old girl named Akiko. She was born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents and she and her family moved to Hiroshima when she was six years old. This upright piano was the instrument in her home upon which she practiced her lessons.

On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Though injured, Akiko did make it back from her school to her parents’ home where she died in their arms from acute radiation poisoning. The piano survived but the budding young artist did not.

The concerto is modern but lyrical, a challenge to the soloist, and a fine display of the soloist’s virtuosity. It is cast in one movement with generally identifiable fast and slow sections. The orchestra is kept quite busy throughout until the end. The soloist plays on the concert grand until the last few minutes before the end when she plays on Akiko’s piano, a somber coda, leaving the orchestra and the grand piano behind with their tasks complete. The solo upright brings the work to a rather devastating ending sounding alone, evoking the memory of Akiko.

This is a new twist on the many pieces which have been written decrying the devastation of war and of the atomic bombings which ostensibly brought an end to the war. As the composer notes, there are many “Akikos” in many wars and this work is concerned with the hope that there will be no more.

It is a beautiful concerto, a major addition to Fujikura’s oeuvre and one that moves this writer to want to hear more of this modern Japanese master composer. The music does not appear to have any other obvious references other than the story and the metaphorical use of the upright piano. It is a serious work but one that will forever represent grief at the injustices children suffer at the hands of world politics.