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.

New Depths of Hindustani and Medieval Music in a Debut Album by Composer/Cellist Chris Votek

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Though one could cite composers like Mozart and Beethoven having imitated the exotic ethnic music of Turkey and the late nineteenth century fascination with “orientalism”, the actual study of ethnic and non-western musical traditions probably started in earnest with the folk song collecting done by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly in eastern Europe and similar work by Charles Seeger and the Lomaxes in the United States. The work of Colin McPhee then took the study of ethnic musical traditions into the academic realm. But, for this listener, it was the Yehudi Menuhin collaborations with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha that brought non-western musical systems to the public in a big way via the LP record. Hindustani music and dance did not even get any representation in film until Satyajit Ray’s 1958 masterpiece, “The Music Room”.

And since Hindustani music has traditions going back hundreds of years among diverse practitioners in a large geographic area, it is not surprising that there are traditions and styles that reflect such diversity and that western musicians continue to explore and learn the varieties and subtleties of practices. This album is certainly a fine example of Mr. Votek’s mastery of the vocal tradition of Gayaki-Ang which is another of the rich traditions of the vast practice of Hindustani and Carnatic musical practices. What I’m ultimately saying now is that the familiarity with those great Menuhin/Shankar recordings affords the listener but a “tip of the iceberg” perspective of the depth of the traditions and practices of Hindustani/Carnatic music. Chris Votek is a part of a new generation of artists who are breathing fresh life into these practices and incorporating them in their own compositional and performance practices. And therein lies the significance of this release.

Chris Votek with this cello. Photo Credit Hannah Arista from composer’s web site

So now, on to the music. The album begins with a work for string quintet, in this case a string quartet with a second cello. While this will necessarily invoke comparisons to the classical string quintet repertoire such as Mozart and Schubert this composition both pays homage to the classical tradition and infuses it with the composer’s take on diverse musical worlds which reach far back into musical history. He takes medieval melodies and harmonies incorporating these into a work in three distinct movements titled, “Serpents”, “Fossil Dance”, and “Migration of the Fires”. Each of the movements has its own character as the composer finds ways to work with this material.

Whether you choose to experience this as three separate pieces or, as this writer does, as a single work, this is the composer working with old western music incorporating it into a work for a String Quintet titled, “Memories of a Shadow”. It works as individual movements but, as a unified whole it represents a stage of Votek’s compositional development with this material. And while his encounters with Hindustani music is not explicit here, it is undoubtedly a part of his compositional thought as well.

The result is a gentle three movement String Quintet that could be programmed alongside Schubert’s essay in the medium. It is, of course, stylistically different from Schubert but the instrumentation is the same and it provides a contrast to Schubert’s work from 200 years earlier. Add to that the incorporation of medieval music (in Votek’s work) and you get some delightful contrasts indeed. It is a work that shows its charms more clearly with each hearing and is a substantial addition to the repertory regardless of what else shares the program.

Neelamjit Dhillon with Chris Votek. Photo credit Kat Nockels from the composer’s web site

Track 4 is dedicated to the performance of a single piece, a traditional raga played in a Hindustani vocal style called, “Gayaki-Ang”. Accompanied by tabla player Neelamjit Dhillon, Votek performs on his cello the vocal part of this raga. This evokes for this writer memories of the late Arthur Russel whose vocalizations along with his cello playing had roots, at least peripherally, in a similar sound space. This is a traditional raga, a tradition that extends back hundreds of years to a sound world that paralleled but did not interact with western music of the medieval era heard in the earlier work. Happily, the interaction begun between early western collaborators with Hindustani musicians such as Menuhin and Shankar continues here most joyfully to explore the splendorous riches of that tradition.

While this is first disc dedicated exclusively to his own work listeners will want to peruse his collaborations listed on this well organized web site. He is an artist that is poised to create some thoughtful new music. This CD can be obtained via Microfest Records as well as other outlets.

Sharon Isbin’s “Strings for Peace”

zoho ZM 202004

A quick look at Sharon Isbin’s discography makes it clear that she embraces her instrument in all of its historical, cultural, and geographical guises. From baroque classical on to contemporary classical, from jazz to folk and troubadour traditions. She has had over 80 works written for her and has collaborated with a wide range of musicians and musical styles.

For this release, Isbin has chosen to follow the route originally pioneered by Yehudi Menuhin in exploring and collaborating with South Asian musicians. Menuhin helped introduce music from other cultures (we now call it “world music”) to the western world. His recordings with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rahka were revelatory and instructive to thousands of listeners (this writer included). Now comes another generation reaping the joy of collaboration inserting her western instrument in a context with musicians from another culture. The end result enhances both cultures.

Her collaborators span seven generations of familial musical traditions in India. Here we have master sarod player, Amjad Ali Khan and his very accomplished sons, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash. They are dazzlingly accompanied by tabla player Amit Kavthekar. All the music was written by Amjad Ali Khan and arranged for Sharon Isbin. And so she joins people like Menuhin and Ry Cooder in establishing a new generation of collaborative music making.

There are four compositions here lasting about 15 minutes (the second track is shorter at about 4 minutes) each based on a raga (a stale of notes) and named for that scale. Each piece is also given a more poetic title as well giving us: By the Moon-Raga Behag, Love Avalanche-Raga Mishra Bhairav, Romancing Earth-Raga Pilu, and Sacred Evening-Raga Yaman. All are world premiere recordings.

The recording was done in New York following a successful concert tour in India. It is lucid and a joy to the ears. There are doubtless multiple meanings hidden here in the kaleidoscopic world of Indian musical traditions and in the minds of the performers but the music has a joyous directness that comes from performers who have mastered their craft.

The Heresy and the Ecstasy: Brooklyn Raga Massive Does “In C”


This is heresy.  It is not, strictly speaking, faithful to the 1964 score and it is a sort of cultural appropriation which is actually the very basis of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a sort of latter day “Oregon” (to those who recall that band) which takes on all sorts of music and filters it through the unique lens of this flexibly populated group of musicians whose backgrounds range primarily from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions (though hardly in the most classical sense) but also from western classical and jazz.  Their “heresy” comes from their choices.  The root of heresy is the Greek word, “hairesis” which means choice.  There is a lovely selection of their musical heresies on their You Tube Channel.

No this is not purely heresy and it is certainly not blasphemy.  Quite the opposite actually.  And I would prefer to think of this effort as cultural integration.  The choices made here instead lead to some mighty ecstatic music making which pays honor to Terry Riley who turned 80 in 2015 and provides a unique perspective on this classic work.

“In C” (1964) is without doubt Riley’s best known work by far and the one which pretty much defined what would later become known for better or worse as “minimalism”.  It is an open score meaning that no instruments are specified for performance making this music heretical in nature as well.  In addition there is no conductor’s score as such.  Rather there are 53 melodic cells numbered 1 to 53 and the ensemble is held together by the expression of an 8th note pulse played by at least one of the musicians involved.  The defining reference on the intricacies of this work is composer/musicologist Robert Carl’s masterful book entitled simply, “In C”.  He describes the wide variety of potential choices which can be made in performance and the different results which can be achieved.

There are a great deal of recordings available of this work from the first (released 1968)  on Columbia’s “Music of Our Time” series curated by the insightful David Behrman to versions involving a wide variety of instrumental combinations of varying sizes.  The first “world music” version this writer has heard is the version for mostly percussion instruments by Africa Express titled, “In C Mali” (released in 2014).

Not surprisingly BRM, as they are known, have chosen a largely Hindustani/Carnatic take on this music.  The unprepared listener might easily mistake this for a traditional Indian music recording with the introduction which incorporates a raga scale and adheres to the traditional slow free rhythm improvisation of the introductory “alap” section common to such traditional or classical performances.

The familiar sound of these (largely) South Asian instruments with their rich harmonics sets the tone gently.  This writer has at best a perfunctory working knowledge of these complex and beautiful musical traditions but one must surmise that the choice of Raga Bihag may have some intended meaning.  Indeed such music is by definition integrated into the larger cosmology of Hinduism, the Vedas, the Gita, the Sanskrit language, and, no doubt other references.  This is not discussed in the brief liner notes but is worthy perhaps as a future interview question.

It appears that many of the musical decisions were made by sitarist Neel Murgai though it becomes clear as the performance develops that individual soloists are allowed wonderful improvisational freedoms at various points.  The recording is intelligently divided to let the listener know which set of melodic cells is being expressed at a given time.

The alap gives way to the sound of the tablas which initiate the pulse mentioned earlier.  The structure of this piece produces a range of musical experiences from a sort of didactic beginning to the swirling psychedelic waves of sound which stereotypically define much of the music born in the mid 1960s in this country.  In fact Terry Riley’s deep study of South Asian musics (most famously under vocalist Pandit Pran Nath) did not occur until later in his career.  Nonetheless there seems to have always been some affinity between Riley’s vision and the sort of music whose popularity was driven in the United States most famously by the efforts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha in the 1970s.

What follows is a riot of musical ecstasy involving some inspired improvisational riffs and some stunning vocalizations as well giving us a fascinating take on this music which was written well before these musicians came into the world.  We have a later generation paying homage to the beloved American composer and to the beautiful traditions of their own eclectic ethnic heritage.

The set concludes in this live and lively recording with a traditional fast paced Jhalla, the traditional ending to classical Indian musical performances. This will likely become known as the “Indian” recording of “In C” but it is so much more than that.  It is an homage.  It is a look back from the view of at least a couple of generations of artists.  And it is heresy in the best sense of that word, choices made judiciously to achieve higher artistic goals.  Not all art is heresy and not all heresy is art but the heresies perpetrated here definitely deserve our ears.

The heretics are: Neel Murgai, Sitar and Vocal; Arun Ramamurthy, Violin; Andrew Shantz, Vocal; Josh Geisler, Bansuri; Sameer Gupta, Tabla; Roshni Samlal, Tabla; Eric Fraser, Bansuri; Timothy Hill, vocal; Trina Basu, Violin; Ken Shoji, Violin; Kane Mathis, Oud; Adam Malouf, Cello; Michael Gam, Bass; Lauren Crump, Cajon; David Ellenbogen, Guitar; Max ZT, Hammered Dulcimer; Vin Scialla, Riq and Frame Drum; Aaron Shragge, Dragon Mouth Trumpet.

Namaste, folks.





E-Do: Yeominrok, Wonderful Korean Musical Fusion


Pony Canyon PCSD 01023

Call it world music, call it jazz, call it fusion but whatever the description this is an innovative and fascinating musical journey.  Using traditional Korean instruments as well as the usual keyboards, vocals, and drums this group of young musicians crafts a very interesting and beautiful tapestry of sound.

I have long had an interest in and some appreciation of traditional Korean musics and instruments but my knowledge is rather limited.  I am inclined to compare this group to Oregon, the iconic jazz/new age experimental band of the 1970s but unlike Oregon’s more widely cast net we see young musicians embracing their ancient Korean musical heritage as they seek to express themselves and invoke the wisdom of their ancestors.  This album was sent to me as a gift from a friend but I quickly fell in love with it and I had to write a review.

It seems to me that Korea has, more than many countries, been damaged and stunted by the antics that became known as World War II and the Korean War.  As a result this rich and ancient culture was nearly erased in favor of geographic division and political expediency.  It is heartening to find young artists such as these seeking to communicate with if not actually recover some of this rich past.

This band is named after a revered 15th century Korean king and they make liberal use of traditional Korean instruments alongside their drums, keyboards, and vocals.  The album succeeds to some degree in achieving a synthesis (as opposed to a sappy watering down) of traditional music and something like jazz with some rock and pop sensibility.  These are sincere and perceptive artists and if they have not fully succeeded then they have made a significant step toward reviving some of their justly valued history and culture.

In addition to its musical values this is a gorgeously produced album (visually and sonically) and I am sorry to see that only the digital download is available on Amazon.

There are six tracks on the disc and all feature traditional Korean instruments alongside the band’s keyboards, drums and vocals.  There are few vocals but no words as far as I can tell and any program is implied at best.  This is strictly about the music.

The first track, Bird of Oblivion, unfolds like an Indian raga with a meditative slow beginning giving way to a faster section.  It is the most extended work on the disc at 13:51 and it certainly serves to bdraw the listener in.  The remaining tracks range from pop-inflected jazz (track 3) to a little bit of rock .  Throughout the traditional Korean instruments make their presence known but not overwhelmingly.  This album is a pretty successful synthesis of old and new.

E Do consists of:

Kyung-hwa Ryu: chulhyungeum, yanggeum, janggu, kkwaenggwari

Chung Lim: drums, jungju, gong

Min-soo Cho: junggu, Korean drum, Korean fan, percussion

Jung-chul Seo: electronic bass, contrabass

Young-Sup Lee: daegeum, taepyeongso, danso, ocarina

Seung-hwan Yang: keyboards

Tae-young Kim: vocals

Young-goo Lee: daegum

Seek this one out.  And don’t forget to pick up some traditional Korean music as well.  It is well worth your time and, after all, a nod to the fine efforts of this wonderful group.