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Gamelan Son of Lion - The Complete Gamelan in the New World

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Artist: Gamelan Son of Lion

Album: The Complete Gamelan in the New World

Label: Locust

Review date: Apr. 12, 2004

As cultural sensitivity and political correctness continue to affect the arts, it’s clear that we are missing out on some interesting creative possibilities. The (sometimes well-founded) fear of misappropriation is one such limiting factor. For example, the Gamelan Son Of Lion recordings released by Folkways in the late 1970s and early 1980s might show that good intentions and innocence can serve cross-cultural explorations just as well as careful scholarship and ethno-musicological accuracy.

The Indonesian Gamelan is particularly hard to separate from its original cultural context. Throughout Indonesia, a staggering array of Gamelans exist, each carrying not only the musical, social, religious, and historical imprint of its own small community, but also the imprints of deeper underlying aspects of traditional Indonesian culture and aesthetics.

When American composers like Colin McPhee, Lou Harrison, and Dennis Murphy began to explore the Gamelan in the mid-twentieth century, they tended to approach the idea of Gamelan as a community function, and their explorations, even when far-flung and experimental, often related back to structural and aesthetic ideas gleaned from original Indonesian sources.

Gamelan Son Of Lion, founded in New Jersey by Barbara Benary, represented the arrival of the Woodstock generation upon the gamelan scene. Merging with Phillip Corner’s New Music Performance Group in New York City in 1975, and building in part upon instrument designs by the brilliant but little-known Murphy, theirs was an Aquarian approach, playful and iconoclastic all at once, for the most part eschewing attempts at replicating traditional Indonesian structures, opting instead for a more wide-open exploration of the sonic possibilities inherent in the gamelan’s wonderful array of metal and percussion.

Luckily for us, Moses Asch of Folkways saw fit to preserve some of the Gamelan Son Of Lion’s efforts, as he did with so many other crucial audio artifacts, and now Locust Music has reissued them in all their master tape glory, with just the right amount of tape hiss and analog midrange.

Son of Lion was a composer’s collective as much as it was a gamelan, it seems, and there are a variety of methodologies and approaches to be heard. Daniel Goode’s “Circular Thoughts” is a study in space and silence, with tone-clusters ringing in metal resonance; Phillip Corner’s works pulse and shimmer with seeming joy and abandon; Dika Newlin’s “Machine Shop” works a Cagean avant-Garde vein of noise-music that, while conceptually rather dated, remains fun in its audacity.

Elena Carey’s offering here comes the closest, perhaps, to the structural rigors of Indonesian gamelan, although Carey arrives at this in an original way, by digging into sources of inspiration seemingly unrelated to music. “D.N.A” is based structurally and rhythmically upon patterns and number relationships found in, naturally, human DNA.

Founder Benary’s “In Scrolls of Leaves” utilizes plucked-string sounds, drones, and breath-like flute tones along with the ringing of metals, to paint an Arcadian and mysteriously shifting sound-world. Her works “Braid” and “Sleeping Braid” are the most overtly Indonesian in sound and spirit to be found in the collection. In their graceful cycles and melodic weavings they approach the subtle and venerable dignity of Javanese court gamelan. They seem to celebrate connections and relationships between the flow of sounds, between the heartbeats and breathing of the instrumentalists and audience. In this they cannot help but lead composers, players, and listeners alike back to the ancient wellsprings of this unique orchestra of metal, flesh, and spirit.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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