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Gamelan of Central Java - Gamelan of Centra Java: Pankur One & Two

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Artist: Gamelan of Central Java

Album: Gamelan of Centra Java: Pankur One & Two

Label: Felmay

Review date: Sep. 8, 2010


The explosion of Gamelan, the gong-based classical music of Indonesia, onto the world scene was not only one of the great cultural events of the past century, but also one of the most enjoyable, especially so with the Javanese variety. While Balinese Gamelan is most famous for its speed and jaw-dropping virtuosity, the people of Java must have been dead set on chilling out; every record Iíve heard of their music has been uniformly hypnotic. It is indeed some of the most beautiful and immediately striking music I have ever encountered, with layers of shimmering melody swimming in between and around each other in a sort of effortless, pentatonic infinity. Fans of Steve Reich, new age music, opera and the Sun City Girls should all take note, if you havenít already. This is the good stuff.

As such, there are essentially two ways to enjoy it: either take the dillettanteís route and nab a few key albums from the Nonesuch Explorer series to file in between your Edgar Froese and Germs albums, or dive deep. But be warned, few who dive in ever come back. Thereís a whole world in there, with no two ensembles ever having quite the same tuning, with compositions existing only as jumping off points for an individual groupís interpretation, and a shit ton of scholarly writing dry enough to make you see mirages. Start now and in a few years you might wake up to find yourself playing gender in a community group arguing about the garap with a ponytailed Berkeley-ite almost twice your age and wonder how you got there.

So here we have Gamelan of Centra Java XII: Pankur One & Two by Bapak Sumarsam. The good news is Sumarsam is a credible authority on Gamelan, having studied in central Java and now teaching at Wesleyan, and to his credit, the record is beautiful. Like those Nonesuch classics, the gongs are resplendent and transporting. The melodies calm the room down, while the low gong cuts straight to oneís spiritual core. This is a rare form of soul music, music that sounds like oneís soul manifest in sound.

The bad news is that it sounds pretty much exactly the same as most other records one is likely to get in this style. In my own collection, I have all three installments of Nonesuchís Javanese Court Gamelan as well as a couple on Lyrichord, Folkways and some other finds on less acclaimed labels. But these, as well as Gamelan of Central Java, are all essentially interchangeable for my needs. I have favorite cuts from each, and a couple repeat pieces whose performance on one disc excels over the other in my opinion, but all in all they provide me with the same basic sound. I am, unfortunately, more of a dilettante than real head. Thus itís difficult to say exactly what recommends this particular record over any of the others I have, solid though it may be in its own right.

This leaves us with the music, in its own right. As I said before, it is quite beautiful, skillfully played without hurry or lethargy. It is immediately engaging without being condescendingly chill, worth at least fifty experimental new age tapes or whatever else you listen to while falling asleep. It contains a sound that I would urge anyone -Michigan noise freaks as well as my mom - to check out, a sound that is universally beautiful. The gamelan fanatics are likely aware of Sumarsamís reputation and could run circles around this review. My only comment is this: Gamelan of Central Java was recorded professionally, in a studio. The sound quality if clear and lovely, but it canít quite compete with the field recordings Iíve heard of almost identical music played in Javanese courtyards. The interjections of crickets and the slight fuzz of a portable tape recorder can do wonders for a recordís identity, help it stand out in a crowded room. Iím not saying that Sumarsam should have imported crickets, but I did miss them.

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

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