Gamelan and Piano : Wilson Chu and Gamelan Naga Mas

gamelan naga mas instruments.jpg


Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Thursday 27th Sept 2018


This Gamelan and Piano concert was chock-a-block full of treats. Here are four for starters; the celebratory atmosphere of a student’s final event; the attraction of the gamelan instruments themselves, before a note was even played; the professionalism of Wilson Chu (he should run a masterclass on how to receive and respond to applause), and the variety the programme packed into one hour.

Gamelan music, with its ancient origins, comes from Indonesia and is played on an orchestra of metallophones and gongs. It has a characteristically shimmery sound, as the instruments are tuned in order that the harmonics produced should jostle and dance against each other, this effect being called ‘ombak’.  If that sounds quite exotic, it is, but what surprised me was what a welcoming sound world the gamelan proved to be, with several styles sounding perfectly at home beside it.  I was even reminded of some Scottish traditional music (e.g. ‘The Joy of It’ by Catriona MacDonald), and of Debussy (not surprising, he was one of the many classical composers to love and be influenced by the gamelan). The gamelan-inspired piano pieces worked extremely well, and were tuneful, lyrical and sometimes flamboyant. These pieces for solo piano i.e. Tembang Alit, by Jaya Suprana, Java Suite by Leopold Godowsky, and Chu’s own Paraphrase on a Javanese Theme should be widely played.

 

The prepared piano piece by John Cage introduced wit and humour, as the preparations acted like a costume for the piano, so that it could play a new role alongside the gamelan with the help of many unusual timbres. You can judge for yourself what the finished effect was, but I thought it was glorious. The addition of voices allowed for what was the highlight of the evening for me, as the voices were left solo chanting a rapid motif, one of the deeper gongs came in with the drama we associated with gongs, but a lot of playfulness as well. By the last two pieces it was as if the gamelan instruments had really woken up, there was rather a lack of volume of the shimmering sonorities previously mentioned prior to that, and rather a lot of drum. But the last two pieces, by Wilson Chu and the leader of Gamelan Naga Mas, J. Simon van der Walt were a fitting dramatic and musical climax to a wonderful evening of music. Now listen again to the wonderful music of Wilson Chu and the Gamelan Naga Mas, and wish him well in the future, as do I.

Catherine Eunson

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