Southeast Asia: Distant Connections, Local Sounds
Andrew Killick [+]
University of Sheffield
The theme of Western classical music’s connections with Asia is further explored through the case of the Javanese gamelan orchestra that performed at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, inspiring some European composers to write pieces modeled on gamelan textures and scales. Debussy’s piano piece Voiles (Veils) is examined for its use of both pentatonic and “whole-tone” scales, which, taken together, might suggest the Javanese scale slendro with its five roughly equal intervals. Since “equidistant” scales, in which all the intervals are the same size (including the whole-tone scale and the “chromatic” scale of twelve semitones) can have no clear tonal center, the gamelan influence is thus seen to have contributed to the shift in twentieth-century classical music away from functional harmony to the composition of “atonal” music. Gamelan music is then studied in its home context, including its role in a distinctive form of musical theater, wayang kulit shadow puppetry. The Javanese gamelan is briefly compared with other forms of gamelan and other music based on similar principles from different parts of Indonesia, notably Balinese gamelan gong kebyar and the so-called “monkey chant” kecak. The fact that the stories presented in wayang kulit and kecak come from Hindu epics, while Indonesia has a Muslim majority, reflects successive waves of cultural influence from South Asia, yet the musical techniques are uniquely Southeast Asian. The comparison is then extended to other parts of Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Vietnam, where some similar principles are found (including equidistant scales) while connections to the Chinese cultural sphere are reflected for instance in the use of free-reed mouth organs. The cultural character of Southeast Asia as a meeting place of diverse local and foreign elements is finally stressed by considering some effects of European colonization and the evidence of remote historical connections between Indonesia and distant East Africa, where some similar instruments are found.