The Listening Party

Chiming with Tchaikovsky – A Gamelan Orchestra

[By Deepa Muniandy]

I know you,
I walked with you, once upon a dream,
I know you,
That look in your eyes, so familiar , a gleam.
                                                    -Tchaikovsky Waltz ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Op 66, Act 1

[image credit: The Magazine]

[image credit: The Magazine]


It was a befittingly beautiful Saturday, the skies resembling Vincent Van Gogh’s swirling clouds in A Wheat Fields with Cypresses. Edged with a grey overcast, and with lusty winds that made ripples across the pond surrounding KLPAC’s main building, this was the perfect setting for Hand Percussion’s Tchaikovsky on Gamelan.

Gamelan as a traditional ensemble originated from the Malay Archipelago and consists of numerous instruments, such as the bonang, sarons, kendang and kenong. Each instrument produces a distinctive sound, and it is said that no two gamelan ensembles are the same. A gamelan will have its own individual set of tuning, repertoire, cultural context and style.

It is said that the tune a gamelan produces can be rather oxymoronic in nature. It can be quietly loud, soothingly menacing and hauntingly exuberant, all encased within a gilded cage of mystique and grandeur. When you couple that with Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky’s dreamy pieces, the end result is nothing short of magnificent. Aware of the gamelan ensemble and its propensity to venture into a state of esotericism, I prepared myself to be taken for a ride that afternoon of 23 August.

And what a ride it was.

[image credit: The Star]


As I was seated along with the other patrons of KLPAC, I could not help but notice that the black box theatre with its tiered seating was deliberately structured in such a way that one could get the feel of the reverberating gongs and deep sounds made by the timpani mallets. Soft lighting of a marine blue hue emanated from behind the stage and cast a gentle glow around the set, and before we knew it, the members of Hands Percussion (HANDS), a renowned Malaysian percussion group led by Artistic and Stage Director, Benard Goh, walked onto the stage and silence fell, whilst expectations rose.

For a music novice as yours truly, I only recognised The Garland Waltz from Sleeping Beauty, Opus 66 of Act 1, because of Lana Del Rey’s popular number Once Upon A Dream, featured in the film Maleficent.  The Waltz, a tune that I was already fond of, was brought to life by the gamelan, and instead of following Del Rey’s sombre tones, HANDS focused instead on the cheerier side of the Waltz. They managed to weave in the deep sounds of the gong as well as the tinkling of the sarons to create a medley that was both light and heavy. The tempo quickened halfway and I was conscious of the fact that my heartbeat fell into synchrony with the booming of the gongs.

It is safe to say that everyone held their breath as the music seemed to spiral out of control, because by now, one could only see blurred movements of the hands of these percussionists as they beat, soothed and coaxed such lovely noises out of their instruments.

This musical journey went on for another hour, and included pieces such as the Neapolitan Dance and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, with the latter serving as the finale. The lyrical metaphors were brought alive in a raw and wild manner, because the gamelan is an ensemble with a mind of its own and does not play by conventional rules. It came as no surprise that when it was time for the curtain call, the audience was on its feet, clapping thunderously with many shouts for an encore.

As we headed out, I took one final look at the gamelan and noticed its jengglongs swaying slightly under the gust of the air conditioning. As impressive as it looks, the music it yields is even more so. The beauty of Tchaikovsky’s overtures and waltzes was more than personified and justified by the magnificent gamelan.

Tchaikovsky would have approved.

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