Thursday 5 June 2008

Philip Corner - Three Pieces for Gamelan Ensemble

Chronicling the life of the often mentioned but undercelebrated 71 year old American composer, best known for his connections to Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater, presents an interesting challenge. Thanks to a recent programme of reissues by Italian label Alga Marghen and the rediscovery of Corner’s remarkable 1970s and 80s work with Gamelan Son Of Lion, we have a window into Corner’s extraordinarily diverse activities.

In 1972, Corner accepted a position in the music department at Livingston College, a part of Rutgers University that had been a Fluxus stronghold since the late 1950s. The College hired ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary in 1973, who, having studied gamelan on the West Coast with Lou Harrison, decided to build an Indonesian gamelan for students to practice on, using instructions supplied by Berkeley Gamelan founder Daniel Schmidt, a sheet of steel and a lot of old grapefruit tins. Benary herself was initially against the idea of mixing Eastern and Western traditions, but as Corner’s New Music Performing Group and composer Daniel Goode became increasingly involved, and Gamelan Son Of Lion (‘Ben Ari’ is ‘son of lion’ in Hebrew) came into being, the group started to develop in a way that, as Benary says, “had absolutely nothing to do with traditional music”.

Gamelan has a long, rich history as an object of inspiration and appropriation for Western composers, going back to Debussy, who heard a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889. Some composers working with gamelan, like Colin McPhee, lived in Bali for periods of time, while others, like Henry Cowell, studied and taught it as part of surveys of World Music. The measured, formal qualities of traditional gamelan at first appear to be highly resistant to the spontaneous singularities characteristic of Corner’s previous work. Surprisingly, an interest in numbers opened the gamelan up to him.

“I’d been totally into this intuitive, irrational Zen approach,” he acknowledges, “and that seemed like a great liberation because it permitted a complexity which numbers always seemed to inhibit (...) I wanted to add this idea of repetition, of measured relationships and extreme simplicity without renouncing anything that I had been doing, or which had been culturally achieved by irrational values, indeterminacy, silence, noise, improvisation. I never renounced long tones fading into silence, gonglike sounds floating in untuned space. With the gamelan you don’t necessarily hear that, but everything is tuned that way, and it still sounds like objects floating in pre-rational space.”

Just as chaos theory shows how mathematical formulae can themselves produce highly unpredictable and complex patterns, pieces like the marvellous Gamelan on Three Pieces For Gamelan, which begins with a slow deep gong sound fading into silence and gradually adds higher pitched instruments playing at increasingly rapid tempos, or the graphically scored Gamelan PC on Gamelan In The New World Volume 2, apply apparently simple principles of pitch and time measurement to each of the individual instruments in the gamelan, collectively producing a rich, highly complex permutating sound.

“I was really involved with resonant metal in a contemporary idiom,” Corner recalls, “and metal involves the possibility of noise as well as resonance, the oriental idea of sound dying away into silence, the use of silence, static sounds and all of that.” The gamelan provided a whole set of new possibilities for meditating on metal – and over the following 20 years, Corner produced more than 400 such pieces.

Corner himself finally visited Indonesia in 1986, ten years after he began composing for gamelan. In an interview with gamelan composer Jody Diamond made just before his trip, he argued that “you can’t run away from who you are. You can’t immerse yourself in another culture and pretend to be them. I think you have to go there knowing who you are, and then relate to them out of who you are and where you are.”

Corner was well received and collaborated with Javanese composers, such as Michael Asmara, with whom he remains in touch, but his involvement with gamelan ended when he left New York for Italy in 1992. However, Benary and Goode have continued to compose and perform with Gamelan Son Of Lion, and have issued a number of new recordings.

“The essential harmony is dissonant,” he declares. “Everything we call harmony is essentially counterpoint. Putting together single tones – the relationship between single tones. We use harmony as a kind of prejudice, against disharmony. Some relationships are acceptable, some aren’t. Some we call harmonious, some we don’t. But I see it all as essentially counterpoint. Whenever you take distinct pitches and put them together in combinations, it’s counterpoint.”

The notion that literally any combination of tones is harmonic flies in the face of the equal temperament tuning system that has dominated Western classical music since Bach, but it’s equally foreign to those who favour alternative tuning systems, such as Just Intonation, grounded in particular mathematical or physical principles of sound. For Corner, harmony is about relationship, and relationship is a good thing, the more sonically complex the better"

Marcus Boon, A Long Life, Endless as the Sky

1. Gamelan (1975)
played by members of Son of Lion on the instruments of the Javanese gamelan Kyai Muntjar
Connecticut, Feb 28, 1981.

2. The Barcelona Cathedral, 1st
played by members of Son of Lion on the instruments created by Barbara Benary
NYC, 1978.

3. Belum (1991)
Third version for Son of Lion with added Western instruments
Performed at Corner's Farewell to New York concert, Experimental Intermedia Foundation
NYC, Feb 29, 1992.

Released by Alga Marghen in 1999.



Lucky said...

how lovely!! i read about this, but was never able to find it in any format. though i have my reservations about non-indonesians trying to play gamelan, i think philip corner makes his very own thing here.

the review you provide is really interesting - but i'm almost sure it doesn't prepare me for what i'll be hearing soon...

thanks for sharing this, juju! i only have one cd from this label - anton bruhin - and that i handle like a holy stone.

p.s.: modern mystics is a cute tag! :)

continuo said...

Sounds very interesting, thanks. US gamelan orchestras include very dedicated players.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this - more Philip Corner please!

bravo juju said...

Modern Mystics is one of my favorite tags and it could be applied more often... Anyone who claims to transcend his own religious tradition and selects whatever he wants from extraneous traditions, in the name of an "universal spirituality", is technically speaking a Modern Mystic.

The Gamelan, as the review says, has a strange appeal to western listeners - Ewings included. It is probably the most fetishized non-western instrument, for reasons beyond my understanding. A lot of wonderful music has been produced by using the Gamelan in unexpected contexts. The results are normally not that interesting when western composers or performers simply try to transplant Indonesian musical structures into their works. That is not, of course, the case here.

Unfortunately, we already posted everything we have by Philip Corner. If anyone should share more Corner with us, the Ewings and all the Friends of Juju would be much obliged.

Cheers to all and avoid panic buying.

Lucky said...

Indonesian Gamelan music (Balinese and Javanese in particular), have been fetishized since Debussy heard it at the first World Fair Exhibition, I guess - tt's conception is pretty different from all Western music...

I listened to this here 2 times in full, and I don't like it really. It's quite different than Indonesian Gamelan, like you said - which is probably the only way to avoid being just copyists. Still, I miss the otherworldly perfection of Indonesian ensembles, the rhythm here's less intruiging, and the harmonic difference I can see, but it doesn't move me.

Thanks to your sharing, I was able to listen to it + get an impression - if I'd seen it at a shop, I probably would've bought it - and would've been disappointed. So it goes. :)


bravo juju said...

Oh, Lucky... you shouldn't say that out loud: if they hear you they will say that blogs are killing the industry...

Lucky said...

good joke! it's the reason why we're doing this, right? killing the industry. it's bad for the musician (slavery contracts, and good promotion only for the big names), and it's bad for the music lovers (horrendous prices, availability only when it sells).

we're serving the niché stuff, and may be torchbearers for another kind of music consumption (i should say that out loud!).

shalom, bravo! :D

bravo juju said...

Well, I don't believe much in torchbearers, but if the industry that blogs are killing is the one you describe, then I believe you should say that out loud.
There are hundreds of pro/con arguments about this issue, of course, and you probably know them better than I do (given your veteranship in the front line). Please read some interesting thoughts on the effects of music sharity on the industry in the link below. What is more striking, however, is that these have been found on a blog written, among others, by someone who dropped a polite complaint here about a record which is already available at UBU.... (Robert Ashley's "In Sara...").
The effects of the upload craze are difficult to measure, but my hunger for music (and the willingness to buy music, of course) did not decrease in any manner - quite the contrary.

Lucky said...

i wasn't serious with that killing, you know. i am blogging to satisfy myself, more or less. a few of the arguments on the site you linked to are interesting, but in general i'm not into most of what the poster wrote. i have interest in certain kinds of music, and i'm open to new things from people i believe i can trust, after i followed them a long time, you are one of them. before i got into blogs i had a hard time to get only the surface of music i'm interested in (through the industry channels - available audio content). now i get long oop lp-rips of french musique concrète, brasilian forró, indonesian jaipong, jamaican dub, moroccan gnawa, etc.

but you know. we'll do it till we stop. om ;)

happy week-end, juju

Anonymous said...

Very Good!! Thank You

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!

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roberth said...

thanks for posting this philip corner
i used to have it, but loaned it to someone. i love all the uses of gamelan traditional, moderen indonesian, and western ( lou harrison, daniel schmidt, philip, pauline oliversos, etc.
maybe one of the greatest instrumental orchestras we have yet devoloped on this earth.
i love stretching my ears