Getting Lost with Gamelan Kusuma Laras at Roulette

by delarue

Where do you go when over the past four decades, you’ve staged two thousand shows by artists from all over the world, all over New York? Robert Browning ended up at the most easily accessible venue in Brooklyn: Roulette. All trains lead to Atlantic Avenue, more or less; the space is two blocks away, maybe less depending on your exit.

Last month’s performance was an impassioned, intense concert by a legendary Iraqi singer backed by this hemisphere’s only traditional Iraqi classical maqam ensemble (there will be other potentially transcendent Middle Eastern bands here next year). This past evening’s show was completely different: New York’s own traditional Javanese-style bell orchestra, Gamelan Kusuma Laras building hypnotically starry ambience for the audience to get lost in. It wasn’t clear when the show started – were the two brief introductory numbers just a warmup, everybody running the riffs to make sure they were in tune? – nor was it particularly clear when it ended. But in between, time stood still.

Ironically, as the once-ubiquitous gamelan and shadow puppet spectacles in Indonesia seldom take place these days outside of weddings and other special occasions, gamelans have become a meme on college campuses across the US. I.M. Harjito is one of the main reasons why. If an American-based gamelan are any good, it’s likely that the now Connecticut-based Harjito trained them. Seated amid the group’s bells, gongs and gender xylophones, he began the show playing starkly keening, acerbic phrases on the rebab fiddle, then switched between a couple of double-barreled drums. Interestingly, the the smaller of the got the boomiest sounds.

In front of the ensemble, guest singer Heni Savitri was spellbinding, calmly and methodically working very subtle variations on riffs in a scale that wasn’t quite whole notes and wasn’t quite pentatonic either. With her austere, bitingly resonant, otherworldly voice, she sometimes exchanged brief phrases with either the rebab, or one of the flutes played by a member of the choir seated to her left. For all the innumerable variations, the music was incredibly catchy: several blues-tinged riffs, rising from and then returning to a central note, lingered long after the show.

Gamelans have enough bells to make Edgar Allan Poe jealous, and this group are no exception. Surrounded by banks of bright, shiny brass bonang and smaller kenong bells, the men and women in charge built a glacially shifting interweave of spare polyrhythms, rippling and pinging and glimmering into the night. Behind them, two of the group’s percussionists accented turnarounds, sudden tempo shifts and transitions with a big rack of gongs and a bass drum. Meanwhile, the higher-pitched tones of the genders glistened and clinked, adding an extra layer of celestial gleam.

Gamelan lyrics typically draw on ancient Javanese mythology; in addition, Harjito had come up with a couple of originals encouraging the musicians to reach greater heights. But the night was best appreciated as a cohesive whole, a chance to go completely down the rabbit hole that Claude Debussy discovered in 1889 at the Paris Exposition, where he decided that gamelan music was the future – and shifted the paradigm for music everywhere outside of Indonesia.

The next concert staged at Roulette by Robert Browning Associates is a flamenco festival on March 28 of next year: details are still being finalized.