Various Artists: Naga; New Music for Gamelan (Rattle)

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Volcano Song
Various Artists: Naga; New Music for Gamelan (Rattle)

Those of us lucky enough to have been to Java or Bali -- and who have ventured further than the beach or pool for cultural experiences -- will attest to the extraordinary sound of a gamelan orchestra in full flight.

Whether it be on metal or wooden xylophones (for want of a better word), gongs large and small or massive vertical bamboo chimes, the sound can be hypnotic and exciting . . . and often mathematically complex as various rhythmic patterns emerge and retreat.

That said, few authentic experiences in those places could prepare you for this innovative, daring and even courageous extension of the gamelan into hitherto unexplored territory.

Not many pieces for gamelan refer to music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor (as Szunn here does) or a transcription of Bela Bartok for gamelan orchestra (Homage to Bela).

Elsewhere there are more traditonally realised pieces but with violin and musical saw in attendance in places, this collection pushes the boundaries.

At heart are two Wellington gamelan groups -- Gamelan Padhang Moncar and Gamelan Taniwha Jaya -- who have toured and played in Bali and Java, and here interpret compositions or source material by New Zealand composers, most of whom come from within their own ranks.

The delightfully light, seven minute Padhasapa by Jason Erskine is an arrangement for gamelan of a koto piece by Susumu Miyashita which was on the '78 Ravi Shankar album East Greets East. Yet despite its twice-removed origins it sounds among the most "authentic" here, alongside the mesmerisingly slow title track by Tristan Carter.

Immediately following Padhasapa however is Lagu Improvasasi by Anton Killin which is an oddly deconstructed piece with accordion and disconcerting sonic effects (punctuated by gongs). It's quite a head-trip in three minutes.

And who would have thought the words "dance mix" (as on Megan Collins' taut and cleverly layered Tinggal) would have any application in the gamelan world? It's not what you might imagine however.

Here too is a song in Spanish (Of Night, Of Death) which reaches across into exotic Eastern microtones, and the appropriately titled Delirious Euphoria by Briar Prastiti which captures the emotional and physical joy of a gamelan performance for the artists and audience.

Her Clockwork Dancer is an altogether more gutsy piece with musical saw, yipping voice and violin. You can imagine a very odd, Residents-like video clip for it.

So for those who have immersed themselves in traditional gamelan music and drifted off in its crisscross rhythms and melodies, this collection will frequently shake you out of that reverie.

It is risky, fun in places, thoughtful in others, and yet still offers that escape into a meditative state sometimes.

Quite a project, quite a collection.

If you do want more of the lazy holiday-escape Bali thing (or something about a local punk band) then have a look here.

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