ABOUT OUR INSTRUMENTS
Gamelan Son of Lion's instruments were built in village style by Barbara Benary using steel keys, cans for resonators, hubcaps for kempul, etc. They are tuned in a typical central Javanese non-diatonic slendro and pelog. The initial instrument designs were provided by Dennis Murphy, an ethnomusicologist, multi-cultural musician and experimental instrument builder from Vermont. Details of Murphy's building methods may be seen here.
The set was later supplemented by new iron gongs and bonang by Suhirdjan of Jogjakarta.
GAMELAN SON OF LION IN THE EARLY YEARS
And Interview with Barbara Benary and Daniel Goode
by Jody Diamond (email@example.com)
Son of Lion began its life as a gamelan composer’s collective in 1976, when the instruments were moved to New York City from Rutgers University, where Barbara Benary had originally built them to use in teaching. From the beginning, Son of Lion had a profound commitment to democracy in choosing pieces to be played. Benary and co-founders Philip Corner and Daniel Goode have firmly believed in and fiercelydefended this founding principle, which they credit with enabling the ensemble to endure the changes of time and personnel over 30 years. As Benary states, “It was part of our vision me, Dan and Phil. A piece could work or not, whether it was by a student or an established artist. I also feel committed to work by people outside the collective, and try to get at least two people who are not in the group represented in programs each year.” Even with this broad-reaching policy, each of the founding composers brought a strong personal compositional perspective and ensemble aesthetic to the group.
Benary’s early work had been melodically centered, and was often for theater or opera. A violinist Benary became more involved with the music of India and Indonesia while completing graduate studies in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University where she studied Javanese gamelan music. As Son of Lion became more active, “naturally, gamelan became my instrument,” Benary explains. “So I write pieces that take into account what the instruments do, what the tuning does, what the tuning doesn’t do.” Benary drew on her traditional training as well as her theatrical interests to do several shadow puppet operas with gamelan. “In composing operatic music for gamelan my thinking has been much more western and I have pushed the instruments in that direction. My melodic thinking is actually very western, but you know, it goes both directions. The things I learned just became part of what I know, a total vocabulary. I know what a dominant chord is, I know what the Javanese form Sampak is. I don’t really think categorically.”
Goode, a clarinetist who had been composing since 1959, first got to know the gamelan instruments as a performer. His involvement with Son of Lion increased after the move to New York, when he also became familiar with the work of Benary, Corner and early collective members. “I was urged invited, cajoled and almost teased into writing my first gamelan piece,” Goode recalls. “I had already premiered a clarinet piece using circular breathing, which is continuous, with all the bells and whistles of minimalism, a totally committed minimalist piece.” Translating an existing piece to gamelan seemed a good first step, and Goode wasthrilled to find that “it worked technically and spiritually.” His compositions for gamelan continued to draw on contemporary developments inexperimental music. “I was interested in Cage, I was interested in all these new procedures, I was interested in numeric patterns, in random numbers. We were just a buzzing factory of new ideas then. I thought I could make a beautiful piece with random numbers, and up with three different three pieces using random numbers, one of which is on the first record.” [now re-issued by Locust Records as "The Complete Gamelan in the New World."] Goode also began to work with metal hubcaps as instruments, and these were to become one of Son of Lion’s trademark sounds.
When asked what gamelan has added to his life, Goode replied with warm intensity. “Lushness. It is a whole realm, a canvas in my mind. It is a living tradition, and sitting and playing and working with people year after year we don’t have too many things like that. I still write western music with completely different points of view, models, and techniques, yet I am bi-cultural to the degree that I have adapted to thinking like a gamelan composer. It gave me a whole new way to be involved with this music; it made it real.”
Benary sums up the essential identity of Gamelan Son of Lion as a “composer’s collective and
repertory ensemble.” She mentions occasionally thinking about ending her focus on gamelan, but, fortunately for us, she has always changed her mind!
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