Among the many composers who have drawn inspiration from the music of Indonesia, the one whose outlook became most pervaded by the structure of gamelan music may be Barbara Benary (b 1946), co-founder and guiding spirit of New York's Gamelan Son of Lion. A quiet, self-effacing presence on the New York music scene for almost four decades now, Benary has maintained a low profile, but behind the scenes she is well connected. A child of Manhattan's conceptualist movement, she was the designated violinist of early minimalism, a pioneer in American gamelan, and an early example of an increasingly frequent type, the ethnomusicologist-turned-composer. Chances are you've never heard her music on compact disc before this, but New York's Downtown scene has regarded her highly for a long time. Hers is a spiritual music, and the spirituality resides in the universality of her lines, universal because they are simple, particular to no one culture. Like Harrison and Virgil Thomson, Benary has a faith in the power of music's most basic elements, which she knits into intricate patterns before letting them unravel again.
The title Aural Shoehorning (1997) refers to the listener's tendency to confront unusual tuning systems, such as those of Javanese gamelan, by trying to "shoehorn" them into the framework of our familiar diatonic scales. Heterophony is the overall theme of the piece, and the various ways in which a gamelan and a diatonic ensemble of clarinet/bass clarinet and keyboard percussion can interact as a mixed marriage in which neither partner attempts to convert the other. Barang 1 & 2 (1975) are solo and duo explorations of a Javanese pentatonic mode called Barang. Sun on Snow (1985) is based on a poem of five lines, five one-syllable words per line, which can be read or sung both horizontally and vertically. The basic melody's pitches are derived by assigning notes on the basis of number of letters in each word. The melody is then developed and elaborated in five variations. Downtown Steel (1993) is an adaptation for the instruments of the Downtown Ensemble of an earlier piece, Hot-Rolled Steel, written for Gamelan Son of Lion, whose keyboards are made of that material. The structure of the piece is based on an English bell-ringing permutation known as Grandsire Doubles.
Members of DownTown Ensemble & Gamelan Son of Lion:Joseph Kubera, piano; Steven Silverstein, clarinet, bass clarinet; Phyllis Clark, soprano, percussion; Barbara Benary, violin, gamelan; Daniel Goode, clarinet, gamelan; Jody Kruskal, concertina, gamelan; Chris Nappi, marimba; Nick Didkovsky, electric guitar, percussion; Jon Gibson, soprano sax; Peter Zummo, trombone; Chris Nappi, vibraphone, marimba, drum set; Bill Ruyle, marimba; Peter Thompson, clarinet; Marcus Rojas, tuba; David Demnitz, Patrick Grant, Lisa Karrer, Laura Liben, David Simons, gamelan
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