It's a blindingly simple idea: select a handful of 20th century compositions that, to a greater or lesser degree, owe an aesthetic debt to gamelan, and transport them back to Bali to be reinterpreted and adapted by leading contemporary gamelan orchestras.
Though John Cage rarely referenced gamelan, he certainly heard it while studying and working with Henry Cowell in the early 1930s, and the compositions for prepared piano that he wrote in the 1940s seem a natural fit for this project: complex, metronomic works of percussive precision, requiring rigorous precision in performance. Here, they are translated into chiming metallophones and muffled bamboo by master Balinese composer and performer I Made Subandi, working with past and present young students. It works brilliantly, too. Pieces like 'Bacchanale' convert Cage's clipped urgency into the traditional rapid cycles of gamelan, with intertwined gongs and bells neatly accentuating the mechanical, music-box daintiness of the originals. Even so, it's the instances where Subandi's ensemble goes off-script that reveal the real ingenuity of these reworkings – such as replacing the wasp buzz produced by inserting screws and bolts between the piano's strings with additional super-fast trills played on the highest gongs in the orchestra.

Daniel Spicer, The Wire

The man behind the concept that links these two releases is the magnificently named John Noise Manis [no doubt a nom de guerre but still a good one]. It was his idea to see what contemporary American compositions sounded like when performed by gamelan orchestras. Thanks to the highly detailed and studious sleevenotes on both these releases I now know that the biggest obstacle facing  anyone trying to teach a gamelan orchestra how to play works of a western nature is that gamelan players follow no musical notation, let alone a western one. There does exist a notation system for gamelan but this is used mainly to archive works and isn't used for performances, tradition dictates that gamelan orchestras rely on an oral tradition and the skill and memory of the player to continue the tradition [I include this information to keep pedants from my door].

The artistic director of Gamelan Cage, Andrew Clay McGraw, overcomes this problem by teaching the players himself but then leaves them to develop each piece only to find that they have, to the horror of Cage purists, improvised. I’m no Cage purist though and although I’m familiar with some of the pieces here I found that the spontaneously added shouts towards the end of ‘Primitive’ only heightened my overall, zoned out enjoyment.

McGraw interprets Cage’s prepared piano notes by [in some instance anyway] laying coins and bells on top of keys and gongs going so far as to cover upright drums in cloth bags whilst nailing tiny cymbals to wooden mallets. Cage’s notes for his prepared piano compositions were, in some instances, less than exact thus giving McGraw more freedom to work in. He also wonders as to whether Cage’s approach to prepared piano was influenced by gamelan itself while studying under Cowell - a posit that still remains unresolved. As it is, Cage himself composed only one piece for gamelan, the haunting Haikai, and that late in his career. Its not included here and I suspect its because a direct translation, gamelan to gamelan, would’ve sounded more like a cover version or a tribute adding little or nothing to project itself.  

What you do get is nine of Cage’s prepare piano compositions all given the gamelan treatment. To compliment the languid ‘Prelude for Meditation’  there’s an austere version of ‘Music For Duchamp’ and a take on ‘Mysterious Adventure’ that lifts the original from its stark depths revealing it as the jiving, driving, floor filler that it really is. This alone makes the project worthwhile but there are other highlights too including the rampant opener Bacchanale in which Cage’s first foray into prepared piano composition is given some rousing and energetic treatment  [see video above for confirmation].

Idwal Fisher Blog – an antimacassar for the hearing



























John Noise Manis, who defines himself an enthusiast of gamelan, has discovered affinities between some works of the American composer John Cage and the traditional gamelan music of Bali. He has published a CD, in cooperation with the Sanggar Ceraken of Bali, under the British label Sargasso, which releases recordings of highly experimental music.
In ‘Gamelan Cage’ two worlds collide which do not repel each other but integrate in a relaxed symbiosis – a joy for experimentation and tradition, both modern and ancient. The result is a work for experts of the genres involved, and the general public may be stunned or even terrified because there are no reference points for the listening. But if the initial shock is overcome through repeated listenings, the special character of these renditions may be truly appreciated.

Kultur und Neue Musik Review Blog - posted by RAF (abridged translation)

JOHN NOISE MANIS (bürgerlich GIOVANNI SCIARRINO), seines Zeichens überschwänglicher Fan von Gamelan, entdeckte zwischen einigen Werken des US-amerikanischen Komponisten JOHN CAGE (1912 – 1992) und der traditionellen Musik auf Bali (wie Java), Gamelan genannt, Parallelen, die er mit dem SANGGAR CERAKEN OF BALI auf “Gamelan Cage” verarbeitete, das zwischen Tradition & Moderne pendelt.
“Gamelan Cage” (CD | Digital) veröffentlicht JOHN NOISE MANIS in Kooperation mit dem SANGGAR CERAKEN OF BALI über den englischen Verlag SARGASSO, der ausschließlich höchst experimenteller Tonkunst das Licht der Welt schenkt.
In JOHN CAGE & dem SANGGAR CERAKEN OF BALI, eine multiinstrumentale Gruppe, prallen Welten aufeinander – Experimentierfreude/ Moderne & überlieferte Tradition, welche sich nicht abstoßen, sondern zu einer entspannenden Symbiose vereinen. Wen JOHN CAGE und sein Schaffen “fesselt”, dürfte diese 9 Interpretation alleine wegen seiner Instrumentierung interessieren, die aus unzähligen Percussion besteht. Gefallen mag, dass sich das SANGGAR CERAKEN OF BALI nah an den originalen Strukturen hält, wodurch ein hoher, sicherlich gewollter, Wiedererkennungswert existiert, der die Befremdlichkeit gegenüber den fernöstlichen Klängen hemmt bzw. nimmt.
“Gamelan Cage” ist defacto eine Arbeit für Kenner, wovon entweder die Gesamtheit umhaut oder verschreckt, weshalb eine explizite Nennung des Anspieltipps entfällt. PS: Wer das BESONDERE sucht, kommt um diese SANGGAR CERAKEN OF BALI Interpretation von JOHN CAGE’s Stücken nicht umher!
Zu Anfang verursachte die Eigenwilligkeit von “Gamelan Cage” echte Probleme, welche sich im Verlauf mehrerer Hörproben verflüchtigten, wofür sich besonders die bekannten Strukturen von JOHN CAGE verantwortlich zeigen, die das SANGGAR CERAKEN OF BALI in Kooperation mit JOHN NOISE MANIS eindrucksvoll in eine andere Welt transferierte – meine eingeschränkte Empfehlung!



This album is another example of Italian gamelan recording producer John Noise Manis’ passion: the reinterpretation of 20th century modernist Western music by various kinds of gamelan groups. Here nine Cage prepared piano works from 1940 to 1948 were arranged by American ethnomusicologist Andrew Clay McGraw for Ceraken, an ensemble of dedicated young Balinese musicians led by composer I Made Subandi. They were then recorded in the idyllic rural setting of an “open-air pavilion overlooking the terraced rice fields of Batuan village” in southern Bali.
In his well-researched liner notes McGraw wonders whether Cage’s 1940s invention of the prepared piano was influenced by gamelan music. There is no evidence for such a causal relationship. Cage’s unexpected sole work scored for gamelan came late in his life when Toronto’s Evergreen Club Gamelan commissioned Haikai (1986). Interested readers can find my account in “John Cage, Master of Silence” in The WholeNote, September 2012.
McGraw argues that rather than gamelan, “more important for Cage’s prepared piano phase was the interwar flowering of percussion and percussive music.” On the other hand Cage’s piano preparations, “almost always transform the string from an harmonic to an inharmonic vibrating body.” This key observation links the sounds of the prepared piano to the bronze gongs and keys of the gamelan which are designed to produce inharmonic overtones. It is because of this sonic family resemblance that many listeners “think of the gamelan (and sometimes assume a direct line of influence) when hearing the inharmonic, noisy, but definitely pitched sounds of Cage’s prepared piano.”
McGraw worked intensely for weeks through the Cage scores with the Ceraken musicians, learning them by heart. They produced striking transformations, rendering them with a fresh percussive sonic palette as well as with Balinese-mediated choices of tempo, expression and ensemble performance practice. Moreover the creative team chose their instrumentation from seven very different gamelans. Lending complexity to the arrangements: none of the sets were “tuned to the other and there were very few coinciding tones between them.”
The musical results range from experimental and exploratory sounding, as in the “microtonal” sections of Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, to the musically substantial Bacchanale. The latter, stocked with 16th note hemiolas characteristic of Balinese kotekan, was a favourite among many of the musicians. Sounding just as convincing in an arrangement for Balinese gamelan as it does on its original instrument, it’s my favourite too.

Andrew Timar, The WholeNote


Quando John Cage sdoganò il pianoforte preparato, già non c’era più molto da fare per dare alla musica una svolta innovativa che partisse dal suono. Cioè i timbri possibili, anche in seguito all’accoglienza del “rumore” all’interno dell’arte musicale, avevano mostrato tutte le strade percorribili: di lì a poco sarebbe intervenuta l’elettronica a suggerire soluzioni inaudite. Ma intanto l’artificio era nelle mani di chi osava ripensare, naturalmente, le macchine a propria disposizione. La differenza, grande cruccio filosofico, tra natura e artificio è problematizzata in modo evidente dal pianoforte preparato che sembra artefare un qualcosa che già naturale non pare (il pianoforte appunto), attraverso quindi una negazione di sé stesso la quale porta a una conclusione inevitabilmente monistica: impossibile non considerare naturale un qualsiasi prodotto dell’ingegno umano (che del resto artificiale non è). Dunque l’interrogativo profondo di Cage era sulla natura delle cose. Il che apre più in generale la prospettiva sull’opportunità di un universalismo estetico ed etico, sui processi di costruzione id una cultura.?Ad ascoltare le composizioni che Cage scrisse per questo strumento “aumentato”, l’orecchio corre presto alle musiche indonesiane, o meglio alle orchestre Gamelan. Cage mai ammise di essersi ispirato a quelle sonorità. Non possiamo fare altro che credergli, ma ad ascoltare un disco, tanto bello quanto interessante, come Gamelan Cage, in cui diversi pezzi del compositore americano sono interpretate da un ensemble di giovani balinesi, sembra di trovarsi di fronte a un documento originale. Basta ascoltare Bacchanale (pietra angolare della sperimentazione cageana) per comprendere con quale sentimento di appartenenza musicisti di una cultura lontana affrontano una musica che appare estranea soltanto nelle teste degli etnomusicologi. Sì, certamente la partitura originale è stata “sintetizzata” per essere eseguita con strumenti che non conoscono l’accordatura al sistema temperato, ma qui assistiamo a un processo di ritorno al naturale: l’orchestra di Gamelan costituisce quello che per Cage era il pianoforte “naturale”, cioè l’artificio umano non ancora “artefatto”, negato.?Il disco in questione, esperimento ennesimo di interpolazione musicale tra tradizioni diverse, ha mostrato ancora una volta che l’assenza di convinzioni culturali sedimentate nel tempo porti ad accettare come del tutto ordinario ciò che altri (normalmente l’occidente) rilevano esotico.?È una piccola prova che smentisce le supposizioni tipiche di certa etnografia, frutto di un’antropologia relativista che non riterrebbe possibile per le culture “altre” comprendere (quindi poi interpretare) ciò che – naturalmente?… Appunto – non appartiene loro.

When John Cage gave official clearance to the prepared piano, already there was not much to be done to give music an innovative breakthrough that moved from sound. That is, the possible timbres, also due to the acceptance of "noise" in the art of music, had shown all the directions that could be taken: a little later electronic music would intervene suggesting previously unheard solutions. But meanwhile, the artifice was in the hands of those who dared to rethink, naturally, the machines at their disposal. The difference – big philosophical worry – between nature and artifice is problematized in an evident way by the prepared piano which seems to make artificial something that already does not seem natural (the piano, of course). In such way, the piano would negate itself, leading to a conclusion inevitably monistic: impossible not to consider as natural any product of human ingenuity (which, moreover, is not artificial) . So Cage's profound question was about the nature of things. Which opens more in general the perspective on the appropriateness of an aesthetic and ethical universalism, on the process of building a culture.
Listening to the compositions that Cage wrote for this "augmented" instrument, the ear quickly turns to the music of Indonesia, or more precisely to the Gamelan orchestras. Cage never admitted that he was inspired by those sounds. We can not help but believe him, but listening to a disc as beautiful and interesting as Gamelan Cage, in which several pieces by the American composer are performed by an ensemble of young Balinese, we feel to be faced with an original document. Suffice to listen to Bacchanale (cornerstone of cagean experimentation) to appreciate with what feeling of belonging musicians of a distant culture face a music that appears foreign only in the heads of ethnomusicologists. Yes, of course the original score was "synthesized" to be performed with instruments that do not know the tempered tuning system, but here we see a process of returning to natural: the Gamelan orchestra is what for Cage was the "natural" piano, that is, the human artifice not yet "artifact", not yet denied.
The disc in question – yet another experiment in musical interpolation between different traditions – has shown once again that freedom from cultural convictions sedimented over time leads to accept as quite ordinary what others (usually Westerners) detect as exotic .
It is a small evidence that disproves the assumptions typical of certain ethnography, offspring of a relativist type of anthropology which would not consider it possible for the "other" cultures to understand (and therefore interpret) what – naturally?... exactly – does not belong to them.

Federico Capitoni, Baked