Returning Minimalism
New works for Balinese gamelan gong kebyar

by Wayne Vitale


The pura dalem temple of Tunjuk, a small village in Bali’s western Tabanan district, is serenely beautiful. Far from the main village streets and reachable only by a narrow access road or footpaths, this temple—it’s full name is the Pura Dalem Munduk Sangkur—is shaded by tall palm and luxuriant hardwood trees, nestled like an oasis among broad rice fields. Like most Balinese temples, it is an open array of interlinked courtyards, laid out in a design carefully proportioned to fit the temple’s character, history, and spiritual intent. (It was recently renovated and expanded, with architectural plans contributed by a famed architect of sacred buildings.) The temple grounds are dominated by the ornate high-rising candi or temple gates, the conduits for its visitors, of both seen and unseen varieties, to flow from outer to and from the outer, middle, and sacred inner courtyards. Each courtyard is carpeted by grass, careful trimmed by the temple caretakers. Roofed, open pavilions are on the sides, each with a ceremonial purpose: the placing of offerings, the preparation and serving of food, the seating of gamelan musicians. Large stone carvings of mythological creatures and powerful spirits observe all.

On one day in July, 2011, however, the gamelan musicians were not seated in their usual pavilion, but on mats spread out on the grass of the middle courtyard, under the open sky. About half the musicians were from the famed Tunjuk gamelan ensemble, Seka Gong Taruna Mekar, which has accompanied hundreds of ceremonies in this and other local temples. The others were from the famed private club (sanggar) Çudamani, from the village of Pengosekan, about a half-hour’s drive to the east in the Ubud area. Such an arrangement is unusual, since the gamelan ethos is so concerned ensemble unity and polished teamwork, usually attainable only through long rehearsal of a single, dedicated membership.

From another perspective, however, this hybrid group, led by their directors, I Made Arnawa and I Dewa Putu Berata, reflected the musical project at hand, a cross-fertilization and exploration of musical ideas that have reverberated across the Pacific Ocean over several decades. Pak Arnawa and Pak Dewa sat with their musician friends chatting quietly while awaiting the start of the recording session, surrounded by mics and computer-based recording gear. Their conversations were just one element of the gentle sonic environment. A slowly changing palette of tropical insect sounds, frogs, and birds; an occasional distant motorcycle, and sounds of leaves rustling in the high palm tree tops made up the ambient soundscape. The musicians had just returned from the inner courtyard, where (as with any activity undertaken in the temple) they prayed for the project’s success, guided by the temple priest’s bell and mantras.

Initially, success seemed unlikely. As the musicians launched into the first of two pieces, a gentle rain began to fall, threatening to derail the entire open-air endeavor. But the drizzly mists lifted after a few moments, and the players—as yet undisturbed from their intense concentration—were able to complete their musical journeys, sketched out over the preceding days of rehearsal and discussion, in two extended pieces. No one knew beforehand exactly how long this would take, since the works involved a live, generative process poised as much on interpretive freedom as adherence to definitive instructions. As it turned out, three hours were needed to finish the recordings. Just minutes before the last one ended, the rain returned, this time carrying through on its earlier threat to end the session. Mics and recording gear were hastily covered by tarps and shut down; gamelan instruments carried to the roofed pavilions. Gathering there moments later, damp but safely out of the now-pouring rain, the musicians, myself and producer John Noise Manis allowed ourselves to trade relieved smiles: The realizations of these two new works was complete. The ambient tropical sounds had seemed to accompany and even guide these two process-oriented works—even the tonality of the insect chirps were, to our surprise, also on the note ding, the central tone of Pak Dewa’s piece—becoming part of this recorded realization. And, as he later remarked, the gods had smiled on our project in a special way: They had “blessed” us at the beginning with a brief drizzle, a sprinkling of holy waters according to Pak Dewa; and then again, with a downpour, only at successful conclusion of the music. The bookends of natural and divine influences seemed to him quite perfect.



Terry Riley’s 1964 composition “In C”—the inspiration and basis for the works recorded here—was a musical landmark by any reckoning. It was one of the founding works of the movement later dubbed Minimalism, a new way of working with musical materials that eventually penetrated much of Western art music, either directly or indirectly, becoming one of the potent of all American stylistic currents of the twentieth century. It helped initiate a stunning reaction to the modernist music of the day, especially the hyper-complex scores of composers such as Elliott Carter and Karlheinz Stockhausen. But “In C” was also a near-magical act of distillation of ideas of the times, somehow bringing onto a single page of score, with its simple set of instructions, influences from outside the Eurocentric art music tradition. Jazz improvisation, rock, musical theater, tape music, and musical traditions from Africa and Asia were all part of its DNA. And that genetic code, disseminated especially by several of the performers at the 1964 San Francisco premiere—Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnik, John Gibson—continues to manifest itself in wide variety of musical streams and creations.

This recording documents a set of such creations. But it is one that stands in a special perspective to Riley’s formative piece. These two works were not only “influenced” by minimalism in some general or indirect fashion; both were consciously and directly based on Riley’s 1964 work. In fact, they are a continuation of a longer project that was the brainchild of producer John Noise Manis, and includes works by other Indonesian composers for gamelan (noted below). Here too, I Dewa Putu Berata and I Made Arnawa were commissioned with the straightforward but surprisingly challenging task: to familiarize themselves with Riley’s piece, both it’s actual musical fabric and the conceptual framework that informs it, and then reinterpret and respond to it within their own musical worlds. They used a combined ensemble of highly skilled players from their respective gamelan ensembles to bring their ideas to life. The idea was to go back to that iconic source material and explore—to imagine, reflect upon, and to a degree conjecture—what it might have had to do with the music of Bali.

The genesis of these works distinguishes them from almost all other offspring of the minimalist project. There are two primary reasons for this. One is a matter of cross-cultural direction: The influence between gamelan and minimalism has traveled, until now, exclusively along a one-way street: Certain composers in the Western art music tradition may have “borrowed” or been influenced by elements of gamelan, incorporating them into their minimalist works. In so doing, they have carried forward one of the central traditions and debates of Western art, embraced by many but often enough decried by the few as appropriation. (Tim Taylor, in Global Pop: World Music, World Markets, argues that such appropriations, even when collaboratively pursued, reproduce “the old subordinating structures of colonialism.”) For that reason we can be relieved that the “other” cultural perspective is now increasingly part of the conversation. Here the approach was deliberately reversed, so that minimalism is regarded or interpreted by composers and players who are Balinese not Western artists, and practitioners of one of the style’s supposed sources. This is a fresh perspective. Despite the fact that both composers have had, as much as any of their Balinese contemporaries, extensive international contact and immersion in Western ideas, their cultural aether remains fundamentally different. They didn’t grow up listening to Stravinsky or Stockhausen, spinning LPs of Miles Davis, seeing the paintings of Picasso or Kandinsky, or following the development of popular music over recent decades. Their concerns were, instead, on the musical needs of  the temple, their intensive re-working and recombination of modern Balinese styles and genres such as kebyar with older court and ritual forms such as gambuh, selonding, and gong luang (as we see in new works for gamelan semarandana, a hybrid gamelan type used by Pak Dewa's musicians in Çudamani), and in the exploration of musical techniques—interlocking patterns, unusual metric structures, new colors of orchestration—that have arisen overwhelmingly within their own musical tradition rather than being imported, borrowed, or adapted from elsewhere. This picture doesn’t change until we take several steps back and regard the largest currents of cultural zeitgeist and influence. For example, to me it is undeniable that there was an indirect but powerful influence of modernism in the birth of the kebyar style at the beginning of the twentieth century. And over the last century, interactions with foreign artists, scholars and audiences have played major role in the evolution of Balinese visual and performing arts, often by acting as a cultural mirror in which Balinese artists have seen themselves in new light. But despite these influences writ large, the milieu  and actualization of musical development undertaken by composers such as Pak Dewa and Pak Arnawa, rooted in and devoted first to their local communities rather than their international audiences, remain overwhelmingly Bali-centric. And for that reason, their responses to such a project are revealing.

This endeavor is also noteworthy (literally as well: worthy of musical notes) for other reasons having to do with cross-cultural influence between gamelan and minimalism, both in the specifics of In C’s genesis, and in a more general sense. At one extreme, it’s unclear what role—if any—gamelan music played in Terry Riley’s idea set for In C. While Asian music is seen as one of Riley’s inspirations, that specific Asian source was undoubtedly India (Riley studied raga singing with master musician Pandit Pran Nath), not Indonesia. Balinese music had barely appeared in the US, with a single major tour (of the gamelan ensemble of Peliatan, Gunung Sari, in 1952) and fledgling program at UCLA in the early 1960s (taught in part by Colin McPhee, who wrote the first major book on Balinese music). Possible threads of influence might be traced via other West Coast composers active during the mid-twentieth century such as John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison—an intriguing and as-yet-unexplored historical connection in the flow of Asian artistic and philosophical concepts in their work—though again, direct contacts, e.g. Lou Harrison and Javanese gamelan, all apparently postdated the creation of “In C”.

At the other, more general end of the comparative spectrum, we have the fact that the word “gamelan” is now regularly invoked in discussions of minimalism. Composer John Adam’s website, for example, defines minimalism as “… a twentieth-century Western Art music style which explores the limits of Western sound, often combining non-Western elements such as Indonesian gamelan or African polyrhythms with basic Western harmonic structures.” Yet what does this really mean? What are the compositional processes, techniques, or features they share? To many ears, there is a surface resemblance in certain characteristic aspects of texture and repitition. Many minimalist works feature a stream of steadily patterned, repetitious textures (e.g. continuous sixteenth notes). When played on pitched percussion instruments, the resemblance to gamelan grows for obvious reasons. This became overt in later minimalist music, especially that of Steve Reich, who studied Balinese gamelan in the mid-1970’s with dancer/musician I Nyoman Sumandhi. But, as with the oft-cited cross-cultural influence of Javanese gamelan on impressionism, via Debussy (who heard Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Exhibition Universelle in Paris) deeper resemblances—identifiable techniques or processes or forms originating in Indonesian music—are elusive, and tend to dissipate or even disappear when we look anywhere beneath that glittery surface. Can we find any, if we look more closely under the hood?

Gamelan music, for example, is traditionally never “process music” in the usual understanding of the term. Despite the repitition of particular cyclic elements, and the fact that some elaborating parts are realized—that is fleshed out from a finite repertoire of connective tissue or patterns—in live performance, all music in Bali is largely composed in sequential form and moves forward much as, for example, a symphony in several movements: Beginnings, endings, transitions, and melodic/ rhythmic material are sequentially composed and worked out, often in enormous detail. In the performance practice of music in Java and Bali, music is never a slow modulation of pre-designated “parameters” resulting in gradual, incremental change. It is not phase music. Western-trained musicians, unfamiliar with the internal designs of rhythms and melodic figurations, and the sonic world of gamelan unrelated to ideas of harmony, might hear repitition where there is little or none.
In fact, the music of Bali and Java is highly goal-oriented on all levels of structure. Each of the many threads or layers is always moving, each in its own way, towards a target scale tone at the end of a measure or phrase or section. The more important ones are marked by a punctuating gong, with the most important end-points underlined by the sound of the largest, lowest-pitch gong. Everything, from melodic and rhythmic design to accent and metric position, contributes towards this movement. The music is, in a sense, all “about” this journey of lesser and greater goals, and the play of forces and nuances involved in creating them. Convergence is the key: In every but the most recent experimental works for gamelan, all parts converge on target tones, sometimes in steady periodic fashion (in longer classical forms such as lelambatan), and sometimes in irregular ways (in, for example, kebyar sections and transitions). Despite stubborn popular misconceptions, gamelan music is anything but static nor directionless. While the regularity of the periodic features and convergence of strands of melody and rhythm seems to evoke larger societal or natural patterns—historical, generational, agricultural, or astrological cycles (Spiller 2004)—the inner musical processes, down to a molecular level, are highly directional. In a gamelan piece, players know where they are going, and their parts are mostly composed in elaborate detail. This contrasts with the characteristic ethos of much early minimal music—especially phase music—which exalts in the subtly changing sonorities and patterns that arise, sometimes to the surprise of the players as much as audience, as they slowly move through their parts or instructions.

Where does this leave us? Can direct connections only be found in surface textures and pattern repitition, the simple “impressions” of gamelan as filtered through later minimalists such as Steve Reich?

Freedom and constraint

One window to answering this can be found by looking elsewhere—not in the specifics of musical technique, but in underlying concepts of music making. It is a topic familiar to all musicians, and which became the most central point of discussion between the composers and their collaborators in this project. It is the conceptual pair freedom and constraint, and the closely related one of individual vs. group, and the dynamic interactions between them. One of the most remarkable features of “In C” was the new way that Riley allocated freedoms to the individual players. It was simple: each of the 53 so-called “modules” of the work—ranging from small melodic fragments (as short as one beat) to longer melodies—could be repeated as many times as the player choose, before moving on to the next. Thus, within a realm of clear constraints (the basic materials of the piece, and their sequential order, were fixed, and constant for all players), each musician enjoyed individual freedom to move forward, or hang back while others moved forward. This was a new way of assigning musical freedom and playing with group dynamics, quite distinct form the usual kinds of freedom musicians are accustomed to: improvisation, ornamentation, elaboration, solos. Performers didn’t come together at particular moments on downbeats or accents or harmonic changes or anything else designated in advance by the composer; instead they moved through the material at their own pace from beginning to end—listening, appreciating, and responding to the constellation of musical parts, and its internal interactions, as it evolved through time. That changing landscape, shifting in subtle or surprising ways, became the musical journey of the work, different in every rendition. (The uniqueness of each rendition was also a result that the instrumentation, and number of players, were unspecified.)

For Berata and Arnawa, this was something new. Here was a piece without convergence: No unifying vertical events, no punctuation, no goals, no sections, no map of intersections or landmarks for orientation. How could the players know what to do?

The two composers were initially unsure of how to even approach such a project. It contrasted starkly with traditional composition and performance in Bali, in which, Pak Dewa noted, “one’s head and heart are full: Here’s where we use this type of figuration, here’s where it’s sweet, here’s where the kemong is struck, here’s where the next tune starts.” Even in modern pieces, he always felt there were anticipated events to channel one’s musical energies, something to move towards in each section or phrase, no matter how unusual.

For Pak Arnawa, it was the change in interaction between performers that he felt most keenly. In his regard, music in Bali is all about the kelompok or section of the ensemble, from a pair to several musicians, who must work together in perfect tandem so that they, and ultimately the entire gamelan, play together as one person—an expression of the communal ethos that underlies many activities in Bali, from rice farming to religious ceremonies. How could the players work “alone,” with no clear way of relating to others, no way of knowing if you were right or wrong, no way of hearing whether your rhythms or accents were in synch, and no musical leader to bring the players back together when they weren’t?

Thus, the composers were confronted with more than a musical challenge. This type of individual freedom and responsibility did not come naturally to them. Even when they understood Riley’s concept (Arnawa participated in a performance of “In C” to better fathom it), they had a hard time finding strategies to bring their players into that way of thinking. From the start of the rehearsals, players asked over and over, “is it ok to switch [patterns] now?” “where am I supposed to get loud?” They were takut salah—afraid of making mistakes, of staking out an individual path without a cue from the group leader. In discussions between rehearsals, we realized it was the same kind of group dynamics found in a village or ward meeting: Individuals are reluctant to assert contrary opinions. This remains true today, even in contemporary Bali where, following the fall of Suharto fifteen years ago, the whole of idea of individual rights has come increasingly into civic and political discourse. In the musical realm, expression of this type of democracy and individual freedom hadn’t yet made inroads. (I’m reminded of the fact that “free group improvisation” is almost never done in Indonesia, even experimentally: Too many individual choices feel like anarchy to most musicians.)

Fortunately, there was a starting point of individual freedom found within the tradition. As mentioned above, players of elaborating parts such as the reong, and certain lead melodic instruments, such as ugal and trompong, were accustomed to generating their elaborations or embellishments with a degree of freedom in live performance, provided they remain true to the instrument’s playing style and get to the right place at the right time. This point of departure provided the composers a slight opening of the door, which allowed entry into the conceptual world of “In C.”


In Deng

For I Made Arnawa, the concept of “In Deng” evolved over several days of rehearsal. His first attempt to reconcile the ideas of individual freedom and lack of vertical convergences was to let the players work in pairs: two players would operate as one individual. Each pair, as a unit, could choose when to move forward or hold back. This, he thought, would be a happy compromise: The players could depend on one another in the comfort of partnership, so central to Balinese performance practice, while allowing each pair to confront new ideas of unmoored horizontal freedom. It would also allow him to retain the technique of kotekan, or paired interlocking parts, for the gangsa and reong instruments.

The complementary part to such a pattern is easily generated by any competent Balinese musician; the players readily did so in the first rehearsal. But as rehearsals progressed, the “need” for pairing and kotekan fell away as the musicians slowly overcame their nervousness about the lack of landmarks, and Arnawa dispensed with it. One of the break-throughs in this process happened when a suggestion was offered for a different way of thinking, a new attitude that from which to regard the changing musical flow: Rather than concentrating on looking ahead and waiting, but never knowing what to expect, the players were encouraged to “look around” more—that is, listen to and enjoy the total sonic landscape at any given moment, and the spontaneous combinations that arise between parts. This was part of Terry Riley’s original instructions accompanying the score of “In C,” and became a core concept of much later minimalist work. For the Balinese musicians, the whole idea that whatever was happening was, by definition, correct, and that it could be appreciated and relished, was paradigm-shifting. It gave each player a way to use his or her perasaan, feeling or musical instinct, to respond, to choose when and how to move forward, and thereby alter a facet or interrelationship of the total sound matrix. Thus perasaan, so frequently invoked by Balinese musicians, remained valid in this new environment. Although kotekan was gone, a new form of “chance kotekan” might emerge at any moment from the accidental interactions of patterns. This was a happy meeting ground, both completely in the spirit of “In C” and only one degree removed from a Balinese musical technique.

Pak Arnawa’s approach to the other instruments was much the same: He composed a handful of simple parts, which the players could move through. Those for reong and trompong were more pattern-like (formed of repetitions of two and three-note units) than the tuneful gangsa parts. These kotekan-esque parts, and the very nature of reong and trompong, on which 2-4 players play side by side on a single instrument and are by necessity closely interacting partners, prompted the players to continue to play mostly in interlocking pairs. Meanwhile, on the lower instruments, the slowly evolving consciousness of playing together in this way did allow the pairs to de-couple. Each could move ahead, hang back, or leapfrog over his partner; and enjoy the contrasting timbres caused by landing on the same note, bringing out the vibrations of paired tuning, or on different notes.

Pak Arnawa saved the simplest patterns for last. In the final moments of his piece, the music eventually does achieve a kind of convergence, first on wavering neighbor tones, and finally on a single one—deng—the central tone of his piece, after which it is named. Here was the Balinese answer to Terry Riley’s nomenclature: in place of naming the piece after a restricted harmonic field (the key of C major), the two Balinese composers named their works after the central tone around which all the parts were oriented. (This idea came from the previous iteration of John Noise Manis’s project with Javanese musicians, called “In Nem” after the central scale tone used in the Javanese scale.)


In Ding

I Dewa Putu Berata approached the idea of freedom and constraint differently. Enamored with spontaneity and improvisation (a passion that comes out in his virtuosic playfulness in his own performance of various Balinese instruments such as kendang and reong) he didn’t specify the parts exactly, but wanted the musicians to generate them in real time. He gave the musicians simple guidelines to follow in developing their parts. First, each player should stay within the range of one tone—that is, single strokes on the tone ding, in a rhythmic pattern of their choosing. Then he could widen it to two tones, wavering back and forth in free rhythms. Then slowly widen it further, to three, four, and eventually five tones of the scale, over a long time frame. The widening was always downward: Ding, then ding-dang, then ding-dang-dung, etc.

He, like Pak Arnawa, went through a process of letting go of traditional modes of interaction, such as interlocking parts, as his conception of freedoms and individuality developed. He realized that the possibility of “chance interlocking moments” were in tune with his own love of spontaneity. The idea of patience and enjoyment of the changing musical landscape was particularly attractive, and allowed him to see the larger goals of this piece. His love of new music arises in large part from the ways it invites a musician to think differently—to enter new modes of musical awareness and discourse. This idea had just such an effect, allowing him and the other musicians to let go of a incessant need to always change, always push ahead—and always do it together.

He also liked the idea of the players generating their own parts, since it resonated with his fascination with individual responsibility. Having spent many years in the US (many as the music director of the California-based Gamelan Sekar Jaya) he had often pondered the cultural differences that manifest in group dynamics. One of his goals in his own ensemble, Çudamani, is to increase the members’ sense of initiative and responsibility, to get away from what he feels is a typical Indonesian mode of “following the leader,” passively waiting for guidance. These new interactive modes offered a model to achieve this musically. Certain of the players, such as Gus De, Super, and Dewa Rai (their full names are Ida Bagus Made Widnyana, I Dewa Made Suparta, and I Dewa Rai), who are also composers and have held leading roles in Çudamani, easily absorbed this idea, but Pak Dewa was glad that it had to be taken on by every member of the ensemble.  Each player became a composer, a generator of musical strands.

Berata also delighted in a kind of “quantization “of freedom in the lower instruments. As in Arnawa’s piece, each pair was able to de-couple to a degree, playing the same parts generally but moving forward or hanging back at different rates. But this also meant that relationships among the pairs, and the ensemble as a whole, were altered from the traditional gamelan styles: The two jublag were very free from higher instruments, somewhat free or independent of the jegogan (which had overall similar instructions), and between them were slightly free to vary lengths. Many kinds of freedom seemed to emerge in the piece.

In terms of instrumentation, In Ding also differed from Pak Arnawa’s In Deng by utilizing many suling, end-blown bamboo flutes, which are taken up roughly in the middle of the piece, and by including the lovely voice of Emiko Saraswati Susilo, trained in both Javanese and Balinese vocal styles. Here, the sonic contrasts offered by sustained, non-percussive, embellished tones opened up another relationship between Riley’s music and Indonesian traditions: Both are accustomed to “freely” following a lead instrument or melodic skeleton, and in so doing having the option to push ahead or hang back slightly. For example, a suling player might land on a target tone a few beats later than all the fixed-pitch bronze instruments in a gamelan. In this facet of the project, too, another interconnection appeared that was the direct result of its impetus—a creative, cross-cultural commentary—and the process of realizing it by two very thoughtful and skilled composers.


This CD is a continuation of a series of CDs devoted to gamelan that were conceived, curated, and/or produced by John Noise Manis via Yantra Productions. One of those also explores the relationship between gamelan and minimalism, particularly “In C,” in new works led by Javanese composers Al Suwardi and Joko Purwanto: “Gamelan of Central Java XV. Returning Minimalism: In Nem (Felmay 8181).


1. In Deng              24:23
I Made Arnawa

2. In Ding               23:02
I Dewa Putu Berata


Performed by members of Seka Gong Taruna Mekar (Tunjuk) and Çudamani (Pengosekan)


I Made Arnawa – reong, trompong
I Dewa Putu Berata – gangsa, suling, trompong

Komang Arianta – kantil, suling
I Made Karjana – kantil, suling
I Nyoman Muliadi – gangsa
I Nyoman Suriadi – gangsa, suling
I Dewa Made Suparta – gangsa
Ida Bagus Made Widnyana – gangsa
I Made Dita Nava Prajanata – reong, suling
I Wayan Ardika – reong
I Dewa Rai – trompong
Emiko Saraswati Susilo, vocal (In Deng)
Sang Kompiang Widya Sastrawan – jublag
I Nengah Sudartana – jublag
I Made Dedi Juniarta – jegogan
I Made Eka Arta - jegogan
I Komang Juliarta – gong, kempur, kenong

Conceived and produced by John Noise Manis
Artistic direction and booklet text: Wayne Vitale
Artistic coordination: Emiko Saraswati Susilo and Wayne Vitale
Recorded on 28 June, 2011 at the Pura Dalem Munduk Sangkur, Tunjuk, Bali
Recording, mastering, and photos: John Noise Manis and Wayne Vitale
Cover image: I Dewa Putu Berata

With special thanks to:
The people of Tunjuk, Bali
The pemangku (priests), coordinators, and organizers of the Pura Dalem Munduk Sangkur, for use of the temple in rehearsal and recording.
The family of I Made Arnawa for outstanding artistry and hospitality




Ó 2011 VITAL RECORDS                                                  
3837 Linden Lane
El Sobrante, CA 94803