March 3, 2009

Come Together, Right Now

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Friday night, Cornell’s Southeast Asia and Music departments came together, sponsored by the Breaking Bread initiative, to put on Songs from 24,615 Islands, a night of Indonesian and Filipino music. The Breaking Bread initiative at Cornell focuses on bringing diverse peoples together to share culture and establish common ground. The Philippines and Indonesia are two incredibly ethnically diverse countries, and in the spirit of coming together, two musical groups – one Filipino/Western and one Indonesian Muslim – applied to Breaking Bread.
The result was Friday’s concert, with performances by both groups, as well as a visiting Filipino music guru. The concert was held in the Sage Hall atrium which, though kind of an odd place for a concert, acoustically was actually pretty nice. The usual tables were moved out of the way, and the chairs arranged for the audience. Nearly all were filled, and the audience, like the performers, was quite ethnically diverse, reflecting both the character of the islands themselves, and the spirit of the evening. Although the concert was free of charge, donations were accepted on behalf of a young Filipino student, sponsored by the Cornell Rondalla group.
The night started off with the Cornell Gamelan Ensemble, an ever-changing group of students and faculty, founded by the Music Department’s Professor Martin Hatch in 1972. Cornell Gamelan is lucky enough to have use of authentic Javanese Gamelan instruments, on long-term loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the ensemble only played two pieces, the traditional Gamelan music is apparently long — the first piece was definitely 10 minutes plus, and all done from memory.
The instruments of a Gamelan ensemble resemble gongs and chimes, of all different sizes and pitches. All but the largest (and therefore deepest) gongs resemble hollow metal pots (lids included). The result is incredibly different from anything found in Western music, and, although the repertoire of tones is somewhat limited, the overall sound is ethereal and enchanting. The Cornell group, currently directed by Christopher J. Miller, did a great job playing as a group, staying together despite intricate, if somewhat repetitive, melodies. In Gamelan, the beat is kept by the largest gongs, and the downbeat apparently comes on beat four. In both Gamelan pieces, the last sound heard was the deepest gong.
The second group to perform was 14 Strings!, the Cornell Filipino Rondalla group. Rondalla is a form of Filipino music brought to the islands by the Portuguese in the colonial era. Their songs included both traditional Filipino folk songs and classical Western pieces. Rondalla instruments resemble mandolins, but are each of different size, and have each fourteen strings — they are known as the banduria, the laud, and the octavina. Rondalla is also commonly accompanied by ordinary guitars, as was the case Friday, on a steadier, background part.
14 Strings!’s performance, on what I imagine are incredibly difficult instruments, was impressive, not least because they were very well in tune, which, with multiple fourteen-stringed instruments, must be an absolute nightmare. Rondalla’s final piece was entitled “Katakataka” (meaning “hard to believe”) and was accompanied by the vocals of Sadie Hays and Christopher J. Miller. The words were unintelligible to me, but from the singers’ gestures and expressions, it was pretty clear that the piece was some sort of lover’s song, or wedding song. Although Hays’ voice sometimes overpowered Millers’, both sang well, and the song was a hit with the audience.
The third performer of the night was Filipino “musician, educator, musicologist, and storyteller” Priscilla Magdamo, an incredibly regal looking Filipino woman in a purple traditional dress. Magdamo performed with a small ensemble called a kulintang, a form of Filipino Muslim music, and she explained for us as she played, the names of the instruments, the origin of the kulintang form, and the meanings of the songs. Kulintang, she said, is public music, community music, which on-lookers would be expected to join in with and have fun with.
All of the kulintang songs seemed to be some sort of strong back beat, on drums and the low gongs, accompanied by Magdamo on a set of higher gongs. The back beat made you want to get up and stamp your feet, the haunting melodies of Magdamo asked for beauty and mystery.
Magdamo also sang several solo vocal pieces, intended to tell different stories. One told the story of a girl who must return from play to help her family, another of a lover confessing his feelings for his “beauty.” Although one of the songs was accompanied by piano, several were sung totally a capella by Magdamo, a very difficult thing to pull of well, which she certainly did. Magdamo’s high register was incredibly pure and her lower tremolo soulful in a refined sort of way.
The final performance of the night (and my favorite) was a combined Cornell Gamelan, 14 Strings! piece, arranged by Christopher J. Miller, aping the “low brow” kroncong style, a combination of folk and Western influences. The combined groups managed to meld their sounds together extremely well. They were accompanied by Professor Martin Hatch, whose resounding yet gentle voice lent warmth to the music, and Juliana May on flute. The flute melody was pretty, and played very well, but it seemed fairly obvious that something like a flute was not originally part of a group like this. Of course, a group like this has almost literally never existed before, and the result was totally new, totally bizarre, but really, undeniably, cool.