Arts concert review

The great gamelan

A combination of Eastern and Western instruments astounds

Mr. Harrison’s Gamelans
Centennial Celebration of the Music of Lou Harrison
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Oct. 12, 2017

The curtains are open.

This is unusual for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater, a large room in the Boston ICA with plush orange seats and glass walls overlooking the harbor. But the concert happening here tonight is unusual, too. It’s like a wedding anniversary.

Most of the instruments onstage, known as gamelans, belonged to one of two percussion ensembles. The gamelans, Old Granddad and Si Betty, were created by a musician named Lou Harrison, who passed away in 2003. Harrison was well-known for liking Eastern music, especially the kind produced by Javanese gamelans. He was also known for “marrying” Eastern and Western music — between the gamelans, there is a piano onstage. Playing by the gamelans were a violin and two clarinets.

Lights dimmed. Members of Gamelan Galak Tika, an MIT organization founded in 1993, filtered onstage and take their places at their instruments. It seemed that the whole gamelan awakened at once: each song feels like a serious, rhythmic breath that swells to fill the room. Certain sounds stood out to me, but they were difficult to place when so many hands are hammering in sync. I give into the idea that a gamelan is a single musical entity rather than a collection of the same.

To me, Eastern tunes remind me of gardens in various stages of the day. Some of them are chilling, like moonlight; some of them evoke the sense of a vine growing. As the concert progressed, Western instruments were added. At first, it felt strange to hear the smooth slide of a violin conversing with the cavelike echoes of a gamelan, but over time, it sounded just right.

It’s hard not to close your eyes when listening to music when the melody fills all of your senses at once. Harrison did something wonderful in creating American gamelans, and in writing music that would allow collaboration between them and traditionally Western instruments.

The pieces played were varied. Some were bright, some were dark. One explored how Eastern tuning characterizes a piece; one was fast-paced and harmonious, sounding almost standardly Western. What the songs had in common is their construction — a careful kind of chaos that stops just long enough on a tone for me to commit it to memory. I spent the journey home contented, my ears still wrapped in the concert’s final note.