Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, Evergreen Club: Sunda Song

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 10.11.13 in Reviews

The Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan is one of a number of Indonesian-style gamelan ensembles in North America, but their reputation is in large measure built on their performances of new works by Western composers as opposed to tradition Indonesian works. That makes this album, Sunda Song, doubly unusual for them. First, it is a collection of Indonesian works; second, it is from neither of the most popular or commonly heard gamelan traditions — namely, the court ensembles of Java and of Bali.

A collection of Indonesian works from less commonly heard gamelan traditions

As the title indicates, all of these works come from Sunda, which is a region occupying the western portion of the island of Java. While it is on the same island as the great courts of Surakarta and Yogyakarta, the Sundanese style of gamelan music is distinct, and in ways that even novice Western listeners can appreciate. Think of it this way: The grand metal percussion orchestras of the Javanese and Balinese courts are just that: orchestras. Sunda, on the other hand, produces chamber music. A Sundanese ensemble may only be half a dozen players strong — this is the so-called gamelan degung. There is also a style known as kecapi suling, which is essentially a trio of voice, flute (suling) and zither (kecapi). 

Most of the works on this album are from the degung repertoire. It is a received tradition, but not necessarily a “classical” one; some of these pieces are instrumental versions of popular regional songs. “Sorban Palid” is a good example. What makes this music so accessible to Western ears is its unhurried grace and its obvious lyricism. Whereas larger gamelan styles, especially the explosive gamelan gong kebyar of Bali, depend on the intricate interplay of rhythms for their musical interest, the Sundanese style relies on melody and a smaller, more lilting percussion section. Start with “Anjeun,” and for something slightly closer to the ringing, chiming sounds of the bigger gamelans, try Andrew Timar’s arrangement of “Arang Arang.”