Claude Debussy had it right. Upon hearing Indonesian gamelan music played in the late 1880s, the French composer knew that the key to listening to it required abandoning our ‘European prejudice’. Only then, he realised, could we appreciate the ‘charm of their percussion’, in comparison to which our own sounded like ‘primitive noises at a country fair’.
He was on to something.
Gamelan music is an Indonesian folk tradition centred around the courts of Java and Bali, dating back to at least the 8th century. The gamelan itself is a collection of tuned percussion instruments – over 150 bars, more than 75 gongs, played by a group of over a dozen musicians. Experiencing it for the first time, the Western listener may be bamboozled by the lack of reference points, the profound lack of similarity between this mode of music and our own (whereas all western music is conceived using a 12-tone, chromatic scale, gamelan uses the pelog scale, built with only seven tones, or the slendro, which has 5). Listening to it requires us to go in without preconceptions of what nice music ought to sound like; Mr. Debussy was bang on the money. This is a different music.
University College Cork has had a tradition of gamelan playing for several years now, instituted under the guidance of Mel Mercier, one of the college’s professors of music. With enough students now sufficiently well versed in the style to build a comprehensive repertoire, this is the Cork Gamelan Ensemble’s first recorded album.
With the gamelan as the backbone and the anchor to the whole project, Mercier curates alongside a host of collaborators a sound definitively unlike anything else released in Ireland this year. Potentially inaccessible at first listen, ‘The Three Forges’ slowly reveals more of itself if given enough time, emerging as a fascinating endeavour and a work of eccentric beauty.
Kelly and Andy gives us a clue as to what will unfold throughout the album. An Irish sounding title is subverted instantly by something, which sounds totally unusual. Underpinned by what sounds like a double bass, bars and gongs are rhythmically battered in a way, which, while not melodic by any conventional metric, works.
Group vocals are employed percussively. We are introduced early on to this propulsive drive, which serves as the foundation to the music, even if the unsuspecting listener may have no idea what is going on.
While such tracks of pure gamelan are enticing in their own right, it is in the power of the collaborations that the true nature of the album is exposed. Elements of musical styles with little or nothing in common are blended together as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
On the title track, Iarla O’Lionáird can be found whispering his way through 17th century bardic poetry as he has done to such acclaim with The Gloaming. Harmonics and pedal notes from sparsely used strings and woodwinds squeak their way into the ether as complement to those of the gamelan.
Only two tracks on the album are listed as being without a guest artist. Duke Special pops in with two vocal lines, on Guiding Bells and Heart of the Mountain, singing Northern folk over an Indonesian background in a way that no one who has played either form of music has probably ever considered or achieved.
On Tiga and The Beauty Queen of Affane, saxophonist Nick Roth contributes the sounds of a songbird in need of an exorcism (and we say that in a good way). The latter track in particular is a marvel of composition and instrumentation.
If nothing else, it is worth remembering that this album’s very existence is a testament to the passion and intelligence of the people involved, regardless of the end result. At points in these tracks, and elsewhere, the Indonesian elements remain pervasive. And yet, at the same time, we could easily be listening to work of some of the quirkier composers in 20th century classical music, Olivier Messiaen for example (indeed, Messiaen and Benjamin Britten are only two composers who have acknowledged gamelan influences in their work) or Arnold Schoenberg.
Two of the most immediately accessible songs on the record come together in the middle. Alicesongs/The Coolagown Polka is another work of undistilled gamelan and comes as close to anything on the album as a tune that will get stuck in your head. Parabé Sang comes via the help of the West Cork Ukelele Orchestra, who lend a charming quality to proceedings.
There are certain albums it almost feels odd to try and place in a paradigm of ‘Good/Bad’. ‘The Three Forges’ is such an album. Aside from the fact that there are few Irish listeners or critics with enough knowledge of gamelan music to be able to critique it properly, the whole thing is so unique that there is little enough to directly compare it to. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge the remarkable vision and prescience to be able to construct such an album. For all that, it is potentially inaccessible to the new listener, at odds with anybody’s preconceptions; it is equally innovative, subtly enthralling and brilliantly constructed.
Listen to it more than once, if you can. The various charms and wonders of the album take a while to reveal themselves. But reveal themselves they do. It isn’t anyone’s idea of easy listening: it has few parallels in contemporary popular music, and it certainly doesn’t sound like much else to emerge from this parish in recent years. But as a work of music and a work of art in general, it approaches a certain kind of genius.