Jonathon Grasse: Exploring the Gamelan Ensemble Influence in America
Assistant professor of music Jonathon Grasse presented his paper, “Revisiting Lou Harrison’s Work for American Gamelan Featuring Solo Western Instruments,” as part of a panel on American music at the “Music in the 21st Century: Illuminations and Reflections” symposium held on Feb. 7at San Francisco State University. He also gave the Harrison presentation at the meeting of the Southern California and Hawaii chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology at UCLA later in the month.
According to Grasse, Harrison (1917-2003) was an iconoclastic composer, whose fascination with cross-cultural applications of instruments, music theory and compositional techniques led to exploring the tradition of the Indonesian gamelan ensemble. In his late fifties, Harrison studied and performed gamelan, which features flutes, string instruments and various metal percussion instruments. Grasse says that there is great diversity within the gamelan tradition throughout Indonesia.
“The whole region boasts of these impressive tuned percussion orchestras,” he says. “There’s a great deal of overlap with some of the instrument design through Southeast Asia. But from village to village... gamelans can be tuned differently and comprise a variety of related instruments.”
Grasse says that the study of gamelan in the 20th century became a linchpin for the growing interest in ethnomusicology by Western scholars.
“Gamelan and gamelan-related discourse and research, and ultimately performance practice, became a sort of cornerstone of ethnomusicology in Europe and in the United States,” he notes. “with that academic interest and institutional support, literally bringing gamelans out of Indonesia, along with master musicians to help teach. Ultimately over the decades, more Americans gained access to and were influenced by recordings of gamelan.”
Grasse says that contemporary music, particularly in film soundtracks, has been greatly influenced by ethnic traditions like gamelan.
“In film music from the 1960s onward, you’ll find tuned percussion other than vibraphone and marimba that’s sort of somehow pegged as ‘ethnic,’ or [evocative] of Asia or Africa manipulated in cinema [music]. Regardless of how authentic it might be, it could be referred to as gamelan-inspired. A lot of the soundtrack to ‘American Beauty’ has gamelan-inspired percussion. [Also] ‘The Year of Living Dangerously,’ a film about the Indonesian coup made in the early 1980s. The French composer [Maurice] Jarre did that soundtrack, which has a lot of synth and pop music in it, but also authentic historical recordings of gamelan.”
Grasse is an ethnomusicologist, composer, and music theorist with a doctorate from UCLA in composition with a cognate in ethnomusicology. His teaching areas include world music and music theory. His interest in diverse music cultures led to his involvement in the founding of the Institute for the Pedagogies of World Music Theories, where he lectures on Brazilian and Indonesian music and other areas. His compositions have been performed by the Pori Sinfonietta of Finland, The UCLA Percussion Ensemble, The Los Angeles Flute Quartet, and the Elgart-Yates Guitar Duo.
- Joanie Harmon