We drove to White Plains, and then caught a train into Manhattan. We went straight to the Indonesian consulate, via Grand Central Station – it’s been year’s since I’ve been here and taken in this well articulated and fantastic space – where we meet with members of Gamelan Kusuma Laras, and got started loading the instruments into a truck for transportation over to Lincoln Center.
When we arrived at the consulate, we met in the basement. It was an odd mix of people. Conversation was minimal, strained at best. It didn’t take long to load the instruments. After seeing off the driver, we decided to walk through Central Park to get to Lincoln Center, it seemed to make more sense than taking a subway. It was brutally cold, but this was a necessary step in getting members from the two groups to mix. It felt good to walk briskly in the bitter air. I walked with a young man who had just returned from Southern Kalimantan. He was there as a Fulbright Scholar teaching English. He started playing gamelan just a few months ago after returning back to the States, and had ambitions as a writer.
It took about 30-40 minutes to walk through the park to Amsterdam, where we finally relocated at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The moving truck loaded with the instruments pulled up just after we arrived.
We quickly moved the instruments onto the main stage, and then discussed the best way to arrange them for the performance. It didn’t take long. We arrived at the consulate around 2:00 in the afternoon, and once we completed arranging the stage it was about 4:45. By this point, more members of the New York gamelan were beginning to arrive. Originally our numbers were about 10-12, now we were closer to 20. We split into two groups, and left to get dinner before rehearsal at 6:30.
We went to a Greek restaurant just 4-5 blocks south down Amsterdam. There were probably 12 of us, including Pak Harjito and his family. I ordered a grilled chicken dish seasoned with lemon and olive oil, served with roasted potatoes, and I had a hot coffee.
Our stay at the restaurant wasn’t long. We all reconvened at the library again a little before 6:30. By this time the group was much larger, about 40 in all. We gathered to rehearse the four pieces prepared for the performance. Only one of these had a I played before, Ladrang Pucung.
I played and performed with my first gamelan in August of 1992, Tunas Mekar. This performance was the first orchestrated works by Made Lasmawan in Colorado (prior to that, he directed a gamelan in San Diego). Just a week or two after this first performance, I left to study in Bali, Indonesia. Since returning from Bali, I’ve played with 5-6 different gamelans, though until recently these were all Balinese. I started studying Javanese music just about a year and an half ago; it’s still new to me.
This first night of rehearsal caught me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting much, or at least I went into the experience with an open mind and a thirst for the experience itself, though despite that I wasn’t as ready to be moved as I really came to be. Indeed, something was awakened.
The rehearsal ended a little before 10pm. The music, it transformed me. It was unlike anything I had heard before. It was a full orchestra of bronze instruments – gender, saron, bonang, gong, kumpul, demung, slentem – and also included gambang, rebab, and great range of kendang. Additionally, there was a full chorus, perhaps 20 singers or more, including two female solos (Pak Harjito’s wife, and Jessica Kenney from Seattle).
The overtones, the harmonics of bronze, are incredible, as you can well imagine. It is material of profound resonance, best exemplified by the gong (one of two words from Javanese that carried over to English, amok being the other). Together with the shimmering soloists and a haunting, graceful, and supple rebab, the warm wood of gambang, and the delicate, sophisticated subtlety of gender, the orchestra was thickly layered with sound, orchestrated with great patience, discipline, love, and sensitivity. The passages with the full chorus filled the space with sound and beauty. I inhaled it. I sat completely silent, and listened with reverence, with the same patience at the heart of the music.
People gathered in small pools and groups around the stage after the rehearsal. Conversation was short, but there was a lovely and clear sense that we shared something meaningful. Some might call it a of devotional, or maybe a call to mystical experience.
In pursuit of fullness, a full gamelan experience in New York, I opted not to stay with a friend or someone familiar in The City, but rather chose to stay with a member of the group.
His name was Nick. Together with his girlfriend, Gabriella (aspirations as a choreographer, but now teaches yoga), Nick and I went to a burlesque bar in the Lower East Side called The Slipper Room. We met up with a friend of his named Viking (old pals from an Apple Retail Outlet in the City), who was there to celebrate his 40th.
The Slipper Room features an all-night stage show. The MC for the night modeled himself after Pan: he wore buck teeth, a white beard, shirtless, and goat legs from the waist down. He performed “stand up comedy” between the dancers. There was also one acrobat. He was short, well-groomed and handsome. He could balance head first down on a basketball, and could swallow whole ballons. The women, about 5 of them aging between 22-30, danced 3-5 minute numbers, erotic dances, but the dances were also skits in a way like Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, though much more funny and a great deal sexier. Think maybe, Ann Magnuson.
On arrival, Nick and I both ordered martinis, and Gabriella a whiskey. Gabriella didn’t stay long, in maybe just 15 minutes she left. Just after she was gone, Nick invited me out to smoke pot with Viking. The three of us huddled in an empty doorway, passing a one-hitter with a wooden dug-out. Across the street, a young black man sold drugs from under the canopy of a dark store front. Four young women approached us during a hit and asked directions.
I’d only had two hits, but had finished the martini before smoking. By the time I went back into The Slipper Room, I was hallucinating, or at least something like it. As I walked to the front by the stage with Nick, the people jammed into this space seemed both more animate and foreign. My senses were heightened and challenged. I felt like I had reached a limit, and could suddenly see more clearly.
It felt as though number of pieces of my psychic self were coming to the forefront, in order to offer more clarity or resolve. All that I’d experienced that led me to that point seemed clear, how this moment seemed like a distillate of all my life, and I knew immediately that somehow after my life would change thereafter. It all seemed like a moment for definition, a decisive moment.
I sat down in the front row with Nick and a woman who introduced herself as Sheridan. I was mesmerized by the energy around me. We left for Nick’s apartment around 1am.