Friday, February 1, 2013

Balinese Gamelan, the "Interlock Flow" and resolving the dualistic mind: Pt 1

I am a musician in the Balinese gamelan orchestra, Anak Swarasanti. Though I am nowhere near qualified, I'm extremely fortunate to play alongside one of the best musicians/dancers in the genre, my dear friend Gede Oka Artha Negara. I love the music, and the clarity of mind that comes from performing it.

I can trace my fascination with Balinese culture back to the time I was first allowed to solo-explore a particularly arty book/retail shop, here in my hometown of Santa Cruz. This was waaay back in the 70's, so I'd guess I was about 7 or 8 years old at the time, already relentlessly inquisitive about things no grown-up would dare explain. Bookshops tended to be one of the few places my parents would let me run around unsupervised, as I'm sure they were thinking I couldn't get in too much trouble in such a benign environment….*cough cough*, fully illustrated "Joy of Sex", anyone?

Anyway, wandering around one of the biggest "hippie" bookstores in the country at that time, I eventually discovered, and was mesmerized by, a poster rack full of absolutely dazzling art prints. Given the somewhat psychedelic nature of the business, these images were of course bursting with an energy highly uncommon (and perhaps a bit over the top) to the average western eye. But it was in this collection, which I thoughtfully turned like pages from giant magical tome of enchantments, that I saw my first Alex Grey artwork, my first Buddhist thangkas, and had my first photographic exposure to the incredible artistic works of the Balinese people. I was moved. It was a moment of self-realized art appreciation, a discovery of what was possible for human beings to accomplish, and perhaps my first acknowledgment of what we really are capable of creating when engaged in The Flow.

I paraphrase the wiki entry on Flow as this: Complete absorption in what one does, characterized by feelings of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.


In the Balinese language, there is no word for Art. Art is simply life, existence, something like the moment to moment experience of simply Being Alive. That said, to visit Bali is one of the most saturating art immersion experiences one could possibly have on this planet. Every citizen is an artist, a sculptor, a painter, a musician, a dancer…and so on. And as a result, art just pours from these beautiful people, as if every exhale produced some priceless treasure of the heart. It is everywhere you look and listen, both magnificent in scale and ubiquitous in presence. Bali Flows with Creation.

While it took 30 years from that point in the book store to physically get to the island, and another 10 to learn how to play traditional Angklung Gamelan, it's taken ALL of this time to reveal why Balinese culture resonates so profoundly within me. It's not just the deep embrace of the Flow. Or, the phenomenal Art that results. There is more. Much more.

I can say it in a word, but ultimately I'll need lifetime's worth of clarification (blogging, yay!) to explain: Interlock. My simplified  version of the meaning of Interlock goes like this: To connect together, so that the individual parts affect each other in motion or operation, creating something beyond the sum of the components.

Beautiful Magic.

Balinese gamelan instruments come in pairs. They are played individually by two different people, but in essence, they are "married" to each other from the very beginning when the metal keys are forged. They appear to be identical, and have the same notes for each key, but one (male) is tuned slightly sharp, and the other (female) is tuned slightly flat. When played correctly, the male and female note struck at the same time create an oscillating waveform, a third "transcendent" presence in the music. At the same time, equal parts of the composition are divided into Polos (up beats) and Sangsi (down beats), again, creating the perceivable effect of a third presence. Imagine your favorite solo piano work broken into two interlocking compositions, meant to be played by two people simultaneously to create the experience of the entire piece, but somehow it sounds distinctly different from the original. It is the Interlock, the intention of connection in deep purpose of creating something beyond its parts, that creates the Magic.

I like to think of the metal keys as the soul of the gamelan instrument. The carved wood/bamboo case that holds the keys, regardless of how ornate or sacred it may be, will deteriorate over time. But the keys will remain. An individual key will keep its tone forever, and alone it may be useful in some way, but never complete in its intended purpose. Paired with its mate, which for various reasons can not be recreated if lost of destroyed, both keys will always contain their individual tones, as well as the third oscillating waveform. And if kept together with all the other married pairs in the group, infinite beauty will patiently reveal itself in layers, throughout the Flow of Time.

Note: I was talking to my friend and fellow co-parent Jeffery Lerner from STS9 about this topic the other day, and learned how he composes his own music from this perspective. Not that I know much at all about music theory, but I suspect this may be the reason why STS9 is one of my favorite bands, and never fails to get me dancing. More of that later, in Pt 2. For now, enjoy some beautiful gamelan!

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