In this virtuoso performance, a traditional Balinese gamelan orchestra combines with organ, guitar, and voice to tell the allegorical story of a beggar’s perplexing dreams about the Five Pillars of Islam. With entrancing music by Brian Baumbusch and libretto by Paul Baumbusch, this compelling music puts the shimmering sounds of gamelan in an entirely new context. Presented in 2016 as part of the festival Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections.
Hamsa: Five Tales
Music: Brian Baumbusch (b. 1987)
Text: Paul Baumbusch (b. 1985)
World premiere (2016)
Lightbulb Ensemble, Balinese gamelan semar pegulingan
Christina Stanley, narrator
Brett Carson, organ
Ramon Fermin, guitar
As a new-music percussion ensemble, Lightbulb champions experimental composition, instrument building, and contemporary gamelan. The San Francisco Classical Voice writes that their “refreshingly innovative performances challenge conventional notions of how gamelan music should sound.” The ensemble emerged from the culture of new music in San Francisco centered at Mills College as well as from the long-standing artistic exchange between Bali and the United States fostered by the Bay Area ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya. Lightbulb performs on steel metallophones, wooden marimbas, and other instruments designed, tuned, and built by Brian Baumbusch, the ensemble’s founding director. Performing only new repertoire, the group presents in-house compositions and collaborates with other artists of the new-music community, including the Paul Dresher Ensemble, the Center for Contemporary Music, and the duo of Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang, among others. They appeared at the Freer|Sackler during the first Performing Indonesia festival in 2013 and returned in 2015 for a concert-length performance that the Washington Post called “as cutting edge as cutting edge gets... ritualistic and almost incantatory, a vast, shape-shifting universe of rhythmic patterns and pungent intonations.”
Composer and instrumentalist Brian Baumbusch pushes the boundaries of new music with compositions that are “harmonically vivid... intense... simmering” (New York Times). He has headlined performances at the Bali Arts Festival in Denpasar, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kresge Hall at MIT, and other leading venues. Baumbusch has worked extensively with the JACK Quartet, Pauline Oliveros, Larry Polansky, I Made Bandem, Evan Ziporyn, and Paul Dresher.
In 2013 Baumbusch founded the Lightbulb Ensemble, a new-music gamelan ensemble performing on percussion instruments that he designed and built. Following its performance at the Freer Gallery in 2015, the Washington Post called his piece Hydrogen(2)Oxygen, for American gamelan and the JACK Quartet, “exuberantly complex . . . built from an ethereal opening into a raging torrent of asymmetrical rhythms, phase-shifting patterns and beautifully strange harmonies... maddeningly beautiful and... magnificent, and as intoxicating as a drug.” Baumbusch continues to be an influential force in the California gamelan community, both as director of the Lightbulb Ensemble and as director of the UC Santa Cruz Balinese gamelan ensemble.
This project started around 2014, after my family moved back to the United States from living in the Middle East. Over the previous decade I had developed a deep passion and interest in Islamic tilework and geometry, and I visited resplendent mosques and experienced the greatness and beauty of both the culture and religion from the vantage point of a nonMuslim. I started to experiment with musical structures that drew influence from an aesthetic of symmetry, asymmetry, and kaleidoscopic color inspired by these experiences with Islamic art.
Meanwhile, I was composing music for gamelan ensembles. I took a trip to Bali to teach one of my compositions to a gamelan ensemble near Ubud for a performance at the Bali Arts Festival. The gamelan seemed the perfect vessel for realizing these musical symmetries. The musical structure of a gamelan is built on interlocking fragments woven together in a tessellation and fractal-like colotomic structures (tuned percussion in layers of graduated density). The project started to take form when I decided to work on a concert-length piece that could follow a narrative based on the Five Pillars of Islam. Each movement would meditate on the moral principle embodied in each pillar. In an exquisite arc, the progression of the pillars seemed to portray:
- the quest of man and artist,
- the admission of faith, giving over to a force greater than oneself,
- humbling oneself before the power and beauty of such a force through prayer,
- carrying this realization into the world and celebrating it through charity,
- denying attachments to worldly pleasures and welcoming solitude and even pain to be closer to this source of greatness through fasting, and
- embarking on the journey toward the unknown, or a return to the known, to the source.
I asked my brother Paul to write five “fables” based on each of the pillars. I used these fables as storyboards while I composed the music, drawing inspiration from Balinese gamelan, the early minimalism of the 1960s, progressive rock, and other Western art music. The piece became a coloring of this narrative in which I attempted to design musical renditions of tilework tessellations and a shape-shifting kaleidoscope and to pair them to the arc of my brother’s stories and themes of the pillars, with a musical interlude between each story to reflect its position in the arc.
To keep the auditory and the narrative portions in separate cognitive spaces, the narrator, although present at the front of the stage and expressive in her narration, reads the stories into a filter to render the voice unintelligible. The story texts are simultaneously projected behind her, which requires the listener to read the text in order to follow the stories. This makes the experience of reading the stories an internal one, while the external experience, that of the performers, provides music and nonverbal sound. This project has provided a way for me to bring together disparate experiences—a celebration of the unique time and place we now occupy—and to keep a hold on the joy and inspiration that Islamic art has given me over the years.
A young boy, jealous of his friend’s caged bird, creates his own bird made of patchwork. When he brings it to school and realizes his friend’s lovely, living bird can sing and his patchwork bird cannot, he retreats to the river. A turtle approaches him and says his bird will sing if it is free to do so.
An old servant in the house of her master wonders what is behind his bedroom door. A strange light emerges through the cracks. Learning that she cannot enter the room without putting herself in danger, she ventures outside. The new moon tells her, You can enter the splendid room only if you carry nothingness with you.
A father orders his son to kill one of the family’s young lambs and serve it during a celebratory feast that night. Attempting to impress a young lady who will attend the celebration, and goaded by a monkey, the boy kills the lamb and offers it to her at the feast.
A beggar relentlessly sings his own made-up song during the time of fasting. A young woman offers to bring the beggar to her house, where her eleven sisters live, and to pay him to write more songs for them. Once in the house, he enters the room of each sister and writes her a song. He meets with great temptation in each room.
A newlywed couple intends to make a pilgrimage, but the young wife falls ill. She remains at home alone while her husband begins the journey with the rest of his troupe. The wife is in agony with sickness. A cloud shaped like a bear tells her to “weave a shawl, but complicate the path.” As she weaves, her husband and the band of travelers appear as if they are tiny ants on the threads of the shawl. She watches them as they encounter perils on their journey.
Hamsa: Five Tales received its world premiere on November 19, 2016, in the Hammer Auditorium of the Corcoran School of Arts and Design as part of Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections. The recording on this podcast was made the next day at Roulette in New York City. The Performing Indonesia festival was presented by the Freer|Sackler in partnership with George Washington University and the Embassy of Indonesia through Rumah Budaya Indonesia. The festival received federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Additional funding was provided by the American-Indonesian Cultural and Educational Foundation and Badan Ekonomi Kreatif Indonesia.
This concert podcast was organized by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler. Audio recording courtesy of Brian Baumbusch. Thanks to SuMo Productions for audio editing, Ryan King for web design, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web production, Nancy Eickel for copy editing, and especially the artists for agreeing to share their performance through the Freer|Sackler.