Even as the art & tradition of classical gamelan music fades in Java, gamelans are built & organized in America & Europe, the music is studied & taught in universities. This has occurred since the 70's, when recordings of gamelan music became widely available, particularly in a major series on Nonesuch Explorer. For many people, hearing gamelan for the first time is not only a delightfully exotic experience, the music unlike anything one has heard, but there is often also a strange shock of recognition, as if one somehow already knew the music, although where & how remains a mystery. Perhaps this is what happened to Colin McPhee. For McPhee in 1930, as for so many western musicians since, hearing gamelan inspired something like a religious conversion.
I was given an old copy of this book shortly after I heard gamelan for the first time, & so I was able to follow McPhee on his great adventure to find where the music came from. When he arrived in Bali, he discovered that although the culture was vibrantly alive, much of music was in danger of being lost. He met, befriended, & studied with some greatly talented Balinese musicians, old masters & several younger composers & leaders, including Wayan Lotring & Made Lebah. They set about restoring a Semar Pegulingan gamelan. The task of bringing this music back to life is the "plot" of the "A House In Bali." McPhee quickly realized that his western musical training was of limited value, because the "values" of music - technically & culturally - in Bali were so different. Music had popular, ritual, & concert functions, as in the West. But the music was inseparable from the instruments, & each collection of instruments - each gamelan, was unique. Compositions were learned by rote, in phrases, with the gamelan functioning as a kind of all-ages social club for men. McPhee had to become, as best he could, a person of Bali, a villager, someone with a place & a role in the life of the community. He recounts his immersion in Balinese life, As strange as Bali was for McPhee, he was the "stranger," the outsider, & he remained one, oddly indifferent to what the Balinese thought of his lifestyle. Most inexplicably, he seems not to have become a gamelan musician. One wonders not only how he resisted this experience, but also why?
McPhee later attempted to translate Balinese music into a western idiom using pianos & a symphony orchestra, with beautiful results, but losing what he had learned in the process, Sadly, when he returned home, he had left the most important stuff behind.