MUSIC CULTURE AND CULTURAL MUSIC
by Robert Lemelson, Director
Coming up with a musical score for “40 Years of Silence” and the “Afflictions: Culture and Mental Illness in Indonesia” was both challenging and fun. One of my goals, as a director with a psychological anthropology orientation, was to forge a type of ethnographic film that was closer in structure to documentary films. From a film perspective this meant having a score. Many ethnographic films, even today, do not use musical scores of any sort. For some it is considered improper to include a soundtrack as it detracts from the cultural veracity of the piece. I believe that ethnographic films should not only inform the viewer and function as an information transfer about different cultural issues but should also move the viewer emotionally, thus having a more “embodied” experience of watching and understanding.
To accomplish this meant creating story lines that were based on developing strong characters and the struggles they face. To accentuate this character development we needed both an appropriate musical accompaniment that supported the narrative line and the emotions therein. Appropriate means the music was both fitting culturally and right for supporting the story line and the conflicts that are being represented on screen.
The films themselves deal with a complex series of issues centered around the relationships between personal experience and violence, trauma, mental illness, family, social support (or the lack thereof), memory and its place in the social order, survival and resilience- all taking place in the context of Indonesian history and society. Given this wide range of subjects and subsequent stories, the range of musical accompaniment was both wide and deep.
We would start the process of music placement by creating a “scratch” track of music drawn from an extremely wide variety of sources: ambient, electronic, minimalist, folk, world, even new age and spa music were considered. The purpose was to find music that both fit the emotion and movement of the theme, and connected with other pieces in the film.
Once the scratch soundtrack was finalized, Malcolm began the complex process of molding the piece to fit within the complex musical universe that exists in Indonesia. Further modifications, at times frustrating and at others illuminating, resulted in the final score. The end result is a musical bricolage that ranges widely over Western and Indonesian musical modalities, tempos, tonalities, melodies and emotions. Enjoy!
WEST MEETS EAST
by Malcolm Cross, Music Composer
Scoring these films – first "40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy" and then the "Afflictions: Culture & Mental Illness in Indonesia" series – presented some real conundrums musically, namely: how to marry two sound worlds – traditional Indonesian music and Western film music - that are so intrinsically different?
Director Rob Lemelson wanted the viewer to feel "like they never left" Indonesia; he had already collected plenty of ethnographic field recordings to ensure he had access to authentic traditional music. But to a Western ear, Javanese and Balinese music does not have the same emotional resonance as it does to its native audience. This is particularly true of classical gamelan music, whose shimmering cyclical melodies and rhythms are designed to create a sense of cool, emotional detachment in order to inspire a selfless, contemplative state. For Western audiences to connect with these emotionally charged stories, the scores would also have to use some traditional Western film vocabulary and instrumentation.
The biggest practical hurdle to overcome is that of intonation or tuning. Traditional Indonesian instruments do not generally follow a Western standard tuning - indeed, each region prides itself on its tuning idiosyncrasies. So, a full gamelan orchestra may be in tune with itself and little else! The likelihood of, say, a Western concert pitch/A440 Hz grand piano being able to integrate harmoniously with Balinese gamelan is next to zero. To compound matters, in the case of Balinese gamelan micro-tonal differences between pairs of instruments is a desirable quality. This produces "beating" between close frequencies, which is considered undesirable dissonance in Western music – put simply, it sounds out of tune.
Like any good international summit, the point was not to dwell on these differences but rather to find common ground and compromise. "40 Years of Silence" proved to be a testing ground for some of these ideas. The central theme "Genjer, Genjer" loaned itself well to arrangement; in the pivotal scene "Budi’s Homecoming" (disc 1 #7) you’ll hear the melody in the piano and cellos with the rest of the strings adding some emotional punch. The large gongs and "core" metallophones (Jegog, Calung and Penyacah) provide a rhythmic accompaniment. At the mixing stage, the higher-pitched Gansa metallophones were clashing too much pitch-wise with the other instruments so, as a compromise, the same part was played on an equivalent Western metallophone; the glockenspiel, played with wooden mallets to bring it closer in sound to the gamelan instruments.
One of the more unusual choices of instrumentation in "40 Years of Silence" was the Dobro (a kind of slide guitar more commonly used in American folk/roots music). Guitars are actually widely used all over Indonesia. More importantly, the pentatonic minor blues scale is analogous with a commonly used local scale. Hence, the mournful, sighing sounds of "Degung & Pak Kereta" (disc 1 #2) or "Unclean Environment" (disc 1 #5) sound equally at home depicting sorrow in Bali as they would in Mississippi!
For the later "Afflictions" films, we used technology a bit more to our advantage; creating sound libraries of tuned and un-tuned sampled Indonesian instruments. The tuned instruments still contain much of their unique character but are designed to marry more successfully with concert pitch instruments). A good example of this would be "Family Victim" (disc 2 #21) which successfully utilizes a large mixed Western/Indonesian ensemble sound as a harmonious whole. In addition, by using more sampled Western instruments it became possible to fine tune, say, a piano to work better with an authentic, non concert-pitch gamelan set.
Each film in the "Afflictions" series has its own unique character and setting and so each score attempts to reflect that musically. Generally, there is a solo lead instrument associated with each protagonist: a violin for Pak Kereta (from "Shadows & Illuminations"); a suling (bamboo flute) for Gusti ("The Bird Dancer"), and so on. Kereta and Ni Ketut Kasih ("Ritual Burdens") represent older, more traditional values and so their scores and instrumentation echo that. For example, "End Credits - Shadows and Illuminations" (disc 2 #7) imitates the traditional sounds of the gamelan orchestra. Estu ("Family Victim) and especially Bambang ("Memory of My Face") depict a younger, more westernized Indonesia, so those scores feature more modern sounds - we had particular fun recreating the trashy pop sounds of dangdut music, like in "Memory of My Face" (disc 2 #8), "Family Victim End Credits" (disc 2 #25).
Of course, none of this work would have been possible without the help of my dear friend and collaborator, Pak Nyoman Wenten. As head of the Indonesian Music and Dance program at Cal Arts, he has been an indispensable source of knowledge and experience for these projects. More importantly, he’s a master musician. You’ll hear his performances throughout the collection. Recording together wasn’t without its challenges-- all our musical ideas were exchanged orally since we can’t read each other’s musical notations!
Interestingly, the idea of recording to a click track (normally, so abhorrent to Western classical players) is second nature to gamelan trained musicians, who frequently practice to a Reyong, a fixed-pulse muted kettle gong. Freed from a traditional score, we worked directly to picture, which is in the tradition of the Wayang, "shadow plays," where the musicians follow every nuance of the action on screen. It was quite a humbling realization that this performance tradition predates the idea of live silent movie musicians by several centuries!