A House in Bali
Brooklyn Academy of Music
"Listen to it! The confusion of sounds, jangled dissonance, merging to form constantly surprising harmonies in this absolute music." Those words, sung by Colin McPhee, the protagonist of Evan Ziporyn's colossally imaginative new opera A House in Bali, constitute a pretty good stab at a description of the opera itself. McPhee (1900–1964), on whose memoirs A House in Bali is based, was a Canadian composer most famous for his on-location study of the Balinese gamelan, and for his efforts to bring this music to the West. Ziporyn, who teaches music at MIT, became similarly transfixed by the sound of the gamelan after hearing a recording of Balinese music in 1979; he made his own pilgrimage to Bali shortly thereafter, with many more to follow. The new opera, which received three performances at the Howard Gilman Opera House as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival (seen Oct. 14), is Ziporyn's homage to McPhee, as well as a multimedia phantasmagoria of Eastern and Western music, video, dance and performance art.
Ziporyn's forces for the work include the sixteen-member native Balinese group Gamelan Salukat; seven members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars; three singers; four dancers; and a roving videographer feeding images in real time to one of two screens sitting atop the action. Emerging as the musical and conceptual crux of the work, however — and the evening's brilliant highlight — is the juxtaposition and intermingling of the Western and Eastern musical forces. The opera begins in France, where McPhee finds himself disaffected with Parisian life in general and the contemporary concert scene in particular. The driving, syncopated music is played by the amplified instrumentalists of the Bang on a Can group — strings, piano, guitar and percussion — in the edgy and appealing rock-n-roll-meets-contemporary-classical vein made famous by Bang on a Can and other downtowners. When McPhee decides he needs to return to Bali, the gamelan kicks in, with its clangorous, pulsating drums, gongs and metal keyboards, transforming the melodic material of the previous section with dazzling intricacy and providing a breathtaking cultural transition moment that defines the whole evening.
Once Kesyur, McPhee's friend and Balinese-speaking guide, starts showing McPhee around, the two ensembles begin playing together and in alternation. We're treated to lyrical vocal melodies for McPhee, with giddy, clamorous interruptions from the gamelan. Both bands together make for marvelously organized cacophony, with the partially dissonant, electronic rocking of the West and the relentless, mind-bogglingly complex thrumming and pealing of the East. It captures the craziness of what it must have been like for McPhee to be 10,000 miles from home, trying to reason with hostile, jabbering natives.
Amid the exuberant onslaught, tenor Peter Tantsits sang the role of McPhee with vibrant, penetrating beauty, managing the complexities of his role with complete mastery and infallibly good diction. His fellow cast members were similarly impressive: the clarion-voiced soprano Anne Harley brought good humor and amiable self-satisfaction to the role of anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose melodic figures are especially ingratiating. As the German painter Walter Spies, Timur Bekbosunov displayed a pleasing vocal coloring similar to that of Tantsits, and came across as likeably hedonistic — much more at home in his surroundings than McPhee (Spies settled permanently in Bali in 1927.) One of the scenes builds into an unexpectedly lyrical, lilting trio for the three principals — a musical highlight. For all his anti-establishment tendencies and multi-stylistic mayhem, Ziporyn writes idiomatically for the voice.
Two female dancers, Kadek Dewi Aryani and Desak Madé Suarti Laksmi, performed with hypnotic grace throughout. (Aryani was also co-choreographer, along with Nyoman Catra, who played the comic wheeler-dealer Kesyur and other-supporting roles.) Laksmi did an intense turn as a Kekawin singer who wails of impending doom. The young dancer Nyoman Triyana Usadhi played Sampih, the Balinese youth with whom McPhee becomes infatuated. In one wonderful sequence, Sampih studies dance with a patient girl from Bedulu (Aryani), and Usadhi reveals increasing virtuosity before our eyes, like a Balinese Billy Elliot. Director Jay Scheib's grandly imaginative conception is daunting and busy, to be sure, but constitutes an inherent part of the evening's fascination.
The ending is a bit of a downer: "The house of the other cannot be entered lightly," intones Harley as Mead, while the ensemble dismantles McPhee's home, Spies is led away by a policeman and we watch the pantomimed death of Sampih. McPhee may ultimately remain an outsider, but Ziporyn's West-meets-East adventure is a grand kaleidoscopic success that no one else could have dreamed up.
A House in Bali, Evan Ziporyn's dense syncretic opera, regales you with sounds, moves, images, and contradictions. It's a little like visiting Bali for the first time. The strangeness can be overwhelming, but you'll never forget the clangor. Ziporyn, who composes new music and heads Gamelan Galak Tika at MIT, has been infatuated with Balinese culture most of his working life, and like his predecessor and soulmate, the Canadian composer Colin McPhee, he's fused the beguiling chimes, gongs, and rhythmic roller-coaster of gamelan music with jazz and classical forms more familiar to our ears.
McPhee's searching and somehow tragic journey into Balinese life is the subject of the memoir that gave its name to Ziporyn's opera, which was presented Friday and Saturday at the Cutler Majestic by the new-music organization Bang on a Can. The production goes to Brooklyn Academy's Next Wave festival this weekend.
In the 1930s, a whole flock of anthropologists and ethnographers from Europe and the Americas made their way to the fabled islands of South Asia, to study the culture and, in some cases, find alternative life styles. The archipelago that would become Indonesia consisted of hundreds of islands, languages, and traditions, none more mysterious to Western sensibilities than Bali.
Colin McPhee, like many other artists, went to Bali for inspiration. He found the work of his lifetime. From the house he built near Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali, he made an intensive study of gamelan music, setting down in Western notation the melodies and rhythms of the gamelan's interlocking gongs, xylophones, and drums. He eventually wrote several compositions transposing the gamelan's sonorities for Western instruments. Before he could carry out an enormous plan to record traditional music in the most remote villages, the Japanese occupation and World War II intervened. McPhee returned to the United States, where he continued to compose and work on his massive survey, Music in Bali, which was completed before he died in 1964.
Ziporyn, director Jay Scheib, and their collaborators — librettist Paul Schick, choreographers Kadek Dewi Aryani and I Nyoman Catra, the Balinese Gamelan Salukat, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and a host of singers, dancers, and technical wizards — tell McPhee's story as a 21st-century collage. The stage is divided roughly in half, with the two musical ensembles on one side and the acting area on the other. The space is layered and broken up with screens, supertitles, platforms, and inner chambers. You seem to be seeing across time, as archival films glimmer in corners and live-action video serves as an occult third eye, exposing the performers in close-up or peeking behind their backs.
The 16 members of the gamelan double as villagers who build McPhee's house, then demand payola to abstain from wrecking it. By ingenious multiple casting, the servants and guides become dancers, representing the spirits that permeate Balinese life, who must be appeased constantly with offerings and protective rituals.
Inquisitive Westerners Margaret Mead (soprano Anne Harley) and the German painter Walter Spies (tenor Timur Bekbosunov) hover about, extolling what they've learned from the culture in lyrical effusions, while McPhee (tenor Peter Tantsits) seems pleasantly dazed. They all look awkward and out of place, like tourists.
McPhee is smitten with a village boy, Sampih (Nyoman Triyana Usadhi), and pays his parents to give him up, ostensibly as a servant, tacitly as a lover. Two other villagers tame the boy's wild energies by teaching him the flashy, androgynous kebyar dance. He'll go on to become a star when the Balinese dancers tour the world.
Ziporyn's score for the two orchestras reflects these adventures, as cultures meet, clash, accommodate. The music is propulsive, frenetic, but only occasionally tranquil. The miked singers sometimes overbalanced the instruments, and the whole panorama felt cramped to me in the modest space of the Majestic. But there was nothing modest about the ambition or the dazzling effect of the production.
NO longer quite the inaccessible Shangri-La of antique travelogue, Bali remains, for artists of all kinds and seekers of a spiritual bent, an isle of pristine enchantments. To musicians with or without the cosmic baggage, the fascination lies in the intricately layered pulse and shimmer of the gamelan, the indigenous form of orchestral ensemble, dominated by percussion and associated for centuries with Balinese ritual and devotion.
Since the 1980s the clarinetist and composer Evan Ziporyn has made the pilgrimage often. His new opera, "A House in Bali," celebrates his forerunner Colin McPhee, a Canadian-born composer and scholar best remembered by fellow acolytes of Bali's musical heritage. Happening on a few scratchy phonograph records from Bali in 1929, McPhee found his calling. If not for him, the traditions that flourish today might be extinct.
The opera is based mainly on McPhee's memoirs of the same title, published in 1946 to a rave review in The New York Times by the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who had known McPhee in Bali. "This book," Mead wrote, "is not only for those who would turn for a few hours from the jangle of modern life to a world where the wheeling pigeons wear bells on their feet and bamboo whistles on the tail feathers, but also for all those who need reassurance that man may again create a world made gracious and habitable by the arts."
For logistical and sentimental reasons Mr. Ziporyn's opera received its first, unstaged, preview in June 2009 on the steps of a temple in Ubud, a Balinese arts mecca, surrounded by spreading rice terraces and plunging ravines. The stage premiere followed three months later in Berkeley, Calif. This fall the opera reaches the East Coast, with performances in Boston and in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival Thursday through Saturday.
The scoring is for a balanced ensemble of Western (the Bang on a Can All-Stars, of which Mr. Ziporyn is a founding member) and performers from Bali whose contributions are equal but for long stretches separate. On Oct. 30 a program of Mr. Ziporyn's compositions in the Making Music series at Zankel Hall will include further examples of Western-Eastern fusion.
Born in Montreal in 1900, McPhee was hardly the first Western composer to thrill to the gamelan. The former Wagnerian Claude Debussy was transfixed by Balinese musicians at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889. The cosmopolitan Maurice Ravel was likewise taken. But it was left to McPhee to sail halfway around the globe to experience the music in its home.
For much of the 1930s he made Bali his home, studying, redeeming historic instruments from pawnbrokers, recruiting children to learn and play. He left in 1938, never to return, but worked on his magnum opus, "Music in Bali," for the rest of his life. He had barely finished correcting the page proofs in the medical center of the University of California, Los Angeles, when he died, in 1964.
In his memoir McPhee's evocations of gamelan music are bewitchingly specific.
"At first, as I listened from the house," one passage begins, "the music was simply a delicious confusion, a strangely sensuous and quite unfathomable art, mysteriously aerial, aeolian, filled with joy and radiance. Each night as the music started up, I experienced the same sensation of freedom and indescribable freshness. There was none of the perfume and sultriness of so much music in the East, for there is nothing purer than the bright, clean sound of metal, cool and ringing and dissolving in the air. Nor was it personal and romantic, in the manner of our own effusive music, but rather, sound broken up into beautiful patterns."
McPhee went on to analyze the music's layered architecture: the "slow and chantlike" bass, the "fluid, free" melody in the middle register, the "incessant, shimmering arabesques" high in the treble, which ring, in McPhee's phrase, "as though beaten out on a thousand little anvils." Add to all this the punctuation of gongs in many registers, the cat's-paws and throbbings and thunderclaps of the drums, the tiny crash of doll-size cymbals and the "final glitter" of elfin bells, "contributing shrill overtones that were practically inaudible."
The scales, though pentatonic, fail to duplicate the assortment we know from the black keys of a piano. And pitch variations from gamelan to gamelan (fundamentally irreconcilable with Western tuning) amount to a science in itself.
The narrative of "A House in Bali" makes delightful reading too, despite some extreme air-brushing. McPhee's wife, Jane Belo, a woman of means and an anthropologist, is never mentioned, though they traveled (and built the house) on her money. Bowing to the taboos of his time, McPhee passes over the awakening of his homosexuality in Bali, though the charged nature of his attachments to numerous men and boys (consummated or otherwise) is hard to miss. Impending war, one factor that drove him from Bali, is hinted at. Crackdowns by the vice squad, another factor, are not.
In shaping the stage action, the librettist Paul Schick picked out several episodes that McPhee's readers are sure to remember: the long-drawn-out construction of the house, a comic shakedown by his native neighbors, an unsettling call from a suspected Japanese spy, a visitation by spirits of ill omen. Much of the dialogue is straight from the book; most of the rest quotes writings of the opera's two other Western characters, Mead and the German artist Walter Spies.
As for the staging, audiences who anticipate an ornamental divertissement along the lines of the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" sequence from "The King and I" are in for a surprise. Mr. Ziporyn seems to have been thinking along these lines too, but the director, Jay Scheib, had other ideas.
"McPhee and Mead and Spies were all deeply involved in image making," Mr. Scheib said recently between rehearsals on an iffy Skype connection from Ubud. Bali. (Signs of the times: Mr. Ziporyn remembers when the closest telephone was an hour away in the capital, Denpasar.)
"Mead was working out the methodology of visual anthropology, based on the scientific premise that you could infer more about a culture through careful photography rather than through written notes," Mr. Scheib added. "McPhee shot hours of silent film footage of dance training and rehearsals. And Spies was documenting Balinese culture in a very interesting way through painting."
With all this in mind Mr. Scheib has opted for extensive use of live video, giving audiences virtual eye contact with performers, even when they are confined to enclosed spaces where viewers in the auditorium cannot actually see them. This, at least, was the case in Berkeley; the production was still evolving.
At the heart of the opera, and often front and center, is Sampih, a shy, skittish country urchin who rescues McPhee from a flash flood, becomes a servant in his household and is trained, at McPhee's urging, as a dancer. In 1952 the real Sampih achieved international stardom touring coast to coast in the United States as well as performing in London. Back home in Bali two years later, at 28, he was strangled under nebulous circumstances by a killer who was never caught.
Though the correspondences are far from exact, McPhee's infatuation with Sampih has reminded many of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," in which the elderly, repressed aesthete Gustav von Aschenbach conceives a fatal attraction for Tadzio, an exotic youth. The opera by Benjamin Britten (a close friend of McPhee's who for a time shared a Brooklyn brownstone with him and other arty types like Leonard Bernstein) reinforces the parallels, such as they are. Not only did Britten assign the role of Tadzio to a dancer; he also scored his music for gamelan.
The part of McPhee in Mr. Ziporyn's opera was originally sung by Marc Molomot, who was unavailable for the current performances. His replacement is Peter Tantsits, an adventurous high tenor, who has studied the voluminous source material and McPhee's circle in depth.
"As an opera singer it's rare to get to play a character who existed in the flesh, and not all that long ago," Mr. Tantsits said recently from Boston. "My first impression when I was offered the part was, 'I'm too young to play Aschenbach,' which is a role I'd love to do maybe in 20 years. Right now I'm 31, the same age as Colin when he went to Bali. I don't think the relationship with Sampih was a case of sexual attraction but something more like an adoption. The way he's described in the book is quite sensual. This is hard to talk about. I don't think we've completely decided what we will decide."
No Pandora, Mr. Ziporyn has deliberately kept a tight seal on the ambiguities.
"As McPhee presents himself in the book, he's very transparent yet completely opaque," Mr. Ziporyn said on a recent visit to New York. "I wanted to mirror that. I think of McPhee almost as a Nabokovian unreliable narrator, as in 'Pale Fire,' or even 'Lolita,' if that's not too charged an analogy.
"Every quest is a quest for yourself. In going to Bali, McPhee was looking for his own artistic or personal essence. 'I'll always be the outsider,' he said after he'd been there for years. He was talking about the music, he was talking about Sampih, and he was speaking in general. I wanted to convey that sense and let viewers draw their own conclusions."
One day in the late 1920s, the young Canadian-born composer Colin McPhee stumbled across some recordings of traditional Balinese gamelan music. They felt like a dispatch from another world.
"The clear, metallic sounds of the music were like the stirring of a thousand bells,'' McPhee recalled in his memoir, "delicate, confused, with a sensuous charm, a mystery that was quite overpowering.'' He felt ineluctably drawn toward the source of this distant music.
Some 50 years later, history repeated itself when Evan Ziporyn, a 19-year-old clarinetist and composition student, was working in a used-record store in New Haven. Despite a childhood with an almost surreal breadth of musical exposure, Ziporyn had never encountered traditional gamelan music. Then, one September afternoon, someone in the store put on an album called "Music From the Morning of the World.'' The spell was cast anew.
"It just immediately overwhelmed me,'' Ziporyn, now 50 and a distinguished professor of music at MIT, recently recalled. He was drawn to the pulsating fields of rhythm, the modality without tonality, the cool metallic sheen. "It had everything I liked about Stravinsky and Bartok and King Crimson, but I couldn't figure out how it was done. I couldn't picture the instruments or imagine how people could do this without notation.''
So Ziporyn, like McPhee decades before him, traveled to Bali for immersive study. He has since founded his own gamelan ensembles, and has generally made Balinese music one of the central fascinations of a richly varied composing and performance career. And now, Ziporyn has written an opera about Colin McPhee and his encounters with Bali and its music in the 1930s.
"A House in Bali,'' based on McPhee's memoir of the same title, premiered last year at an ancient temple in Ubud, Bali. It will be presented in Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre on Oct. 8 and 9, before a run of performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
On one level, the opera is a meeting of the various musical spheres that have defined Ziporyn's work for decades, as an innovative post-minimalist composer; as a founding clarinetist of the hard-driving new-music band known as the Bang on a Can All-Stars; and as a musician devoted for the last 30 years to the study and performance of Balinese music (he founded the Cambridge-based, cheekily named Gamelan Galak Tika in 1993).
Since the early 1990s, Ziporyn has written several visceral works of precise culture clash, mixing Western and Balinese instruments without succumbing to facile notions of musical universalism. These works tend to revel less in points of contact between East and West than in the radical disjunctions between traditions, beginning on levels as basic as tuning. In one piece from 1992, a Western delegation of strings, winds, mandolins, percussion, and electric guitar joyfully collides with 10 Balinese instruments in three different tunings.
"When I first started composing for Gamelan I quickly realized that the whole issue has to do with the kind of things that can't be reconciled,'' Ziporyn said. "You have to embrace that clash, and that becomes the substance of the piece in a certain way.''
"A House in Bali'' is his most audacious musical clash to date. Its cast includes three Western singers, whose parts are fully notated, alongside three Balinese singer-dancers, who are given room in the score to improvise. The instrumentalists form two adjacent camps on stage: the Bali-based Gamelan Salukat, which learned Ziporyn's score aurally with the help of MP3 sound files, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, with electric guitar, keyboards, bass, cello, violin, and percussion.
Remarkably enough, when Ziporyn first arrived in Bali, in 1981, he wound up studying with the same man who had been an informant for McPhee in the 1930s. In a more global sense then, the opera is an attempt to work through an artistic debt and take stock of the legacy of a musical predecessor.
"I wanted to find a way musically to express what my relationship is to him as well as to his story,'' Ziporyn explained. "In the opera, that meant taking fragments of his music and recasting them in a very different way, for musical and for dramatic purposes, and taking the Balinese music he heard at that time, and doing the same thing to it.''
McPhee's own time in Bali was marked by turns with genuine contact, idealizations, and miscomprehensions; McPhee struggled to regain his artistic and personal center for decades after leaving the island. Ziporyn's opera, which is directed by Jay Scheib, places McPhee in Bali with two other Westerners, the primitivist painter Walter Spies and the anthropologist Margaret Mead, each trying to build a bridge to Balinese culture under the watchful eyes of Dutch colonial authorities. There is an Aschenbachian subplot.
"The subject matter of the opera,'' said Ziporyn, "is this notion of feeling a connection to something but not really being able to completely embrace it. McPhee ended up leaving Bali personally troubled in all sorts of ways, and that's what makes it interesting to me, the way you connect and don't connect.''
Ziporyn himself grew up in Evanston, Ill., connecting with a wide range of musical worlds. His grandmother ran a Yiddish chorus, his father was a former child prodigy violinist who later owned a record store next door to a jazz club, and his mother held a fierce passion for American folk music. Ziporyn grew up playing piano, clarinet, and baritone sax, mixing in with jazz bands, rock bands, and classical ensembles. Even as he gravitated toward classical composition, his roots in different musical styles kept him from feeling fully at home in the more hermetic quarters of the late-1970s new-music scene.
"I'd go to these composers' concerts, and it would be a very alienating environment. It's not so different now. The performers didn't want to be there — they were being forced into playing the pieces. The audience was basically there under duress because they knew someone who had a piece on the program. There wasn't a sense of building a community or building a scene. It was more this oddly ritualistic unhappy experience.''
Against that backdrop, Balinese music appealed to Ziporyn as an artistic escape but also as an alternate model for a musical practice embedded in the daily life of a community. At around the same time, he began finding likeminded composers closer to home — artists such as Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe — who together founded a collective known as Bang on a Can. As a performer Ziporyn became a mainstay of the group's house band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, which sought to carve its own niche distinct from the uptown new-music scene.
Bang on a Can eventually grew into a certified force in the music world, but some cities were more welcoming than others. Composers with Ziporyn's sensibilities tend to gravitate toward places like New York or San Francisco. Not so much to Boston, where there is less interest, at least from major presenters, in the experimental, minimalist, or generally "downtown'' streams in which Ziporyn swims. He arrived here in 1990, thanks to a faculty position at MIT, but after 20 years he says he still feels like an outsider in Boston, a fact he shares with a kind of mellow equanimity.
"I don't begrudge anybody the right to do the music that they want to do,'' he said. "My gamelan gives me something to come home to, and I've always liked what I'm doing at MIT. People still tend to assume I live in New York, but that's OK. It's not so far away.''
As a case in point, big presenters in New York and Berkeley, Calif., took an interest in putting "A House in Bali'' on their stages. In Boston, Ziporyn could find no takers, so the New York-based Bang on a Can is presenting the upcoming local performances.
None of this seems to be slowing Ziporyn down. His music will be the focus of a Carnegie Hall concert this fall, as part of its "Making Music'' series. Even locally, he has found an ally in conductor Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which plans to premiere his tabla concerto this spring. In the meantime, he is also writing a solo percussion work for Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. Throw in the opera performances, and it adds up to what would be a thrilling season for any composer.
"I'm flying high right now,'' said Ziporyn, adding that even just conducting his opera has felt like a milestone, since the ensemble consists of Balinese musicians alongside his Bang on a Can All-Stars. "We're all together,'' he said. "It's the orchestra I've always wanted.''
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.