WANMA Series: Stuart James and Louise Devenish, State Library of WA

The Western Australian New Music Archive is an ongoing project that collects the work of WA composers and performers. In partnership with the State Library, it curates a series of lunchtime concerts that present library patrons with music in an informal setting. The July concert closed a cycle of performances focused on New Music, a loose term that refers to western art music and its intersection with contemporary practices. Stuart James’ “Kinabuhi | Kamatayon for Reyong and Bonang Gamelan and electronics” is a good example of this confluence with its reference to non-western traditions, its notated score and use of technology. The work was commissioned by percussionist Louis Devenish and premiered at the Astor Theater in 2015.

Their set began with a short improvisation featuring snare and electronic processing, Devenish played rhythmical figures using minuscule, insect-like gestures followed by sustained scrapings, microphones picked up on these textures expanding and amplifying their timbres while serving as sounding board to her probing lead. James and Devenish explore a different kind of performance, one in which a soloist interacts with the ineffable world of electronics, this practice gives new identity to traditional instruments, encourages new settings for performance and extends the range of instrumental techniques.

The Gamelan has attracted many 20th century western composers, the most notable being Claude Debussy who found in the lack of a definite tonal center an incentive to break away from traditional harmony; later, Lou Harrison and John Cage referenced Gamelan in works that sought an alternative to the equal tempered system. But in expanding the sound palette available to composers, no approach has been as influential as the use of technology.

All of these strands are present in “Kinabuhi | Kamatayon”, a work whose main concept is the compression and rarefaction of time through different time scales. This refers to the use of different rhythmic durations to affect our perception of time; in the words of the composer, the piece is also “a celebration of life and death”. These ideas are at the heart of Gamelan, where gongs are tuned with slight pitch variations that create an auditory effect known as “beating”, the fluttering in volume that results from frequencies interfering with each other. The word “Ombal” (wave) is used as an analogy to describe the beating of the heart, the breath of the life, the expansion and compression of the lungs.

In “Kinabuhi | Kamatayon”, a selection of gongs are laid on a table and microphones placed around for electronic processing. Devenish began by scraping the rim of a gong with a stick, eliciting a soft chirring that was followed by a full strike on a bonang, this gesture was repeated a few times to an incantatory effect. The world of percussion is kindred to theatre and Devenish has explored this intersection in her own practice; she assumed a ceremonial port for moulding sounds with hands and arms, directing them towards the audience or using them as the impulse for her next action.

The first of section of “Kinabuhi | Kamatayon” focuses on the natural tremolo produced by gongs, a mortuary character settles in as their ringing start, sustain and decay. The second movement is rhythmical and ceaseless with motion, textures are thickened by the use of looping, creating the impression of a big ensemble. The third movement treats rhythm in a more flexible way, with the electronics spinning out delicate strands that evoke the fall of droplets in a cavern. The pace then quickens with polyphonic layers and the slightly out of tune pitches that enrich their timbres. It all comes to a halt during the coda, where Devenish’ slowed down gestures mark rhythm as a supple element. 

Once the piece was over, its rarefied effect lingered among the audience for a short time before other sounds appeared: the wind pushing at the library entrance and voices talking.