Bali Soundtrack Journal

The Making of the Soundtrack for the Documentary "Sacred and Secret: the Balinese Reincarnations"

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August 8

Arrival in Bali. Weíre staying in the small village of Nyu Kuning, just on the other side of the Monkey Forest from Ubud. After a few drinks with the director, Basil Gelpke, Iím shown to my hut at the end of a long, descending stairway which passes several large, beautiful houses, including that of our host Gillís. Where the path stops the hut stands alone, perched on the edge of a ravine with a very loud creek passing through it.

The hut itself is minimally and impeccably decorated, the spaces above the windows uncovered and open to the night. There are more diverse species inhabiting a given space in Indonesia than anywhere else in the world, and a good many of them see the only light visible in the ravine, which is coming from my hut, and converge on it. Besides the rushing creek, the night is a symphony of insects, frogs and gekkos, both inside and out.

Listen to sounds from the hut   audio off

August 10

I have breakfast with Gill Marais and Urs Ramseier, both of whom have been living in Bali for decades. Gil published a stunning book of photos of Balinese rituals, which was the basis for this documentary, and Urs is an anthropologist who has been living among the Bali Aga, the oldest known cultural and ethnic group on the island, in a village in which foreign visitors are otherwise not allowed to stay overnight. I couldnít have a better combination of experts for a crash course in the music and culture here, and in this mysterious, ancient form of Hinduism. The most important lesson to start with: there is no separation here between art, theatre, religion, philosophy, design, or even medicine and cuisine, it all has its place in the elaborate mosaic of Balinese Hinduism.
Urs Ramseier is also a jazz musician, and knows many of the best Balinese musicians. He listens to what it is Iím searching for. Because the film will be full of ceremonies with accompanying Gamelan music, and Basil is convinced that 90 minutes of Gamelan is likely to send Western viewers scurrying for the exits. Iím hoping to find other types of music here to use for other scenes. In general, people are aware only of Gamelan music from Bali, and Iíve heard never any other type of music either, besides the ceremonial music with the marimba-like metallophones...but it must be out there. Urs gives me some names of musicians in the area who I can try to track down.

August 14

After a pleasant dinner at Basilís house, I retire down to the hut and suddenly feel the strangeness of everything. The absurdly spicy food, the sheer volume of frog and insect cries echoing through the canyon, augmented by the pounding rain. The night was restless with dreams, only one of which I remember, which expressed a feeling of utter helplessness. The helplessness in finding music for this film. But realizing that in any case this will be a journey, and one that will change the traveller.

August 16

A word about Balinese music: the scales are primarily pentatonic, of which there are several variations. They differ from village to village, and even in ensembles within the same village. All the instruments of an ensemble are tuned to each other, but you canít take an instrument from one ensemble to go play with another, as it wonít be tuned to them. Added to that difficulty for Western ears is the fact that they deliberately "detune" their instruments, notes an octave apart or a fifth are slightly detuned to each other to produce additional oscillations. For the Balinese, this keeps the music alive and edgy, for our Well-Tempered ears itís hard to place, our initial reaction is to reject the music as too foreign...but to their ears, our tuning is static and lifeless.

In any case, I want to use as much original Balinese music as possible for the film. A Westernerís take on things is bound to be sentimental and romanticizing, and interpreting their culture in a false and misleading manner. Worst of all would be the sort of chill-out ethno faux-Balinese music that tourists can buy here in souvenier shops. We tend to think of Eastern spirituality in these terms, as relaxing, and meditative, like a pleasant massage with patchouli oil. The music here IS designed for meditation, but for them that is a noisy, exciting, disturbing, and sometimes violent awakening to the spirit world.

August 23

Another warm, humid, slow day in Ubud. One of Ursí tips lead us to Gusti Sudara, a painter and Suling player (the Indonesian Bamboo Flute). I told him I would like to buy a Suling, and he took me on his motorcycle to his friend in Peliatan, also an artist/musician named Bagus, a master painter, dance teacher, and Suling builder & player. "Gamelan" is actually the Balinese word for Orchestra, the conductor of the orchestra is the drummer, and he must have first mastered all of the instruments of the orchestra. Bagusí friend Cha Ali leads one of the most prestigious Gamelans orchestras in Bali, Ganung Sari, the first gamelan to perform in Paris in the 30s and take Europe by storm. The current members are their descendants.

Listen to Bagus playing the Suling   audio off
Listen to Yama Sari   audio off

August 26

A fantastic recording session with the group Yama Sari last night. Seven percussionists, Suling and Rebab (a viola-like string instrument). They played pieces in the style known as Tabuh Geguntangan. I was able to rearrange the pieces by choosing which instruments would play by each repetition . The players had endless patience and interest in the process, and the playing became ever livelier and more gripping, a rhythmic fireworks Iíd never had guessed was Balinese; some of the rhythms sounded Brazilian to my ears, other parts Arabic. Even more astounding was the patience and interest the players showed at the end of the session, when Bagus repeatedly struck each of the gongs there so we could sample them. They sat attentively and listened to every single gong hit for nearly an hour. Western musicians wouldíve been long gone the moment they werenít needed. These musical collectives are musical and spiritual brotherhoods who do everything together, they are a community in a way that we no longer understand that word.

September 2

Iíd heard about a Giant Bamboo Ensemble in the area of Ubud, since friends here had told me about them, but I hadnít been able to locate them. I was on my way home from town and hailed a taxi. In chatting with the driver, we discovered we were both musicians, and it turns out he plays in this very Ensemble. I asked about the possibility of recording them, and said he would consult the bandleader. Later he phoned to say it was okay, and we made a date for a recording session. Luckily I was able to see them perform first, and get a CD, so I could prepare for the recording; select tunes and imagine how they would sound in reduced arrangements, such as can be useful for film scenes.
Listen to the Giant Bamboo Ensemble   audio off

September 6

The experience of recording this 25-man Giant Bamboo Ensemble was unforgettable. Standing in the middle of the stage, Iím surrounded by an army of thundering bamboo gamelan instruments, some as large as 4 meters tall, thundering out complex rhythms with a precision that would baffle an experienced jazz or classical percussionist. Thereís no way a recording can do justice to this experience, you feel it in the stomach, deep in your bones. Again I am allowed to deconstruct the pieces, have certain sections play alone or in combination, even change the placement of instruments in relation to the microphones. The musicians are very friendly, cooperative and fascinated by the process, which allows them to hear their own music in other than usual ways. This was an amazing experience to end my sojourn through this magical island.
The trick now is to use these recordings as a basis for building the soundtrack. Sometimes I take a recording made at a certain ceremony and build on it, adding sampled sounds of Indonesian instruments (mostly Java & Bali) that Iíve since acquired here in Europe. To match the unique Balinese tunings, I must abandon all training and trust my ear, "detune" the samples to fit their scales. Basil has also decided that I should compose original music, for which I sometimes use Balinese tunings, sometimes Western, depending on what is needed as a bridge from the film viewerís ears to the world of the Balinese.

There are also scenes which need music, but for which I cannot even pretend to understand what it is really about, what emotions are awakened in a Balinese, for example in the gigantic Royal Cremation ceremony at the climax of the film. For these I have engaged a distinguished Balinese composer named I Wayan Yudane, who teaches composition at a University in New Zealand. Iíd heard a CD of his on which heíd composed a piece for Gamelan instruments and piano, an especially tricky task considering the difference in tunings...he comes from the Balinese world and has an ear to the West as well. For our film he composes for string quartet and voice. We both appreciate the fact that the Balinese composer is using Western instruments and tuning, and the European working with Balinese sounds and tunings.

The whole process takes over a yearís time. The last stage is recording layers of percussion with the very talented and creative ZŁrich drummer Robert Mark. The flute parts are recorded with my soon to be wife Valeria. The Balinese who have seen the film so far had no problem with the music, and were even enthusiastic. Perhaps they are less concerned with ethnological accuracy than with the musicís appropriateness to the spiritual veracity of what is presented in the film. I had left myself open to the influence and intervention of the wonderful people and spirits encountered there, and for the Balinese that seems a legitimate enough approach. All in all it was a difficult and challenging experience, and when it was over I was very relieved and happy to return to the (for me) terra firma of Western, well-tempered scales once again.

Listen to the Soundtrack Sample   audio off