afj la Al het (for the people of Nicaragua)

(these notes originally appeared in the Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 2. The title of the piece is in Hebrew, which probably won't show up on most browsers)


for Jody Diamond and Gino Forlin

afj la was written at the request of Jody Diamond for the International Gamelan Festival which took place at the Vancouver Expo, but the tremendous difficulty of the work prevented its performance there (it was later performed several times by Gino and Jody). Jody and I had frequently discussed how much of the new and experimental music for gamelan outside of Indonesia had overlooked the more difficult instruments (gender, gambang, rebab, pesindhen, etc.), instruments which are considered to be essential in Javanese music. I decided to write a piece which only used those instruments, eschewing the balungan instruments which had seemed to dominate new American music for gamelan.

afj la is for singer and percussionist who plays both Central Javanese style pelog gambang and slendro gender. The pelog barang gambang and slendro gender must have tumbuk 6 (pitch "B" in the score). The tuning of the two instruments is not specified — any two that match the above criteria may be used. The piece will vary greatly in register and tuning depending on the particular gamelan used.

afj la uses modes of my own construction, inspired in part by the complexity and richness of pathet in Central Javanese music. In classical Central Javanese music, frequent modal borrowings (like barang miring) occur, and contemporary Indonesian composers have experimented with combining and juxtaposing pelog and slendro. In addition, frequent conversations with my colleagues and friends Lou Harrison and John Chalmers had awakened my interest in fresh approaches to mode in composition.

The piece is organized as 17 phrases, each 17 beats long. Each phrase in the vocal part uses a different mode constructed by combining pelog and slendro pitches. The modes become more complex, using more pitches towards the middle of the piece, and less complex towards the end. Phrase IX is "fully chromatic," using the 12 note pelog/slendro combination. The modal structure of the piece is a retrograde, the modes of phrase I and XVII , II and XVI, VIII and X, and so on are the same. The modes themselves are listed on the final page of the score, but not shown here for brevity’s sake.

The modes also correspond to the rhythmic organization of the piece. Each 17 beat phrase is subdivided into measures of 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 12 and 17 beats, and the pitches used for each measure are a subset of the mode for that phrase. For example (see example from the score), phrase VIII uses the 8- and 9-note subsets of the highly chromatic pelog mode (which I call P3) beginning on p3: p3, s3, p5, s5, p/s6, p7, s1, p2, s2. Throughout the piece the percussion and vocal parts partition the 17 beats in different, overlapping ways, creating modal and rhythmic dovetailing that seemed to me a natural extension of traditional pesindhen and panerusan patterns. The number of subdivisions of the 17-beats increases towards the middle (and decreases towards the end), so that the beginning and ending of the piece are composed of shorter rhythmic fragments (with consequently more rapidly expanding/contracting modal usage). My idea was that this very short piece would be a kind of dense microcosm of the time expansion/contraction of irama in large Central Javanese gendhing.

Western notation is used for the piece, combining the two pathet into one 12-pitch inflected scale (see the example page of the score):

Gambang: E — F — G — B — C pelog: 2, 3, 5, 6, 7

Gender: D — E_ — F# — A — B slendro: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6

The piece presents a formidable challenge for the percussionist. The music itself is extremely difficult, but Gino Forlin also had to learn to "tranpose" the staff notation onto the two instruments, each of which has its own mallet and damping techniques. Gino’s ingenuity, dedication and virtuosity in learning and performing this piece amazed me, and I have always enjoyed simply watching him play it: mallets flying (accurately) between the two instruments (he raises the gambang so that the keys are level with the gender), and damping with everything from the mallets themselves to his elbows. My deep appreciation goes to him and Jody for their perserverance in learning this piece.

The afj la is an important exculpatory Hebrew prayer said at selected times (Yom Kippur, one’s own wedding, etc.). In many traditions the chest is pounded during this prayer as an act of contrition. Progressive Jewish communities have often found the afj lato be an interesting place to rewrite the liturgy, apologizing for many aspects of our own participation in the inequities of modern life. It is more in this spirit than in one of traditional Judiasm that I used the prayer as the title, and the form for the piece.

As a text, I wrote a short poem in Spanish. I have always enjoyed literature written in the author’s second language. Since gamelan itself was a kind of musical second language to me, I thought, considering the title and the dedication of the piece, it would be important to write the text in the language of those to whom the apology was directed.

"Por no escuchar las voces, a los spiritos del futuro, las echas del cambio.

Por el vivir acqui que no permite el vivir alla.

Por jugar en el mar en vez de mirar a las estrellas.

Por no manejar los barcos del cielo, como Ustedes, con las musica y la poetica."

afj lawas recorded by the composer and Steve Curtin at the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music, in the summer of 1986. The instruments used were built by Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig, and are part of the Mills College Gamelan Si Darius/Si Madeleine. The score is available from the American Gamelan Institute and from Frog Peak Music.


Glossary entries are are italicized in the text the first time they appear.

All definitions refer to Central Javanese music.

balungan: The "skeletal" melody of a piece, sometimes referring to the one mallet instruments that play this part.

barang miring: A technique of modal deviation from slendro used by any non-fixed pitch instrument, often implying pelog.

gender: Soft two mallet resonated metal instrument, one of the panerusan, or elaborating instruments.

gambang: Louder two mallet wooden xylophone, one of the panerusan, or elaborating instruments.

gendhing: Can refer to either a specific form of a piece, or simply mean "piece."

irama: Temporal relationships or density levels in a piece.

panerusan: Elaborating instruments, which play more complex and virtuosic patterns than the balungan instruments.

pathet: Roughly, "mode," but in practice a much more complex term that refers to subsets of the two main laras (pelog and slendro) and also to many aspects of musical and formal organization.

pelog: One of the two main laras, or "scales," but more appropriately, pitch-sets. Pelog has seven primary pitches.

pelog barang: One of the three main pelog pathet, characterized by the use of pelog pitch 7 (p7). Generally, there are two pelog gender in a full gamelan, one of which is pelog barang.

pesindhen: Female vocalist.

slendro: One of the two main laras, or "scales," but more appropriately, pitch-sets. Slendro has five primary pitches.

tumbuk: Common tone between pelog and slendro. 6 and 5 are most common, 2 also occurs.