Cork Gamelan EnsembleCork Gamelan Ensemble
Album: The Three Forges
Label: Diatribe
Tracks: 11

We're talking Music of the East Indies here. In Javanese traditional music, the word Gamelan refers to a small orchestra of resonant tuned percussion instruments such as gongs and metallophones, sometimes also including ciblon drum, suling (wooden flute) and rebab (two-stringed fiddle). In its purest form, gamelan music is seriously hypnotic; no wonder that it can be heard to have inspired classical music composers from Ravel, Debussy and Britten through to minimalists Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and even onward into some aspects of experimental and prog rock like the Canterbury bands (Soft Machine et al.).

You might think it unlikely that Cork would host a dedicated gamelan ensemble, then. Formed in 2013 with the aim of developing a collaborative approach to the composition and performance of new music for gamelan, the CGE was the culmination of 20 years of music-making and the brainchild of Mel Mercier, composer, performer and Professor of Music at University College Cork, who had commissioned the building of the 60+ instruments for the growing ensemble of enthusiastic players.

This project, the ensemble's debut recording, is made up of 11 original compositions, and it features the involvement of vocalists Iarla Ó Lionáird, Duke Special and Julie Feeney, dancer Colin Dune, cellist Kate Ellis, saxophonist Nick Roth and the West Cork Ukulele Orchestra. Clearly, then, this is not pure unadulterated traditional gamelan, although the actual base gamelan ensemble is authentically configured and its specific musical language - which might be considered alien to western ears - is accurately rendered by the players. The most successful of these musical fusions truly inhabit the space of the musical in-between: Fleischmann In Java includes some interesting ideas involving cello counterpoint, for instance, and the disc's title track finds Iarla in beguiling voice. The polka medley (track 4) fuses Riverdance-style traditional stepping, and curiously it works, if only as a one-off, although the concept is further explored on Telephones And Gongs.

The core of these new compositions is always the gamelan sound, although its sonorities are occasionally felt to be more of a gloss than an integral element. The jazzy soprano sax lines on Tiga and The Beauty Queen Of Affane seem a trifle misplaced, and the accommodating pop vocal on Christine and the new-age-toned Heart Of The Mountain rather takes over the mood and renders the gamelan contribution mildly redundant. And Parabé Sang feels like more of a ukulele showcase than a gamelan outing. But the best of these compositions are both inviting and groundbreaking, while the whole effect is rarely less than stimulating for the open-minded listener.

David Kidman