Saturday, February 4, 2012

How an appraisal took 10.5 hours

Yesterday was one of the rainiest here, moderate to heavy with intermittent downpours. Every time it let up for a minute, Pak Terip called, "Qian! Ayo!" let's go! whereupon it would immediately pour again. He wanted to check out a gamelan that needs tuning in Pelapuan, a village down an assortment of winding and flooded roads.

He was in a strange mood. When I got up he had been at it with Kosil (background) and a couple other artisans making a new set of pelog scale gerantang (click for sound sample):

I asked if they were for himself as opposed to a commission, and he answered in the affirmative. Around midday he was done with the set of 14 keys he was working on, and sat thoughtfully in his pile of bamboo shavings playing phrases softly on the instrument beside him (above center), stopping to gaze in stillness or to take a drag from the cigarette resting on the chopping block. I asked if he was composing, but he didn't answer. When I tried to clean up his work area, he stopped me, protesting that he liked it.

Eventually he had the help string new keys on an old frame, scolding him for doing it too loosely. On the paired instruments he played a piece or two with Kosil before the latter got distracted fussing with a new suling. More solo ruminating on a playful melody that would race were he to play it through.

It was almost two when we finally trekked up to the road in light drizzle and waited some ten minutes for the driver to return to the parked jeep. One of the players, Datoex, from the sanggar followed along; "melali," he answered when I asked why, "just wandering." He was 20, a high school grad and unemployed aside from helping out with instrument making and playing gigs. He shared his cassava and rice cake snacks as the jeep wound its way through the awful weather and roads to an empty warehouse on terraced rice fields.

A woman armed with a giant umbrella greeted us as we waited on a covered raised platform. Eventually she brought coffee. We waited more than an hour before she appeared again, excusing the owner's absence for the rain. Pak Terip roused from his nap, made a phone call, and off we went to sit with 'a friend' in a neighboring house.

The driver, Datoex, and I hunched at one end of the table while Pak Terip chatted with the friend about alcohol, gambling, and some other topics I couldn't discern. Datoex and I joked under our breaths and shoved roasted beans in our nostrils for entertainment. We were two or three hours there before another friend arrived, chatted even more, and then caravanned with us back to the warehouse. It was long after dark.

The gamelan themselves were interesting: a septatonic metal angklung and new gong kebyar, and collection of cengceng, drums, and suling. The elephantine warehouse was the biggest acoustical mistake I've ever been in; I felt drunk or drugged at first, wondering why I saw my teacher damping keys but heard them ringing continuously. Then I couldn't help laughing at how out of tune the reyong was, and Pak Terip took advantage of my evident mirth to sell his services. After the necessary fuss about how much work was necessary, the men involved sat to examine the drums.

Then, the moment I live for: one man placed a bunch of suling before my teacher. He picked them up one by one, improvising circular-breathed phrases one after another. His breath filled the warehouse like sourceless light. Again and again, my breath caught. On a peculiarly flattened note goosebumps flashed like ice splashes up my left arm and side and the right side of my head but left my core body steaming (pardon the somatic minutia). My mind flashed to dreams of busking and playing restaurants and concerts in America.

I understand gigging takes more time than the actual engagement, but if I can help it, an appraisal to tune and fix gamelan in America will not take 10.5 hours.

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