This article first appeared in The Double Reed, the Journal of the International Double Reed Society, Volume 23, No. 4, and in the American Composers Forum newsletter, San Francisco Bay Area, Winter, 2000/2001 issue
There are no indigenous double reed instruments in Bali, Indonesia. There is no western classical orchestra. Jazz is just beginning to be played and heard. American pop music is somewhat popular. The arts are firmly integrated into the culture. Performances are free to everyone except tourists. Balinese classical music, dance and art are sophisticated, highly developed systems, and almost everyone is trained in all art forms.
I made a commitment to myself long ago, that I would bring the skills associated with ethnic oboe music and culture to the Western classical oboe, and as well, would bring the sound of the Western oboe to places where it is not present.
Concert in the capital city, Denpasar. The morning after this concert I casually opened The Bali Post newspaper and discovered a photo similar to this one on the front page.
During the summer of 2000, I had the opportunity to go to Bali for 18 days. Months before departing, I sent an e-mail to the American consul, Andrew Toth, himself an ethnomusicologist, to learn if there might be any opportunities for me to play. As good karma would have it there were many. Everything was set up via e-mail. These photographs and stories are about that experience.
Brenda Schuman-Post with master suling player Made Sadra
Doug Myers is an Australian ethnomusicologist/performer who runs Yayasan Polosseni, a school promoting the study and performance of Balinese classical music. It was Doug's idea to involve a few western musicians in performances and recordings of Balinese classical music. Israeli pianist Brachi Tilles, Greek violinist Spiros Rantos, both who live in Brisbane, Australia, and American from Chicago jazz trumpeter/composer Jeff Beer, had started rehearsing two days before I arrived. The Balinese nine piece chamber gamelan ensemble included drums, bamboo flute and instruments made of metal. The leader is a fantastic drummer named Ketut Surama. Other Balinese participants in this experiment were Sadra, Mardana, Warsa, Suparsa, Kering, Sueta, Warsa, and the great master suling (bamboo flute) player, Made Sadra. Doug Myers directed every aspect of the enterprise.
We rehearsed and recorded both at the Yayasan Polosseni compound and on the roof of a famous resort. One afternoon, after we'd developed some arrangements of the Balinese melodies, Brachi and I read through a Telemann Methodical Sonata. I sensed some curiosity about the oboe. I held up my reed case to show the reeds.
The Gamelan Ensamble
Several Balinese musicians gathered around and others looked from a distance. I realized that what with the language barrier, I'd have to come up with a way of physically communicating. I held up, then blew on a "blank" - a tied, but unmade reed. Of course, there was no sound. I pulled out my reed scraping knives and feigned a three-second demonstration of reed scraping/making, then I blew on the finished reed that I'd been playing, producing a loud, vibrant sound, pointed to the reed and said "bamboo". It is difficult to describe the effect and the impact of that one word. "Oh…. Bamboo!" was the audible response. The instant understanding, communication and bonding was indescribable. In Bali, bamboo is a primary material in the making of all types of instruments, musical and otherwise. Bamboo is a source of building material and livelihood, a plant that nurtures humanity. Woodcarving is a highly developed, refined art and a source of livelihood for a substantial portion of the population. "Oh…. Bamboo!" was a unified, heartfelt expression of understanding, communication, respect, appreciation, friendship, community and human bonding. During my entire experience with these amazing musicians, there were no barriers.
Site of the field recordings for two of the "dialogues".
Sometimes I stayed at the school, in Peliatan, near Ubud. The recording engineer, Dave Stewart, specializes in recording birds and frogs. I seized the opportunity to fulfill a career long fantasy. Dave set up a field microphone at a lily pond and I improvised at dusk with frogs croaking, and at 5:30 AM with a chirping bird. One night, after a brief rainstorm, Dave came running up to me saying " now's your chance to hear an incredible frog chorus". I was busy making oboe reeds and didn't want to go, but he persisted and finally, not realizing where he was taking me, I simply got up and followed him, oboe and reed in hand. It was pitch black out, and our only light was on Dave's head in the form of one of those headgear flashlights. Imagine my surprise when he started jumping from rice paddy to rice paddy encouraging me to follow. For those of you who have never taken your oboes into the rice fields, let me explain that they are pools of water with rice plants shooting up from below. Around each paddy there is an uneven grassy area about three inches wide, just about wide enough to almost fit one foot at a time. And so it was on these narrow, bumpy, invisible in the night pathways that I scurried, off balance, my oboe in my right hand, my reed in my mouth, and my left arm flailing up and down, serving as the (dear God, please if I fall in let me keep the oboe above the water) balancing element. And then we arrived. There I was, surrounded by the unmoving, hidden frogs, on a moist but solid surface. The frog chorus was extraordinary. I cannot say how many frogs were there. Lots. These were clearly all the same species of frog. The rhythms and melodies were consistent, though individual and complex. In an instant I understood Doug Myer's theory that Balinese classical music could have evolved from the music of frogs. I said, "OK, let's record". Dave had not brought his equipment! So while Dave went back to get his gear, I stood alone, in the dark, mosquitoes feeding on my naked arms, and played the oboe. I imitated what the frogs sang. Dave had suggested that I focus on one frog voice to dialogue with, and I did. I played the oboe conventionally, beautiful melodies and phrases, and I played unconventionally, without a reed, making little insect like noises. Thus I was totally immersed for about ten minutes, one lone human immersed, engaged and connected via the oboe voice amidst that choral community, and then I continued for another ten minutes while Dave recorded.
We played the fusion concert at the Festival of Balinese Arts in the capital city, Denpasar. The following morning I casually picked up The Bali Post newspaper and there was my picture on the front page! The article said that the collaboration had attracted a very large and appreciative audience. "Everyone seemed to like the music."
While in Bali I'd also presented several performances of Oboes of the World. Oboes of the World is a concert-lecture covering the history and use of the oboe (shawm) worldwide and includes a display and demonstration of up to 30 ethnic oboes, with photographs and recordings of master musicians from 20 different cultures. One performance was at a music school in Denpasar, where there are 400 students of western classical music. The Wulia family founded and runs the school called Griya Musik Irama Indah. Maria Clementine Wulia (Tintin) is a western classical/jazz pianist and composer who had studied at Berklee Jazz School in Boston. Her brothers Edo and Zeno, also trained to some extent in the US, play rock percussion and electric guitar. They all speak perfect English. Tintin and I had worked it out via e-mail that I would give the lecture demonstration, and also participate in a recital that her younger (7-10 year old) keyboard and violin students were presenting. I had a wonderful time playing with them. The kids are surprisingly racially and ethnically diverse. Every time I held up an ethnic oboe and said the name of the country where it is played, they'd converge around the globe to find it.
Later that week, just before I left Bali, Tintin, Edo, Zeno and I got together to improvise. Tintin had just won a composition contest, and the prize had been a new computer whose programming made recording fairly easy. I mentioned that I'd like to create a free improvisation based on the frog theme. I played the theme and they all just started playing. There was no discussion and no hesitation. We all just listened to one another and played. Within a few hours we'd made up three pretty good pieces. "You guys are great," I said. "You must do this often". They looked at one another. "No" Tintin replied, "actually we've never done this before". Then I asked Tintin if she could offer me any insight into the extraordinary generosity, kindness, positive outlook, and creativity of the Balinese people. "The earth is very fertile", she said. "We have an expression here in Bali: 'Plant a stick and a tree will grow'".
Children and Teachers at the school in Denspar.
Converging around the Globe.
Tintin, Edo, and Zeno Wulia at the Computer
For anyone wondering how I managed to blissfully play the oboe in an outdoor environment: I am blessed with ownership of a Buffet Crampon Greenline oboe. This instrument is made of 95% grenadilla sawdust and 5% carbon fiber/epoxy resin combination. It is unlikely to crack, does not react to weather conditions, and is essentially stress free. Through rain, heat, sun, wind, and ocean salt spray, it stayed in perfect, stable, working condition.
Brenda Schuman-Post is a uniquely versatile oboist playing many styles of western classical, popular, world and improvised musics. She performs worldwide. Her lecture-performance Oboes of the World educates audiences about ethnic oboes and their influence on western oboe technique and music. Both her Oboe Of The World and Sonic Forest CDs are praised as "groundbreaking!" Brenda was the first musician to witness every detail from searching for and harvesting an African Blackwood tree, to the making of a top of the line oboe. In 2008 she traveled to East Africa to "create via improvisation, a new piece of music that would bond the people in whose forests African Blackwood grows, with the people who play musical instruments made from that tree". Brenda has also played over 300 upbeat recitals with her accompanist Suzanne Garramone and performs frequently with her oboe/violin/harp/percussion ensemble Sonic Forest. She freelances and teaches privately in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is a Buffet Crampon Artist.