A History of Western Music: Chapter 49 (McPhee’s Gamelan)

August Kleinzahler

The overtones drift out over the lake
from the direction of the east-facing pavilion,

gathering themselves into a tree of tiny mirrors,
mirrors and gold foil,

suspended above the water’s surface –

late sun through heavy foliage,

the clangorous exhalations
dissolving into the low sounds of wind
on water, on nearby lalang grass.

Frangipani and incense –
the gods have been summoned:

Sea of Honey, Some False Silver,
Monkey Looks at Himself in the Water . . .

After a slow and chant-like bass
the melody ranges freely, coming and going,

in and out of shimmering arabesques
that ring in the treble as though beaten out
on a thousand wee anvils, xylophones clicking like hail.

How shall the gongs be tuned? asked the smith:
Deep-voiced, in the tuning called ‘Brave Sea’
or shriller, in the pitch called ‘Burnt Tamarind’?

What is best for the Gamelan of Samara, the Love God?
asked the other.

– ‘A Field of Flowering Pandanus’,
said the smith, after a moment’s thought.
That is the softest and most profound.

Sentences, too, must float,
if you follow what I mean.

Chopin floats; Schubert, as well.
What is it exactly?
I can’t quite put my finger on it.

His eyes met mine in a glance of insolent penetration.
The air is salubrious here, he remarked,
looking out across the valley.

Then there was another tuning,
beautiful and rare.
I had sometimes heard it down by the sea, near Sanur.
The changes among tones very slight,
imparting to the music a sweetly melancholic air.
I believe it is called ‘the scale of midnight’.

Her dishes were endless:
skewers of birds no bigger than bumblebees,
and strangest of all,
small green packages in the shape of cigarettes,
inside them toasted coconut and larvae of dragonflies.

The faint chime of a g’nder
with its floating disembodied sound,
from a nearby verandah:

a single musician playing softly to himself,
waiting for the others to return.

Nutmeg, gardenias, burnt feathers . . .

What style! the old man said,
listening as a tremulous voice rose up, into the air,
above the faint sound of drums.

It was the famous singer from Buleleng – Miss Lemonade.

Kemong, Reyong, Kendang, Trompang, Calung, Gong

Languor and reverie in these chiming tones,
some soft and liquid, some like the notes of a flute,
others full, like the tones of an organ:
perfume, legend, secrecy.

We stood there staring at the water
while a boy tossed scarlet hibiscus into a pool.

Sentences, too, must float . . .

Based on fragments from Colin McPhee’s memoir, ‘A House in Bali’.