Following on from his comprehensive Indian Raags Made Easy, a guide to playing Indian classical music on the piano (review here), composer John Pitts has now turned his attention to the distinctive and beautiful music for gamelan orchestra from the Indonesian island of Java. This was the music which so intrigued Claude Debussy when he first encountered a gamelan orchestra at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, whose delicate, shimmering timbres are found in works like Pagodes.
In Extreme Heterophony: a study in Javanese Gamelan for one or more pianists, John Pitts offer a carefully-researched and clearly presented guide to the instruments and music of Java, with detailed explanations of the sounds, tunings, scales, metres and rhythms, using Western staff notation and terminology.
“Extreme Heterophony” refers to a foundational principle of how this music is constructed – akin to a theme and variations, but where c.10 types of related but widely diverse, decorative variations are all performed simultaneously – creating a rich, vibrant, exciting texture – and where the theme itself isn’t directly played. – John Pitts
This large-format book offers a deep dive in to the world of the gamelan, from descriptions of the instruments themselves to the use of melody, rubato, textural and rhythmic density, structure of performances, and notation. The author then goes on to explain the individual instruments (for example, the gambang, a xylophone, the “gender” barung, a metallophone, or the suling, a bamboo flute), their role and distinctive sounds within the gamelan orchestra, and how these roles and sounds translate to the piano, or a group of pianos.
The music, which makes up the greater part of the book, is adapted by John Pitts, each piece with a short introduction, clear directions and prompts to support the player/s. The pieces can be played at one piano, in duos or multiple duets at two or up to seven pianos. John Pitts’ website includes downloadable backing tracks to play along with, plus other useful resources for those who want to explore the music of Java in more detail.
This detailed, well-researched handbook is a fascinating introduction to the alluring soundworld of Javanese gamelan. The book is available in the UK/US from Amazon in printed book and Kindle format, and also as a PDF.