Various Artists, Indonesia: Music from the Nonesuch Explorer Series (Nonesuch Records, 2003)

Indonesia: Music from the Nonesuch Explorer Series serves up a heady stew of traditional music from Bali and Java, selected from a dozen or so of the label's Indonesian releases. Ranging from gamelan percussion orchestas to plaintive solo performances, the album contains not a few melodies and time signatures that sound very exotic to these western ears.

The album's opening track, "Gamelan Gong Kebya" exemplifies the dynamic potential of gamelan, its multitude of musicians speeding up and slowing down to create an intricate wall of sound whose progress towards the end goal of silence is measured out in steady gongs. This is followed by the smaller-scale "Batel," a gamelan piece scored for a traditional puppet show.

The Balinese "Frog Song" features some fascinating instrumentation. Led by flute and drum, the song has a repetitive, hypnotic quality and features some kind of bizarre stringed, droning instrument that produces a tone eerily similar to the lower registers of the male voice, or indeed a frog's croak. The song abruptly shifts to include horned instruments mimicking frog sounds, before concluding with a flute solo. The "Frog Song" is reprised later on the album, this time by a larger band of woodwind players and percussionists, its spiralling melody now taking the lead over a backdrop of chirps and beats.

"Pangkur" from Java has an early-morning delicacy to its melody, ambient and soothing - a few lightly intoned patterns emerge briefly and then disappear back into near-silence. Once again, the Javanese aesthetic seems calmer and slower, more subdued than its Balinese counterpart. Another delicate Javanese treat is "Bedrong II," with its marimba tones and meditative, repetitive patterns.

"The Ramayana Monkey Chant" excerpt will remind some listeners of the memorable Balinese chanting scene from the movie Baraka, and the track is truly impressive in its scale and barely-controlled frenzy, with what seem like a thousand voices chanting in unison at its climactic moments. However, at only three minutes, the excerpt doesn't really last long enough to draw the listener fully into the experience. The Balinese "Lullaby" is is another ethnomusicological delight, sung by a single female voice in a very high register, though again it is so brief that it is over before it can be grasped.

The Nonesuch album contains a myriad of melodies wrapped within melodies, as intricate as the ornate puppets of Javanese theatre, as ephemeral as a half-remembered dream. Many rest on the verge of audibility, their subtlety allowing the listener to either concentrate intently or simply let the sounds wash through them. From the many-layered chimes and pulses of gamelan to the even more refined flute and vocal patterns, this album is full of rare gems, and like gemstones themselves, their colour shines brighter yet in one's memory, where they tease out a tenuous link to the invisible web which connects all of the world's diverse musical traditions, some place in the central nervous system where pure sound exists, just beyond the limit of our human hearing.


[Inigo Jones]