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by Justin Farrar

September 7, 2010

Sonic Youth Love Gamelan ... And Other Surprising Facts

by Justin Farrar  |  September 7, 2010

Indie rock and Indonesian gamelan? Strange bedfellows, we know. But then again, not so much. Indie rockers have always looked outside national borders for inspiration. ( The Shins' " Girl Inform Me" and Brazilian pop, anyone?) And in fact indie and post-rockers and an endless raft of ambient techno, hip-hop and avant garde-ists are simply following in a long line of great musicians who've been inspired by the courtly Indonesian music: Claude Debussy, John Cage and Steve Reich, to name just a few.

Gamelan is a fascinating beast the word gamelan actually just means "orchestra," and there are many types of gamelan throughout Indonesia. Despite different tunings and repertoire, each orchestra shares a few characteristics: it generally consists of a small arsenal of brass instruments hanging gongs with great names like gong ageng and gong suwuk, as well as horizontal gongs, drums and distended xylophone-like instruments. The orchestras play interlocking melodies in a kind of circular, rhythmic pattern that undoes usual notions of movements, crescendos, etc. In gamelan there are no crescendos, only a kind of textured now that pulses, changes incrementally and then loops back to where it's been. Its very nature has given its Western fans a kind of compositional permission the permission to create music that spreads across a plane, rather than peaking and dipping in valleys and mountains of sound. It's a different way of thinking about melody and rhythm, and it's been influential in the development of minimalism, ambient techno and other styles.

Rather than focus solely on gamelan-as-inspiration, this playlist guides you to the gamelan-inspired: songs by artists like Bjork, Four Tet, Tortoise, Xiu Xiu and Flying Lotus, songs that show in their bones and often in their instrumentation how this ancient music form has found its way onto hipsters' stereos often unbeknownst to them. And we throw in some modern gamelan for good measure. Listen now!

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