West Meets East: Challenges of Scoring American-Indonesian Films

by Malcolm Cross

Scoring these films – first ’40 Years’ and then the ‘Afflictions’ series – presented some real conundrums musically, namely: how to marry two sound worlds – traditional Indonesian music and western film music – that are so intrinsically different?

Director Rob Lemelson wanted the viewer to feel ‘like they never leave’ Indonesia; he had already collected plenty of ethnographic field recordings to ensure he had access to authentic traditional music. But to a western ear, Javanese and Balinese music does not have the same emotional resonance as to its native audience. This is particularly true of classical gamelan music, whose shimmering cyclical melodies and rhythms are designed to create a sense of cool, emotional detachment in order to inspire a selfless, contemplative state. For western audiences to connect with these emotionally charged stories the scores would have to also use some traditional western film vocabulary and instrumentation.

The biggest practical hurdle to overcome is that of intonation or tuning. Traditional Indonesian instruments do not generally follow a western standard tuning – indeed, each region prides itself on its tuning idiosyncrasies. So, a full gamelan orchestra may be ‘in tune’ with itself and little else! The likelihood of, say, a western ‘concert pitch’/A440 Hz grand piano being able to integrate harmoniously with a Balinese gamelan is next to zero. To compound matters, in the case of the Balinese gamelan micro-tonal differences between pairs of instruments is a desirable quality. This produces ‘beating’ between close frequencies, considered undesirable dissonance in Western music – put simply, it sounds ‘out of tune’.

Like any good international summit, the point was not to dwell on these differences but rather to find common ground and compromise. ’40 Years’ proved to be a testing ground for some of these ideas. The central theme ‘Genjer Genjer’ loaned itself well to arrangement; in the pivotal scene ‘Budi’s Homecoming’ (dic 1 #7) you’ll hear the melody in the piano/cellos with the rest of the strings adding some emotional punch. The large gongs and ‘core’ metallophones (Jegog, Calung and Penyacah) provide a rhythmic accompaniment. At the mixing stage, the higher-pitched ‘Gansa’ metallophones were clashing too much pitch-wise with the other instruments so as a compromise the same part was played on an equivalent western metallophone; the glockenspiel, played with wooden mallets to bring it closer in sound to the gamelan instruments.

One of the more unusual choices of instrumentation in ’40 Years’ was the Dobro (a kind of slide guitar more commonly used in American folk/roots music.) Guitars are actually widely used all over Indonesia, but more importantly the pentatonic minor ‘blues’ scale is analogous with a commonly used local scale. Hence, the mournful, ‘sighing’ sounds of ‘Degung & Pak Kereta’ (disc 1 #2) or ‘Unclean Environment’ (disc 1 #5) sound equally at home depicting sorrow in Bali as they would in Mississippi!

For the later ‘Afflictions’ films we used technology a bit more to our advantage; creating sound libraries of ‘tuned’ and ‘un-tuned’ sampled

Indonesian instruments (the ‘tuned’ instruments still contain much of their unique character but are designed to marry more successfully with concert pitch instruments.) A good example of this would be ‘Family Victim’ (disc 2 #21) which successfully utilizes a large mixed western/Indonesian ensemble sound as a harmonious whole. In addition by using more sampled western instruments it became possible to fine tune say, a piano to work better with an authentic, non concert-pitch gamelan set.

Each film in the ‘Afflictions’ series has its own unique character and setting and so each score attempts to reflect that musically. Generally there is a solo ‘lead’ instrument associated with each protagonist; violin for Pak Kereta (from ‘Shadows & Illuminations’); suling (bamboo flute) for Gusti (‘The Bird Dancer’) and so on. Kereta and Ni Ketut Kasih (‘Ritual Burdens’) represent older, more traditional values and so their scores and instrumentation echo that (e.g . ‘End Credits – Shadows and Illuminations’ disc 2 #7 imitates the traditional sounds of the gamelan orchestra.) Estu (‘Family Victim’) and especially Bambang (‘Memory of my Face’) depict a younger, more westernized Indonesia, so those scores features more modern sounds – we had particular fun recreating the trashy pop sounds of ‘Dangdut’ music (‘Memory of My Face’ disc 2 #8, ‘Family Victim End Credits’ disc 2 #25.)

Of course, none of this work would have been possible without the help of my dear friend and collaborator, Pak Nyoman Wenten. As head of the Indonesian Music and Dance program at Cal Arts, he has been an indispensible source of knowledge and experience for these projects; plus importantly, he’s a master musician (you’ll hear his performances throughout this collection.) Recording together wasn’t without its challenges though; all our musical ideas were exchanged orally since we can’t read each other’s notation! Interestingly, the idea of recording to a ‘click’ track (normally so abhorrent to western classical players) is second nature to gamelan trained musicians, who frequently practice to a fixed-pulse muted kettle gong (or Reyong.) Freed from a traditional score, we worked directly to picture, more in the tradition of the Wayang (‘shadow plays’) where the musicians follow every nuance of the action on screen. It was quite a humbling realization that this performance tradition predates the idea of ‘live’ silent movie musicians by several centuries!

Malcolm Cross BSc Mus, November 2011