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A House in Bali  

by on Monday, 27 December 2010No Comment | 305 views

A House in Bali, Evan Ziporyn’s dense syncretic opera, regales you with sounds, moves, images, and contradictions. It’s a little like visiting Bali for the first time. The strangeness can be overwhelming, but you’ll never forget the clangor. Ziporyn, who composes new music and heads Gamelan Galak Tika at MIT, has been infatuated with Balinese culture most of his working life, and like his predecessor and soulmate, the Canadian composer Colin McPhee, he’s fused the beguiling chimes, gongs, and rhythmic roller-coaster of gamelan music with jazz and classical forms more familiar to our ears.

McPhee’s searching and somehow tragic journey into Balinese life is the subject of the memoir that gave its name to Ziporyn’s opera, which was presented Friday and Saturday at the Cutler Majestic by the new-music organization Bang on a Can. The production goes to Brooklyn Academy’s Next Wave festival this weekend.

In the 1930s, a whole flock of anthropologists and ethnographers from Europe and the Americas made their way to the fabled islands of South Asia, to study the culture and, in some cases, find alternative life styles. The archipelago that would become Indonesia consisted of hundreds of islands, languages, and traditions, none more mysterious to Western sensibilities than Bali.

Colin McPhee, like many other artists, went to Bali for inspiration. He found the work of his lifetime. From the house he built near Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali, he made an intensive study of gamelan music, setting down in Western notation the melodies and rhythms of the gamelan’s interlocking gongs, xylophones, and drums. He eventually wrote several compositions transposing the gamelan’s sonorities for Western instruments. Before he could carry out an enormous plan to record traditional music in the most remote villages, the Japanese occupation and World War II intervened. McPhee returned to the United States, where he continued to compose and work on his massive survey, Music in Bali, which was completed before he died in 1964.

Ziporyn, director Jay Scheib, and their collaborators — librettist Paul Schick, choreographers Kadek Dewi Aryani and I Nyoman Catra, the Balinese Gamelan Salukat, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and a host of singers, dancers, and technical wizards — tell McPhee’s story as a 21st-century collage. The stage is divided roughly in half, with the two musical ensembles on one side and the acting area on the other. The space is layered and broken up with screens, supertitles, platforms, and inner chambers. You seem to be seeing across time, as archival films glimmer in corners and live-action video serves as an occult third eye, exposing the performers in close-up or peeking behind their backs.

The 16 members of the gamelan double as villagers who build McPhee’s house, then demand payola to abstain from wrecking it. By ingenious multiple casting, the servants and guides become dancers, representing the spirits that permeate Balinese life, who must be appeased constantly with offerings and protective rituals.

Inquisitive Westerners Margaret Mead (soprano Anne Harley) and the German painter Walter Spies (tenor Timur Bekbosunov) hover about, extolling what they’ve learned from the culture in lyrical effusions, while McPhee (tenor Peter Tantsits) seems pleasantly dazed. They all look awkward and out of place, like tourists.

McPhee is smitten with a village boy, Sampih (Nyoman Triyana Usadhi), and pays his parents to give him up, ostensibly as a servant, tacitly as a lover. Two other villagers tame the boy’s wild energies by teaching him the flashy, androgynous kebyar dance. He’ll go on to become a star when the Balinese dancers tour the world.

Ziporyn’s score for the two orchestras reflects these adventures, as cultures meet, clash, accommodate. The music is propulsive, frenetic, but only occasionally tranquil. The miked singers sometimes overbalanced the instruments, and the whole panorama felt cramped to me in the modest space of the Majestic. But there was nothing modest about the ambition or the dazzling effect of the production.

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