Pusaka SundaFeaturing gamelan compositions and suling improvizations by Burhan Sukarma
Sénggot – In the 1970s and 1980s Burhan Sukarma became famous for his improvisations over traditional “framework” pieces, such as “Sénggot” (cast in the sorog tuning). The musicians apply instrument-specific elaboration techniques to a simple pitch framework to produce a rich tapestry of polyphony, over which Burhan weaves rhapsodic improvisations. This rendition includes two contrasting rhythmic treatments: a very slow tempo called dua wilet (double-length time periods), followed by a livelier “one-and-a-half” wilet section.
Écéng Gondok – (“Water hyacinth”) is one of the many enduring songs composed by Ibu Haji Siti Rokayah, a remarkable musician who overcame prejudices against women instrumentalists and composers in the 1940s and 50s to earn the respect and admiration of her male colleagues and Sundanese audiences. Burhan Sukarma has arranged it as a duet for singers Laura McColm and Danni Redding Lapuz. The verses are paparikan, a poetic form with two couplets, the first of which is nonsensical or trivial, but sets up a sound and/or image upon which the second couplet somehow riffs to make a more meaningful, profound statement.
Rengga-Renggi – The violin—with a Sundanese name, biola—has long been a familiar instrument for traditional music in West Java (although not typically with gamelan). Burhan’s composition, “Rengga-Renggi” opens with a seething, syncopated soliloquy for the bronze instruments, which then leads to a call and response between the bronze and the biola. The biola, played by Laura McColm, dominates the third section, only to be silenced by the recapitulation of the bronze instruments’ soliloquy. Lightning-fast caruk (interlocking) figurations from the matching pair of saron and drumming inspired by the popular music and dance called dangdut contribute to the composition’s unrelenting energy, while the intricate intertwining melodic lines justify the piece’s title, which means “ornate.”
Gantana-Gintini – (“Sashay”) was composed by Burhan for the San Francisco Gathering of Gamelans Festival in 2005. The gamelan’s highest-pitched metallophone, the peking, opens the piece, and its high, feminine voice hints at the coquettish, sashaying mood suggested by the title. As the sections unfold, the peking engages the flute in a flirtatious dialogue.
Saka – (“Pillar”) was composed by Burhan Sukarma to commemorate Pusaka Sunda’s twentieth anniversary in 2009. It combines snippets of material from a variety of traditional Sundanese sources into a narrative sequence of moods and atmospheres. Saka’s dramatic opening and closing material is adapted from one of tembang Sunda’s most difficult songs, “Jemplang Panganten”; the ostinato and descending melody are adapted from the kacapi (zither) accompaniment that accompanies the song.
Gelenyu – (“Smile”) composed by Burhan, calls for a suling panjang (long flute), which has a mellow tone quality and six (rather than four) fingerholes that enable the performer great pitch flexibility. The piece’s syncopated gamelan melodies, intense rhythmic density, and meandering flute parts combine with the sorog tuning’s yearning affect to suggest the warm thrill of a furtive smile.
Élékésékéng – (“All Keyed Up”) is a popular song by the prolific composer Nano S. Alarmed by the increasing popularity of western-style pop music at the expense of traditional music in West Java in the 1960s, Nano sought to create songs that were unabashedly Sundanese yet still appealed to the increasingly cosmopolitan ears of urban youth. “Élékésékéng” tells the story of a young man whose amorous ambitions are foiled by circumstances at every turn, leaving him “all keyed up.” Careful listeners will notice how cleverly the song’s occasional diatonic melodic turns are combined with the pentatonic gamelan tuning.
Ucing-Ucingan – is in degung’s klasik (classical) style, in which each of the instruments plays its own idiomatic version of a single melody, resulting in an intensely heterophonic texture. Klasik pieces also are characterized by austere stick drumming and rather surprising formal asymmetries. The piece’s intriguing title alludes to a children’s game roughly equivalent to “cat and mouse” (ucing is the Sundanese word for “cat”). Whether or not there is a programmatic relationship between the title and the melody is anybody’s guess, however. As is typical in modern practice, this klasik piece segues into a contrasting piece, in this case, another framework piece called “Kulu Kulu” which provides a backdrop for more suling improvisations.
Sulanjana – originates in the repertory of ketuk tilu (a social dance form), but this rendition is actually an adaptation of an adaptation—it is a common practice in West Java to recycle good material between multiple genres. “Sulanjana” accompanies the most refined dancing, and listeners familiar with Sundanese dance drumming could easily imagine the specific dance movements. At a signal from the drummer, the musicians change to the piece “Bendrong,” which starts out at a slow tempo and gets faster and more exciting as the musicians build toward an exciting climax.
Public response to Pusaka Sunda’s first two CDs (Lolongkrang and Samagaha) has been enthusiastic, and fans have been clamoring for a new recording for some time. In fact, the group has been working on producing a third CD for several years, dutifully learning and rehearsing Burhan’s new compositions, trudging to the studio to lay down tracks, and carefully isolating instruments to facilitate subtle adjustments to the mix.
Sadly, the results of these formal recording sessions never quite met Burhan’s exacting expectations, although he couldn’t quite articulate the reasons why. One day, as he reviewed the routine recordings from Pusaka Sunda’s annual concerts at the Jazzschool in Berkeley, California, however, he finally heard what he was missing. The Jazzschool’s intimate performance space provided precisely the right combination of wonderful acoustics, a friendly and knowledgeable audience, and a relaxed and inviting atmosphere to nurture the kind of communal music-making that is the soul of degung. And Lee Brenkman’s sensitive approach to recording live jazz events captured this spirit. Burhan decided to scuttle the hours of sterile studio recordings in favor of the best performances from these live shows.
Fans of Burhan Sukarma know that he is at his best when improvising in front of an audience. The members of Pusaka Sunda, who rehearse with Burhan on a regular basis, have become almost complacent to his beautiful playing. But even they are astonished over and over again by the sheer brilliance of what emerges from Burhan’s tiny bamboo flute in the context of live performances. (Some of the musicians have been known to be so caught up in the rapture that they neglect their own parts!)
Burhan Sukarma was born and raised in the West Javanese city of Karawang. During Bandung’s zaman kaset (a golden age of commercial cassette production) in the 1970s and 1980s, Burhan came to preeminence as the first-call suling player for the hundreds of traditional and contemporary suling recordings released by companies such as Hidayat and Jugala. From 1972-1986 he was heard by millions of listeners in his capacity as a principal musician at Radio Repulik Indonesia (RRI) in Bandung. He became one of the most influential Sundanese musicians of his generation, and quite literally set the standard for the generations of suling players that followed him.
In 1988, Burhan Sukarma relocated permanently in the San Jose, California. He encountered a small group of American musicians living in the San Francisco Bay Area who were interested in Sundanese performing arts. Many of them had learned the basics of gamelan music under the tutelage of master Sundanese drummer Undang Sumarna, who had been teaching gamelan at nearby UC Santa Cruz since 1974. With the help of Rae Ann Stahl, he began to coalesce a performing gamelan group to bring to fruition the many ideas he had for adapting, rearranging, and recomposing the materials of traditional Sundanese music. He named the group Pusaka Sunda (“Sundanese heirloom”) to emphasize his vision of the group as both a continuation of Sundanese tradition and as a symbol of his own Sundanese identity in a new country.
Members of Pusaka Sunda performing on this recording are: Ed Garcia, Daniel Kelley, Laura McColm, Kenneth Miller, Danni Redding Lapuz, Ray Lapuz, Gretchen McPherson, Olivia Sears, Henry Spiller, Rae Ann Stahl.
All material © Pusaka Sunda
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