Classical: Eastern influence

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Classical Fusions is a London Philharmonic series exploring links between Western symphonic repertoire, and other musical traditions. Gamelan, whether Javanese or Balinese (the islands have distinct but related traditions of percussion orchestras), has charmed many with its ability to express what Debussy called "every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades, which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts".

The drums, gongs and metallophones of the gamelan find an echo in the percussion-heavy scores of Edgard Varese, and the junkyard percussion and prepared piano of John Cage might be construed as a gamelan in miniature. Cage's colleague Lou Harrison, who first heard a gamelan at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, went on to design his own custom-made gamelans, while Colin McPhee was transfixed by a recording he heard in 1931. Within months he had moved to Bali, where he lived for years, transcribing the island's music and even founding gamelans. Later, he wrote Tabuh-tabuhan, an orchestral work which, at several points, imitates the gamelan on Western instruments. McPhee met Benjamin Britten in New York in 1940, and the two composers actually recorded one of McPhee's Balinese transcriptions for two pianos.

In 1956, Britten himself went to Bali, writing home to Imogen Holst, the music is fantastically rich... about as complicated as Schonberg". He noted down what he heard, turning it to good effect in his 1957 ballet The Prince of Pagodas. Even Pierre Boulez, writing in 1961 about his Second Mallarme Improvisation, said "To me the vibraphone is a kind of substitute for the Balinese gamelan, which we cannot procure." Things have changed since then, but gamelan continues to fascinate Western ears.

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