Eric Antoni


English translation: Anne Losq]

European music and Indonesian music existed, for a long time, without ever meeting. When the encounter finally occurred, each music was predictably judged by the other party as being strange and remote. This was true of the majority of opinions – especially in Nineteenth Century Europe, an era convinced of its own superiority. We must, however, notice that two of the most influential musicians of their time and culture – Debussy and Bartók –  were able to “hear” in the most concrete and humble way (through audition) and in the most subtle of ways (through comprehension) the essence and universality of such faraway music. When Debussy discovered Indonesian music in 1889, such a world of sound was hardly considered. It was also barely archived in museum collections when Bartók sought this music in the 1920s and 1930s.

Both creators – among the most original and innovative composers of their times – approached Indonesian music in two different ways. We shall attempt to understand each composer’s journey and outcomes.

(1) A Chiming Keyboard – Debussy (1) 


The fact that Debussy discovered Sundanese gamelan music at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 is established and undisputed. But it also “entered in the legend” and this is admitted without additional scrutiny. This means that we easily omit to ask ourselves how Debussy came to such a discovery, what was the concrete impact of such a revelation, and which personal experiences – intimate, organic and sensual – led him to find the profound meaning of gamelan music, at a time when nearly everyone around him only heard a hodgepodge of metallic bells rung by submissive and colonized tribes. On the one hand, what happened then wasn’t the intellectual illumination of a prophet, or of a solely spiritual being: it came from the experience of a body and a soul. For, what Debussy heard that day, he heard it with his musician’s ear, but he also, and more importantly, perceived it with the heart, nerves, sex and brain of a living and breathing man.

And, on the other hand, in order for him to « hear » such great music, he had to be Achille-Claude Debussy, and couldn’t be anyone else. The entire creative approach could only be embodied by him, as his path had begun in childhood, and as he was guided by intelligence and intuition, both of those qualities being united and advancing together.


Debussy’s personal responsiveness to gamelan music also occurred because it was set in a precise time, both in terms of his own development and in terms of the specific moment in the history of music and in the collective history of the European people. In order to appreciate Indonesian music, it was undoubtedly important to be a French musician, born in 1862 and having freed oneself from Wagner and Wagnerism, the latter having dominated the musical scene and the minds of that generation of musicians.

Before any formal examination, and even before listening in depth to gamelan music, Debussy experienced an upheaval when he discovered these new sounds. History did not make note of this upheaval, nor did the more or less fantasized legends. But it nevertheless happened and was a decisive moment, for Debussy was struck in his flesh by instruments with specific sounds and timbres: gamelans are essentially a mix of treble metallophones and bass gongs. If we transpose this to our own cultural arena, they could be seen as the unification of Papageno’s glochenspiel and the low resounding sound of certain church bells, all combined in one orchestra. Gamelans are, in short, a carillon. Debussy had his feet firmly grounded in his own native land, and his nerves sharpened. Before analysing what he heard, his whole self was seized by a sonorous moment, which resounded in him similarly to the carillons, bells and other metallic percussions that had rung in his ear since childhood, and had stimulated a network of organic, energetic, emotional and erotic sensations… Everything else came after: the musician’s awareness, the composer’s admiration and analysis, the study of the music’s particular rhythms and modes.

His contemporaries, who saw him play the piano, were very eloquent in their testimonies (3) as they talked about the pressing agitation of a man for whom music was “firmly grounded in the body”. The composer Gabriel Pierné, one of Debussy’s classmates at the conservatory, shared his impressions:

“… he quite literally surged towards the keyboard and forced his effects. He seemed to be raging against the instrument, mistreating it with impulsive movements, breathing heavily when carrying out difficult passages. Such shortcomings lessened with time and he then obtained surprising effects of mellow softness”.

The poet Léon-Paul Fargue, who met Debussy much later, noted:

“He seemed to be giving birth to the keyboard. He stroked it, talked to it sweetly, like a rider to his horse, like a shepherd to his herd, like a wheat thresher to his cows”.

The music that Debussy was about to compose confirmed this too, as specific effects are embedded, and can be discovered by confirmed players(4).The previous year, as a pianist, Debussy put into music the childish disequilibrium of Verlaine’s “Chevaux de bois” (“Wooden Horses”)(5) (“…Turn a hundred turns, turn a thousand turns / Turn often and turn always…”), horses which may have been mounted in 1889, two steps away from the Eiffel Tower, whose erection was being celebrated in Paris, as was the staggering chime keyboard called “gamelan”.

Debussy’s music – whether gazing in the deep waters of its wells (Mélisande’s ring…) or mired in stagnating waters – never ceases to whirl. It revolves around an axis, just like Verlaine’s merry-go-round, which is its perfect allegory. The movement is still, as was remarked by Vladimir Jankelevitch. In this way, Debussy’s music is similar to the gamelan’s perpetuum, which is both mobile and immobile. This is also why Debussy’s works deeply changed the ethics and aesthetics of Western music, and why they had such an impact in the Twentieth century.

Turn, whirl, vibrate! Debussy placed such moments at the heart of his music: moments of vertigo, when the body’s liveliness submerges one’s conscious presence.

At the source of any awakening to music, there is always a kind of “pre-reflexive” conduct, as the philosophers say, designating experiences that can’t be rendered objective or verbalized by the individual himself. Debussy was the kind of musician who could find such experiences within him and revitalize them while also keeping a certain distance, allowing him to truly observe them and to, finally, transfigure them into music. He blessed us with some masterful orchestral works, an opera of unfathomable beauty, Images (aptly named…) such as “Cloches à travers les feuilles” (“Bells through the Leaves”) (6), two books of preludes and studies for piano, three final sonatas for various instruments and the gift of revealing new horizons to future musicians…


2 – From the Island of Bali – Bartók (2)

One had to be born Hungarian in 1881 and be the subject of an Empire dominated by German language and culture to travel on a donkey’s back in 1905 and collect the marvellous popular songs and dances that still rhythmed the lives of farmers and mountain people in remote regions of Hungary, Romania and the Balkans. One had to be Hungarian, determined, inflexible and conscious of being on a historical mission: to save from oblivion a heritage that couldn’t remain alive, if it weren’t for audacious composers who could recreate it.

bartok paysans

One of the most characteristic aspects of Bartók’s music, alongside his integration and transformation of popular themes and rhythms, has to do with the way in which he opposes two complementary harmonic worlds (7): the first is chromatic and generates circular movements, leading to spiralling effects, as if it were driven by strong churning. The second is diatonic and conveys linear thrusts, bursts of ascending lines of triumphant expression. His most sophisticated works are the result of this opposition. In the first movement of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), as well as in the third movement (8), we are able to follow this struggle and to witness each harmonic world’s mutual intensification.


The work that occupies us here lasts only two minutes and three seconds. Its title, “From the Island of Bali”, already signals a distant faraway place, but is also an encounter between what comes from over there and what is blossoming here. By “here” we are thinking of the Mikrokosmos series, composed by Béla Bartók from 1926 to 1939. He was at the height of his artistic powers and, as a father, wanted to educate his son, Peter, to the art of piano and music. “Mikrokosmos” comprises a total of six volumes, 153 pieces for piano, from the initial simple “Unison Melodies” to the very complex six “Bulgarian Rhythm” works.

When, half way in, we discover the 4th volume of this little (micro) world (cosmos), we have already understood that all of the qualities of the great (macro) world of music are reflected here. The grand predecessors are acknowledged: Couperin, for his accuracy, Bach, for the weaving of melodic lines, and Schumann for the far-off feel of his music. The counterpoint is put to use, as are accompanying music and peasant dances that come from the composer’s European native lands (Hungary, Romania and neighbouring Transylvania). The harmonic climate features dissonant intervals often considered unstable, such as the second and fourth intervals, semitones and seventh intervals. These are much more prominently represented than they are in the “usual” pedagogical manuals. Bartók also favoured other modes – especially the Dorian, Lydian and Phrygian modes – which formal music had marginalized since the Seventeenth Century. Asymmetrical rhythms from Bulgaria can also be heard from this volume onwards.

The music from Mikrokosmos is more lyrical than Balinese music, but it also is as incisive and can be as percussive. There is an undeniable kinship in temperament between both types of music, which must have led Bartók to direct his attention to the island of Bali. But more decisive factors were involved, as we will see in the following paragraphs.

In this 4th volume of Mikrokosmos, and more specifically in the 109thnumber, why is the island of Bali, seemingly so far away, featured in a musical world which was, until then, “European-centred”? What made Balinese music so contemporary compared to other musical styles for it to be invoked as being the agent of a strategy to transmit musical meaning?


3 – Like the Image of another World


Let us listen to the piece itself, since Youtube gives us the invaluable opportunity of hearing it being played and churned by Bartók himself (9). We can appreciate the undulating phrasing and the warm sound, very different from the percussive and dry playing style that others have often attributed to him while opposing his style to Debussy’s.



We shall proceed to an initial auditory perception of the piece, which is made up of three parts. The first, Andante, is written in 6/8, and has the p dolce indication. The second part triggers a rhythmical change, 4/4, a changing Risoluto character and an f intensity. The tempo also shifts (the crotchet being at 94 when the quaver was indicated at 134 in the previous movement), as does the direction of the notes (ascending) and, finally, the relationship between the hands of the pianist, who plays in parallel. The second part starts at O’37’’ with a half rest, going all the way to an ff (1’04’’), which then culminates (1’20’’) in two D notes that are separated by a double octave, indicated as sf (Sforzando, which literally means “forcing”). This announces a third part, during which both Ds are held with the pedal and can be heard “underneath” motifs that had previously appeared in the first part, with the same indication of movement – Andante –, of metrics – 6/8 –, and of intensity – p dolce. This all leads to chords, indicated as pp (1’52’’) which are punctuated by two short notes (1’58), with the chords dimming up until the end (2’03’’).


A second type of perception – musical, this time – goes crescendo from the beginning (an arpeggio in which the pivoting note is a D): p, dolce, it is the churning phase. Starting at 0’37’’, there is a bursting motion which continues until the two resounding D notes can be heard (ff, sf). We thus reach the culminating point of the work, which then leads us to tip into the finale. The notes pull away until they disappear, and then reappear differently through the chords (1’52), the latter being held until the end, and peppered with two short notes that are played simultaneously: one in the lower register and one in the higher register. By their very brevity, these unusual little notes suggest the terms of the bursting motion, going up and going down. This could only happen after having reached and deployed the tonal emitting centre, which is D itself. Far from being anecdotal or ornamental, these short notes crown the moment of elevation which the music had prepared us for from the very first arpeggios (10).


The chromatic churning and the diatonic bursting qualities of this piece constitute the harmonic and cinematic elements of Bartók’s music. This piece is the most condensed and summarized form of his music, a deeply centred work, and coming from the island of Bali.

A few comments:

– The piece is a musical sum in the form of a loop and entirely turned towards its blossoming centre, the D note, which seems to take on the role of the note played by the Gong at the beginning of the Balinese Gamelan and often repeated until the end – this note also signals the end. But although the Balinese gong contains all of the tensions supported by the gamelans, it operates in advance and as an authority, in line with Oriental Cosmogony, in which the origins of the world always end up absorbing its very future. Conversely, In Bartók’s sum, the D note is engaged in the future of the world and accomplishes the project that was initiated by the first arpeggio and intensified by the tonal relationships stitched in the piece as a whole. As much as these two visions are ways of catching time as it passes, they are two means of involvement in the future, two applications of tonality, seemingly irreducible. We must, however, keep in mind that, for both of these musical worlds, the “passage through the (tonal) centre” is essential. Both find their energy, their form and their meaning in the centre (11).

– For each vibratory frequency, there is a psychic resonance and a physiological receptor (12). It is as true for musical heights as it is for colours that are felt to be warm or cold according to a scale of darker to lighter tones. A scale of notes is also a scale of tones, translating into a range of one’s feelings from open to closed, from the happiest to the saddest. Western musicians never failed when they centred their works on a specific single tone – C, D, E, F, etc. The Requiems by Mozart and Fauré are, for example, in D. From Johann Sebastian Bach to César Franck, the most internalized works in our classical repertoire, whether they be religious music or not, are all in D (13). In the Western world, the D note is charged with the symbolic attributes of Saturn, probably since ancient Greece or ancient Egypt. The D note is linked to a feeling of self-dispossession, whether endured or consented. In the Gregorian tradition, D is the tone linked to the peace felt by those who have learnt to move away from themselves, according to a just form of asceticism.

– The fact that Bartók chose to centre “From the Island of Bali” on the D note and not on another note in the scale is significant. This choice stems from the island itself, both distant and intimate, strange and contemporary: a song of peace, lyrical and contained, far from all the exotic spells that are usually associated with Gamelan music.




4 – A Finale?


Being one generation apart, two ages of the Western Musical Man were touched by Indonesian music: through Debussy, the carillon child, the forbearer of incredible music, and through Bartók, the father teaching his son and generating his own art. Debussy’s deepest intuitions were confirmed when he encountered the gamelan. For Bartók, the gamelan allowed him to deepen his language and give a renewed impulse to his final and most productive creative period (14). Many composers, from many different musical backgrounds, were inspired by Debussy and Bartók’s orientations and discoveries, from the American Minimalists, to French Spectral music, without forgetting to mention many jazzmen and trailblazers such as Gyorgy Ligeti and Giacinto Scelsi.


This is why we can state that Indonesian music has had an impact on the evolution of Twentieth Century Occidental music:


Ring and whirl always,

Vibrate, blaze incessantly,

Churn, again and again, soar endlessly,

Gamelans from Elsewhere and of Now!


If the poet said it…




Le point fixe


par la rotation

est au centre

de la sphère

de manière à former

par extrême intensité




[Giacinto Scelsi in Cercles Ed. le Parole Gelate, Roma 1986]






(1) 1862-1918
(2) 1881-1945
(3) Cited by Harry Halbreich, in Claude Debussy (Lockspeiser/Halbreich) p. 545, ed. Fayard.
(4) The Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt playing « Clair de lune » in front of an audience: _ HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ip64cG7gK4” _http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ip64cG7gK4_

(5) In Ariettes oubliées (1888) for voice and piano.  “Les chevaux de bois » (Wooden Horses)
_ HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8NkUJRE0j0” _http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8NkUJRE0j0_
(6) We recommend hearing this piece played with great focus and masterful fingers by the great carillonneur Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, _ HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YVtXU5PJ7Q” _http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YVtXU5PJ7Q_

(7) On this topic, see Ernö Lendvai’s study:  Introduction aux formes et harmonies Bartokiennes in Bartok, sa vie et son œuvre, ed. Boosey & Hawkes, 1968; as well as his book: Bela Bartok, An analysis of his music, Kahn&Averill ed. Et : _ HYPERLINK “http://www.mi.sanu.ac.rs/vismath/lend/ind1.htm” _http://www.mi.sanu.ac.rs/vismath/lend/ind1.htm_
(8) In Bartók’s powerful and meditative interpretation with his wife, Ditta – the work of a couple: _ HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMTuOsGE9ho” _http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMTuOsGE9ho_, for the first movement, and _ HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJ2ua8lSgoQ” _http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJ2ua8lSgoQ_ , for the third movement.

(9) _ HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BKKl25hWnE” _http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BKKl25hWnE_

(10) Furthermore, this finale reminds us of the finale in « Cloches à travers les feuilles ». (Bartók knew Debussy’s works well since he often played his works in concerts). “Finale” and not “end”: when we talk about such highly esteemed musical works, we should never talk about an ending, which suggests that it is the moment furthest from the beginning. We should instead refer to the finale, which suggests the achievement of a creative process, bringing it back to its genesis, its centre, and not merely to the beginning.

(11) On this topic, see Catherine Basset’s very compelling article: « Au-delà des apparences, morphologie des esthétiques et cosmologie à Bali» in Le Banian N°9, June 2010.
(12) It seems like the “Indo-vedic” sensitivity, which is part of Bali, gives a more informed perspective on this topic. See: « La Kundalini, l’énergie des profondeurs », by Lilian Silburn, Les Deux Océans éd. (1983).
(13) Stanley Kubrick made no mistake in this respect either: Häendel’s Sarabande which accompanies the slow, painful and chilling disembodiment of the main protagonist in his film Barry Lyndon is in D minor; the first notes of 2001…, which are also the first notes of Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra, progressively unfold into the founding and triumphant climate brought on by C major, illustrating both the film’s content and Nietzsche’s famous sentence, which Strauss highlighted in his score “For too long we have dreamt music, now let us awake. We were nightwalkers. Let us now be daywalkers.”

(14) Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussions (1937), Concerto for Violin (1938), Concerto for Orchestra (1943), etc.

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