|Themes > Arts > Music > Music around the World > Music of SouthEast Asia|
|Despite the vicissitudes
of contemporary history, this region of the world has unveiled and continues
to unveil a formidable wealth in music, choreography and theater (to be
exact, sung theater, shadow theater and marionette theater.) Consequently,
the populations of this part of the world distinguish themselves from
their immediate neighbors. They continue to be striking for their pursuit
of extreme refinement and elaborate sophistication. Southeast Asia covers
a very diverse geography; mountains, plateaus, coastal plains, and myriad
islands, in which the music is still little known and a barely studied
hinterland that conceals traditions shared with the south of China and
forming a separate branch. In music, Southeast Asia encompasses countries
that extend from Burma (also called Myanmar), in the west to the Philippines
in the east, with Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia
forming intermediate links. Compared to one another, the music in each
of these countries is quite different. Sometimes the music even within
one country differs from region to region, as in Indonesia. All of them
share a common aesthetic, characterized by fluidity. Everything happens
as if music flowed like a wave of water. Doubtlessly, this aesthetic emanates
from an unconscious preoccupation to transplant nature with its very rich
vegetation and abundant rains to the realm of culture. The musical tradition
has certainly been tinged by the spirit of the seasons as it has by the
spirit of nature that the musical tradition transposes with as much grace
as elegance. Although among these countries Vietnam is attached culturally
to its big neighbor China, nonetheless for music it fits within Southeast
Asia. Listening to its music also arouses this expression of fluidity
(track 1), which is the primary feeling that hearing Southeast Asian music
Assuredly, the presence of metal, which has been exploited since Early Antiquity, along with the production of bronze, has guided the inventions of these people and led them to define their musical evolution through the mastery of this material. Here many instruments were born: gongs, kinds of completely covered pots, bulb-shaped gongs, enormous tom-toms, various metal lamellophones, which form a group of instruments called gangsa in Bali and the saron in Java, metal xylophones played with hammers. The extreme sophistication of these sonorous objects allows them to reproduce various notes of a musical scale that divides an octave into five or seven equal parts. Elsewhere, as in Vietnam and the Philippines, exploiting bronze has produced a series of gongs that do not try to reproduce a musical scale, but remind us that the use and domestication of this material took place in precise and functional conditions, although in the Philippines a series of bulb-shaped gongs with the name kulingtang are again found. Again elsewhere, in areas that did not produce this material for lack of capacities to extract raw materials from the earth, a series of two-headed drums in increasing size was invented. They were created in the spirit of the gongs. They are found in Burma with the name of pat waing and in Sumatra with the name of gondang. Like the gongs, the drums are tuned and can easily go through a musical scale. The same is true for different lamellophones: some were made out of wood and are usually designated by the term xylophone, for example, in the music of Cambodia and Thailand. Sometimes instruments made from different materials have been discovered in the same culture, however some have different uses. This is the case, for example, in Bali, where wooden xylophones called gambang are used for funeral rites, and metal xylophones or metallophones have been created for reasons having to do with religious services or entertainment.
Here, archeology has something to say about the domestication of bronze for purposes of creating sound. Quite a series of bronze drums has been excavated and continues to be excavated in archeological sites in Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, and southern China. The common characteristic of these drums is that they generally conform to one unique model that exhibits differences only in decoration. As early as the 18th century, these drums attracted the attention of scholars and were studied in minute detail by specialists. They continue to be produced these days in the frontier area between Burma and Thailand by the Karen tribe. The particular characteristics of these drums are that they are richly decorated and that they have figurines cast on the main drum head at the four cardinal compass points. These figurines, representing frogs, already integrate the call of water that has become the very source for musical transposition in these countries.
But the bronze drum from Early Antiquity is not the sole source for a perception of sonorous timbre, nor is it probably the oldest. There is the discovery of the famous lithophones in Vietnam in the last few decades that cannot be ignored. In the present state of affairs, it is difficult to date them with precision. These lithophones have often been discovered accidentally by peasants working in the fields, who have also unearthed a series of stone bars that resonate in the most astonishing manner and reproduce a perfect musical scale. These discoveries, therefore, allow us to suppose that the domestication of sound was not rooted solely in bronze. Already there existed a different perception from another sound material, from stone as the Chinese tradition confirms. These lithophones prefigured the xylophone. It would suffice to swap materials while leaving the formal structure intact. Historically, this model could have been born in this region of the globe and from there have been dispatched elsewhere.
All of these facts could explain why Southeast Asia developed very rich orchestras, favoring the blending of timbres over soloist instruments and succeeding in harmoniously combining materials of various origins and bringing the best out of them. There certainly existed since Earliest Antiquity, an acute perception of instrumental color, which was brought to maturity and encouraged by the contribution of various influences, and therefore, new timbres. In any case, creating an orchestra that meets fixed expectations is anchored in the general mentality. These orchestras had already been created a long time ago and have come down to us without big notable changes, at least in the past few centuries. This is the case in Burma with the hsaing waing orchestra that combines the oboe, the cymbals and gongs; in Thailand with the pi phat orchestra that blends bulb-shaped gongs, the xylophone and drums; in Cambodia with the pinhat and mohori orchestras. This is also the case in Malaysia with various orchestras, the gamelan teranggannu, which mixes the sonorities of bronze, wood, and skins, and the nobat, which associates brass, reeds, and percussion skins. Finally, it is the majesty of the Indonesian orchestras called the gamelan in Java and the gong in Bali. They have become the apotheosis of bronze orchestras, but nevertheless they permit, in certain cases, the arrival of new timbres like the two-string bowed instrument (rebab) and the large zither with 22 to 26 strings (celempung), bamboo flutes (suling), or two-headed drums (kendang). The best known of these orchestras, those of Java and Bali, are the most brilliant because of the splendor in the number of instruments, but they differ fundamentally in their aesthetics and the quality of sound that they give off. The sound quality in Java is as much internal, playing on its nuances, as the sound quality in Balinese orchestras is explosive in a dynamic and scintillating way. Whether they are set up as large formations or small ensembles, these orchestras fulfill various functions that range from religious music to entertainment, from music for the dance theater or the shadow theater.
Of all the instruments in the bas-reliefs of Cambodia (as on Angkor), there is one preserved in Burma that links Indian Antiquity and Southeast Asia and proves that this region has always been open to multiple influences from the outside. It is a Burmese elbow harp called the saung-gauk, which existed in India in the past but has since disappeared from that continent. This instrument, symbolic of Burma, is a part of the art music, as moreover are all the orchestras mentioned above.
If learned art in Southeast Asia has reached summits, it is not the only representative there. There jointly subsists popular music, less well-known, and finally music of the minorities, now being discovered. It is thus that popular music revives the soloist instrument, especially in the northern part of Southeast Asia. The mouth organ, the khen, the national instrument of Laos turns its back on the learned tradition. Here the attraction to soloist music reappears.
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