Five years have passed since Chilean composer Felipe Otondo released Tutuguri, but there’s no mistaking his sound. The sounds of the Javanese gamelan orchestra, collected during his many travels, are given a gloss that is distinctly his. The smoothness of Otongo’s timbres are in sharp contrast to the roughness of Sekar DMN, whose recently reviewed self-titled debut delves into drone and noise, and to the quiet ambience of Loren Nerell, who buries the gamelan beneath waves of crickets and other natural sounds. For pure, upfront gamelan, we recommend Gamelans Padhang Moncar & Taniwha Jaya‘s dueling orchestra album Naga, a great starting point for anyone interested in the instrument. But for a modern exploration of the instrument’s sonic properties, we recommend Night Studies.
Like Tutuguri, the new album casts a spell, illustrating what the label refers to as “shifting, cinematic sonic night-cruises.” And night is the perfect time to experience this music, as it charts a mysterious course like a vessel sailing for unknown lands. These are not straightforward studies, but extended compositions containing individual movements. The first night study lies in wait until 00:56, when a sudden surge in volume engages the senses. Only 58 seconds later, the piece enters an ambient cove, backed by the washing of waves. In the fifth minute, the pace of the percussion increases, reflecting the rising surf, only to recede and recalibrate its course.
“Night Study 2” adds to the range of timbres, beginning with frantic mallets before slowing to the pace of wind chimes. Alternating cuts in the fourth minute make the piece sound like a live duel rather than a studio creation. The mastering is once again superb, and the artist makes maximum use of the stereo field. Threads dissipate, only to be revisited later; the waves cede space to a stream, intimating a larger shift in tone. “Oh, night more lovely than the dawn!” declares San Juan de la Cruz in the liner notes.
Ultimately the album turns to the “winter melancholy” of Virginia Woolf. “Night Study 3” launches into bell tones, soft until 1:33, when they sound a solemn warning. Traffic-based field recordings imply an approaching storm, echoing the buzz in the author’s mind. When one car draws particularly close in the eighth minute, it’s as if to signal that the danger is here, right now; there is no longer a path of escape. As the album’s last loud sound, it leaves an impact like a bruise.
With this album, Otondo has solidified his reputation as an innovator. For many, his music will be an entry point to the music of Indonesia; but this is more than a simple tribute. According to legend, the gamelan has been around for nearly 2000 years, but on Night Studies, Otondo makes the instrument sound contemporary: a gift to tradition and a noteworthy accomplishment. (Richard Allen)