It takes a lot of moving parts to fund, film, and release a piece of cinema. It is no surprise that many projects never make it onto our screens. Directed by Matthew Dunning, Brêngênging Sala, is a documentary exploring the Indonesian city of Surakarta, known colloquially as Sålå (Solo in English). Although the film had a trailer and some initial promotion, the movie seems to have been abandoned in the mid-2010s.
Sekatan, a shorter film by Dunning, also explores Javanese culture. It found DVD release on the Sublime Frequencies label under the name The Stirring of a Thousand Bells. The soundtrack showcases the mesmerising music of gamelan, central to the film’s subject matter. Brêngênging Sala had a very different sound, with a score by experimental musician Matt Shoemaker. After Shoemaker’s death in 2017, his recordings could have remained on the cutting room floor. However, he finalised and mastered them in 2015, so he clearly wanted them to be heard. They work excellently as a standalone album.
The four full-length tracks are named after traditional markets in the city. With Shoemaker as tour guide, we take the journey of an interloping visitor: from disorienting arrival through transformational experience. The end of the album is a celebratory and humbled return home, vanishing in a cloud of sparse drones. But along the way, Shoemaker uses rich drone textures to evoke the full gamut of emotional response. A bedrock of field recordings keeps us connected to the streets and market stalls of Solo.
“Pasar Sepeda” (“Bike Market”) is a rush of street noise, bombarding the listener with mopeds and motorcycles whose noise becomes a rhythmic backdrop. As we find our bearings, sumptuous ambience takes over, with a hint of sacred gong atmospherics. “Pasar Kilthikan” (“Second-hand Market”) is the highlight of the album, inducting us further into the timeless, spiritual side of the city. Regular tolling vibration gives structure to drawn-out tones and discordantly echoing textures.
“Pasar Gede” (“Big Market”) is fittingly the longest track. It is a gentler, more reflective, but also more ominous piece – a lengthy dialogue between overlapping drones. An overheard pulse and electrical chittering get closer and closer until they enter our psyche in a slow-motion psychodrama. After a long process of discovery, we find ourselves back on the pavement with the chatter of pedestrians and the rumble of traffic. Shoemaker lingers here for some time, as we float voyeuristically above the hustle and bustle.
Online translation tools seem unable to decipher the Javanese title of the album. Fortunately, in some unearthed notes, the filmmaker explains that “brêngênging” is a high-pitched whining. This renders the full title “Solo Drone”. We may wonder whether Shoemaker’s wonderful sounds are really the product of Solo, or more an artistic homage to the city. As we navigate the album’s serpentine passageways, we may also spare a thought for all the lost filmic music that never makes it to market. (Samuel Rogers)