Humanities Information

Debussy and Gamelan According to a 150 Year Old Man


If you haven't been transported by the mesmerizing sounds of Gamelan yet, we highly recommend you hear some. It will change the song you can't stop singing. (As much as you love Whitney's "I Will Always Love You" it's time Kevin Costner carried her out of your brain.)

Gamelan is like musical crack. Claude Debussy, French Composer. got addicted to it and it changed his whole compositional style.

Don't believe me? Then believe this really old guy, Jean Michel, that I met down in the Caribbean at a health spa. Jean is like 150, and he told me about his old pal "Claudey D" over margaritas, then during an herbal wrap, and then he finally stopped when he passed out during his Zinfandel colonics.

Is Jean's tale apocryphal? We don't know. However, we do know it shows the power of gamelan on a classical composer.

Jean Michel:

If you don't think hearing some good gamelan will change your life, let me tell you about my old pal Debussy. Me and the Claude-homme used to hang, back in the day. Now I just hang. (sighs) It happened sometime after I hit 120 years old. I take Viagra, but all I get is stiff shoulders.

Anyway, Claude had what the good ladies at Lourdes would call an "epiphany" the first time he ever heard a Javanese gamelan. He was so moved by the music, that he wanted to cut off his old ears and replace them with Indonesian ones. Luckily, I grabbed his knife, and smeared his ears with Brie so he couldn't find them.

You see, it was in 1889 at the Paris International Exposition, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Claude and I were munching on baguettes and a round of Brie cheese, standing on the just completed Eiffel Tower, wondering how small Eiffel was in for him to have to create his huge edifice. (Before sports cars, architecture was how a man compensated.) And then we heard the music.

That moment would influence my dear sweet Debussy's music forever. Claude was so enthralled and transfixed, that he dropped the whole soft Brie on the floor, sullying it with pigeon's fecal matter, and thus pissing me off even worse than when I see a crappy sparkling wine trying to pass itself off as champagne. If the vineyard is not in France, it is not champagne. It is a region, not bubbles!

But back to the composer. Debussy spent the whole rest of the Exposition in that tent. He'd soil himself, didn't care, wouldn't leave until they were done.

Even years after the experience, Claude wrote to our mutual friend, poet Pierre Louys, "Do you remember the music of Java able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades . . . which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts, for use by naughty little children?"

By the way, Pierre was a true poet. You know back when the only things poets "slammed" were doors. There were no such things as "rhyming dictionaries."

Claude also wrote elsewhere, speaking of European percussion in contrast to the Gamelan, "You have to admit that ours is no more than the primitive noises of a traveling circus."

"Naughty Children." "Traveling Circus." Strong words, yes? So strong they have stood the test of time and are now the same phrases the French use to describe the politicians in the US.

Yes, I am opinionated. I'm 153 years old and French. It's my harsh searing judgment that keeps me alive. That and the blood of poodles. I drink eight ounces a day.

Of course, Claude always felt that the primary goal of French music was to give pleasure to the listener. I agreed with him of course, I was never much for any music that gave me pain. Leave Simon on American Idol to suffer the pain of the bad music. Unlike him, I will not sacrifice my eardrums for money and a parade of ambling, ambient twinks in my bedroom.

But despite Claude's enthusiasm for the gamelan, I was never able to persuade him to put in actual gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, or textures into his composition. He merely referred to them, always maintaining a structure and harmony that was solidly European. He emphasized the "oriental flavor" as it was called then -- as if music was something La Choy concocted. Examples of this is in his work Pagodas or the prelude to Canope.

You see, the Claudey D couldn't go all the way into composing for gamelan because he had to pay the rent! He wrote his compositions with his audience in mind.

And who was his audience? Wealthy, powerful Parisians. This group of self-satisfied Francophiles parented the children who would become the leaders of the Vichy government. You know the Vichy, they were the group that rolled over and took it in the derriere from Germany in World War 2. If a Frenchman were capable of self-hatred, we would direct it at that stain on our history.

Claude Debussy, who turned his back on Richard Wagner's Teutonic tones, would have been appalled by the Vichy. However, like many a great artist, and unlike many a recent movie star, Claude was more focused on the creation of timeless art, not ego-filled politics.

Debussy remarked that the school of the Javanese musician "consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises, which they listen to with great care."

Is that not beautiful? Oh, how I miss the Deb. Luckily, I can still get drunk and listen to his music.

Gamelan music according to Claude was "concerned not with movement in time- with leading towards something-but with timelessness."

The cycles in gamelan music represent a more Asian view of the vast cycles of history, of death and rebirth, cycles that are long, longer than my 153 years. I'm a punk when it comes to those cycles. Cycles - as my pal Buzz Lightyear says-that go to infinity and beyond.

Whoa! Look at my belly. It's amazing to me that I have liver spots bigger than my liver. Oh good, here comes the waiter with my poodle blood smoothie.

That's what he said, pretty much verbatim. All I can say, is go check out some Debussy or some Gamelan and see what it does for you.

Andrew Borakove is a gong aficionado and media writer. He also is in charge of

That is the only internet store devoted to gongs and gamelan.


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