Strathclyde Gamelan brought its gongs and drums to Glasgow as part of a week-long series of events that struck the right note with audiences. Christopher Lambton reports
Beyond our Shores is one of those grand artistic collaborations that embrace every possibility. It brings together all three Scottish national orchestras, as well as the trendy Kronos Quartet and the Paragon Ensemble in a series of concerts devoted to music whose origins lie far outside the conventions of western culture.
All last week's evening concerts in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall were broadcast by the BBC, while mornings and afternoons were given over to a melange of education projects, gamelan workshops, and masterclasses.
The Strathclyde Gamelan came to the concert hall for the week. This is the collective term for a whole group of Indonesian instruments - gongs for the most part, but with the addition of drums and wooden percussion.
For primary school groups, Beyond our Shores offers a first chance to work with a gamelan, while other established followers of the Strathclyde Gamelan simply come along to the concert hall. Adults with learning difficulties come from the Hurlford Centre in Kilmarnock, their work with the gamelan stretching back 18 months. Their session, led by Marion Christie, from the Washington Street Arts Centre in Glasgow, explores simple rhythms and melodies - the gamelan awakening like a huge slumbering monster as the participants slowly join in, creating a barrage of sound that echoes around the empty foyers of the concert hall.
Tuned to a seven or five-note scale, a gamelan is highly reverberant and tolerant of almost any degree of discord, making it ideal for all kinds of groups. Marion Christie takes sessions with deaf adults who can feel the gamelan by lying between the vast gongs.
"Western music has no real equivalent," Ms Christie explains. "I'm not a therapist, but it is therapeutic."
The same afternoon, in a different part of the concert hall, about 60 Higher and Sixth Year Studies pupils attend a workshop organised by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's animateur, Paul Rissmann. He seeks to explore James MacMillan's The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul, due to be performed by the orchestra that evening. By the end of three hours he wants the disparate bunch of bewildered students to perform a piece of their own creation in front of MacMillan.
It seems a tall order, as the first half-hour is given over to the sort of workshop activities that make everyone cringe but break down the formal barriers between groups of strangers. Then, since The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul was originally written in response to a newspaper report of a helicopter attack on a small village in El Salvador, Rissmann divides everyone into groups with bundles of newsprint and instructions to make a rhythmic creation out of the words in the paper.
No one seems to have a clue, but help comes from some RSNO players used to Rissmann's methods, and before long the groups are disembowelling the newspaper reports and creating furious collages of chanting, sighing, shouting and clapping. The RSNO's Karen McIver tries hard to let the pupils produce their own ideas, but in reality the creative input is almost entirely hers.
The newspaper episode makes abundantly clear that artistic creativity, however much it is channelled, can stem from the most unlikely sources. Maintaining a ceaseless flow of energy and good humour, Rissmann sets groups of pupils with assorted instruments to the task of making helicopter music, his only stipulation being that they start on the note D. After 40 minutes they are ready to move on to other areas of MacMillan's piece, a meditative central movement and a furious final dance.
As the groups work, Rissmann descends with ideas and alterations, while in his own mind he builds up a vision of how this massive collective effort will unfold.
The result is impressive. Rissman pulls together the improvised components into something closer to a piece of real music than one could have thought possible. With a combination of instinct and bravado he juggles the groups, guiding their separate performances in a spirited tapestry of sound that will never be heard again. If you know MacMillan's piece - by turns hard, beautiful and gaudy - this huge emphemeral improvisation seems like a ghostly shadow, hovering on the boundary of recollection.