JACK Quartet and Lightbulb: Indonesian Music with a Twist

The Lightbulb Ensemble performing in San Francisco. See them with JACK Quartet tonight.
The Lightbulb Ensemble performing in San Francisco. See them with JACK Quartet tonight.

Tonight, two American ensembles—JACK Quartet and Lightbulb —join forces, fusing classical and Indonesian music into a one-of-a-kind performance. But what do Indonesian gamelan and Western classical music have in common? A lot of history, it turns out. Both Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were enchanted by the Javanese gamelan they heard at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889. That cross-cultural exposure helped inspire the innovations of French Impressionist music. Performances by a Balinese gamelan at Paris’s 1931 Exposition Coloniale provided French composer Olivier Messiaen with musical ideas for some of his most novel experiments. In the mid-1930s, American composer Colin McPhee lived in Bali, where he wrote an important treatise on gamelan music and then incorporated its forms and sounds into his orchestral works. And starting in the early 1970s, gamelan music influenced American composer Steve Reich in developing what became known as minimalist music.

More recent generations of composers have spent years studying in Indonesia and leading gamelan orchestras in the United States, such as the long-standing Gamelan Sekar Jaya from the San Francisco Bay Area. (I had the opportunity to hear them perform in 1981.) Two leaders of that venerable orchestra, Wayne Vitale and Brian Baumbusch, teamed up with the highly regarded JACK Quartet and Balinese choreographers I Made Bandem and Suasthi Bandem to create the massive work Makaradhwaja, which premiered at the Bali Arts Festival in 2012. A year later, Vitale and Baumbusch created the experimental Lightbulb Ensemble, pursuing new music inspired by Balinese models and utilizing custom-built metal xylophones that resemble the gamelan but have original tunings.

At this evening’s concert, you can hear Lightbulb and JACK perform their latest collaboration, Baumbusch’s Hydrogen(2)Oxygen. Each ensemble also performs alone, with JACK presenting John Cage’s Quartet in Four Parts and Lightbulb playing Vitale and Baumbusch’s Mikrokosma. Don’t miss this chance to hear the latest stage in the fruitful co-evolution of Indonesian and Western music. Tickets will be distributed at the Meyer Auditorium beginning at 6:30 pm on a first-come, first-served basis.

With its combination of Eastern and Western themes, the music in tonight’s performance is paralleled in the collections of the Freer|Sackler. The museums contain both American and Asian masterworks, including nearly one hundred objects from Indonesia.

Michael Wilpers

Michael Wilpers is the manager of performing arts at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. He oversees the museum’s chamber music series, which focuses on Asian composers and music inspired by Asia, as well as other programs that explore genres from traditional Asian music to new music, jazz, and fusions. Many of these concerts are featured in podcasts on our website, where listeners can enjoy more than one hundred high-quality audio recordings. During the museum’s closure due to COVID-19, he developed our Look & Listen series, which brings together top performers and curators to explore the intersections of art and music. He also produces concerts with studio-quality video recordings made especially for the museum. Wilpers received his master’s in music from the University of Maryland and was formerly the president of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology. He has played a variety of music, including jazz and Indonesian gamelan, in ensembles such as a Ugandan xylophone quartet, the Washington Toho Koto Society, and the Thomas Circle Singers.

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