“This project took a step further into refining these two worlds…and basically how we find ourselves in this.”
After months of processing and writing the libretto, Jelena gave the text to Andys Skordis to use to compose a score…Five years ago, Andys came to Bali for the first time as a Darmasiswa student the same year as Jelena. Andys wanted to learn Balinese music, so he quickly joined Narwastu, as many Darmasiswa students do. “I was trying to learn as much as I could, and I realized that as a student in Bali, Narwastu was the best foundation for me to learn gamelan. And I think that I was a very good student, in terms that I was punctual.”
That year during the Christmas performance, Narwastu was playing a new piece written by the instructor, Pak Rajek. As he played Andys was inspired to compose his own piece for Narwastu, so he talked to Jonathan Bailey — who did not realize at the time that Andys was a composer. Jonathan was very enthusiastic about the idea, which motivated Andys to compose a piece. He was grateful when Jonathan agreed to miss regular gamelan practices so everyone could learn the new composition that was eventually recorded at the Bailey’s house. “It was an amazing experience because I could both utilize a dream and work with a great group. And I hoped that it also helped them realize that I can do something serious with the gamelan, and maybe we can do something else later on.”
Later on, Andys composed the score “E-SOU-A,” a piece about birth and new discovery that Narwastu performed in 2015. Soon after that production concluded, Andys, Jonathan, and Tina knew that they wanted to create another project, even larger than the last. “From the first talk I had with Jonathan and Tina — it went ‘hello, how are you, let’s make something else.’ The magic of this project is that nothing went away.” Everything they talked about in those first conversations came to fruition. Andys wrote a small text for the “E-SOU-A,” but after the performance he decided that the next project should have a full libretto. “I wanted to collaborate on this project, and Jonathan proposed Jelena who was a dear friend. I love her work, so I was more than happy.” So a team between Andys, Jelena, Jonathan, and Tina formed with the goal of creating what they now refer to as a ritual opera.
A few months before Andys returned to Bali, Jelena gave him the libretto for the ritual opera. Andys read the text a few times and asked Jelena practical questions about specific portions. “Because if I know my limitations, I feel freer.” After knowing the parameters, Andys drew lines on a large piece of paper to show the points of tension within the story. With his own version of a tension graph as a guide, Andys started composing. He knew from the beginning that he did not want to compose a traditional gamelan piece, but he wanted to respect the color of the instrument while approaching harmony in a new way. “Gamelan is for me, still very exotic. The intonation system is something I adore…And I love the technique you need to play the instruments.”
Since in total the process of creating this project spanned over three years, much of the collaboration work happened from a distance. Jonathan sent recordings of each gamelan pitch for Andys to work with, since the gamelan ensembles were in Bali and Andys was not. First Andys spent some time discovering his harmonic possibilities and pitch distributions from the recordings. Then he began composing the piece based on sections of the libretto — first composing the beginning and the end before filling in the middle. Then before he moved to a new section, Andys started again from the beginning to rework everything. “So all was done in this circular process. Even when I finally wrote the very last part, I went again from the beginning and refined everything. So the way I work is that if I were a painter, I would use a lot of paint — just throwing stuff on the canvas, and then going back and removing and removing and removing.”
Andys devoted all of his time and energy to composing the piece, admitting that some weeks he did not leave his house for five days at a time. Throughout the hard work, Andys was often surprised by his own writing process that resulted in an involuntary cohesiveness. “Sometimes I would write something small and move on, and suddenly I was finding myself writing the same thing a few days later for a part that had the same kind of emotion without even realizing it.” He noticed these reoccurring pitches during the refining process and wondered how it was possible to create unknowingly. Like Jelena, Andys is captivated by the Balinese concept of two worlds. And he felt this phenomenon within himself and through his writing process.
As Andys added music to Jelena’s words in the libretto, they kept in touch to talk logistically about the length and timing of specific parts based on the combination of the gamelan, the choir, and the performers. Andys was surprised when the in most cases, everything fell easily into place as his score matched perfectly with the timing that Jelena was thinking about before they even had a chance to discuss the specifics. “It was an amazing feeling. It was like communicating with Jelena on another level, kind of like what Bima and Ida [the two main characters] are doing — without any preparation or any collaborating. It just happened.”
Andys’ first two operas also dabbled in this concept of the transcendence of two worlds. Both were about a sculptress who falls in love with her sculpture and struggles to understand which world is the reality. Andys first recognized Balinese duality in the characters of Barong and Rangda — two important creatures in Balinese Hinduism who have battles of good versus evil during religious ceremonies and are seen as key symbols in the community. Though the Barong traditionally fights for good and the Rangda is a symbol of black magic, the Balinese people respect both sacred entities.
More importantly for Andys, was the recognition of the instrumental distribution of a gamelan ensemble. Traditionally, gamelan ensembles are made up of instrument pairs that are tuned slightly differently from one another. So when everyone plays together, the sound creates a pulsing effect that the Balinese people believe gives a living aspect to the music. The pairs of instruments traditionally work together to create harmony and patterns of interlocking sound. So for the project, the instrumental distribution and stage organization was easily influenced by the idea of two worlds. “First of all we have a choir and gamelan. The choir has male and female voices. The gamelan has [differing ensemble types of] Slonding and Gong Kebeyar.” Then within the ensemble, Andys’ score features pairs of instruments that complement each other. “So this idea of one and two is almost everywhere in the piece.”
Andys personally feels these two worlds and believes that they have been a driving force in his life and work since the first time he came to Bali. “This project took a step further into refining these two worlds…and basically how we find ourselves in this. It’s all very inspiring. And of course on top of everything, Narwastu — the foundation itself and the freedom I feel working in such an environment of people like Jonathan and Tina and the whole community — is something very, very inspiring.”