Music in the Air

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Sometimes life gives little reminders that the world is (still) a delightful place. I got one today when a gamelan orchestra started playing music beneath my balcony. No, this wasn’t some suitor’s serenade; my neighbors were hosting a ceremony to bless their new home. They have actually been living there for a little while, at least since I arrived, but as with all occasions they had to wait for an appropriately auspicious day.

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For the ceremony my neighbors hired a gamelan angklung from West Bali. This ensemble is most notable for its small size: the instruments have only four keys. For this reason, the angklung is often used for ceremonies and for children’s groups.
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The angklung is one of the few ensembles in Bali that uses a four-note scale, most having five or seven tones. Its tuning presents an interesting example of the way musical perception is shaped by culture. To the western ear angklung melodies sound pleasantly ‘major,’ even childish in the way they circle around the limited range of the instruments. But to the Balinese ear the angklung‘s sound is bittersweet or even somber, because the music is strongly associated with funeral ceremonies.
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The house-warming ceremony was another reminder of the incessant building boom in my neighborhood. Their family moved in earlier this year, a new house was just finished next door, and two more are currently under construction on the same street. But at least for one day the sound of construction was drowned out by music.
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