What is it about the “heavy metal” style of vocalism that is so terrifying? These primal cat-like hisses and yowls lasted no longer than two minutes, yet their very hideousness brought the rest of the concert into sharp focus, and planted a seed that would later grow into melody.
The concert was a double bill: Orkes Manohara and Double Yoko. The first half of the concert could not have contrasted more with the “heavy metal” I just mentioned.
Keroncong music (krone-chong, with both O’s long and the R rolled) is a style of Javanese music, somewhere between our Euro/American concepts of “folk” and “popular” music (think of an Indonesian Fairport Convention). The few recordings I’ve heard of it emphasize the “pop” aspect and are a bit overproduced (if badly recorded). In concert, however, keroncong becomes an intimate type of vocal chamber music. This is how Orkes Manahara plays. The basis for the music is repeated figures on one instrument, often altered during repetition. The instrument is invariably plucked or strummed strings, such as a guitar, Javanese ukulele, or a three-stringed cello. The scales and modes are reminiscent of the more familiar gamelan and kacape music (though the tunings in gamelan are extremely complex and can’t be easily reproduced on a single instrument). Over this, the singer(s) add the melody – sometimes in contrast to the accompaniment or to each other, and sometimes in heterophonic agreement. The lyrics are often melancholy, and sung in the polysyllabic vowel-rich languages of Javanese or Indonesian. The result is quiet, melodic, and hypnotic.
Orkes Manohara is a husband and wife duet (with a baby who, despite being held by someone in the audience, seemed to insist on joining in the performance with happy squeals – and at the end actually seemed to be squealing in tune!). I can’t really review much of the performance, since I got there late (after being at the open mike at Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater in Snohomish, a half-hour away) so I only heard the last two songs. The first of these was playing as I entered – since it used the guitar, it seemed to be a continuation of the American folk music at the open mike. Closer listening revealed differences as well as similarities. The vocal line was mostly by Krusnedi, the male singer (who also played the guitar); Maeg added melodic interjections here and there, and she kept swaying to the music to stay in the right rhythm and sing at exactly the right time. The rhythms were quite complex. The last song used the three-stringed cello and an Indian sruti box (a reed drone instrument sounded by opening and closing a bellows). “This isn’t Indonesian; I bought it on Vashon Island,” she said before playing it. She sang the lead vocals, with little bits of harmony from him. Beautiful, quiet music.
Double Yoko (Beth Fleenor and Paris Hurley) played the second half. What they played was also an intimate chamber music, but for clarinet and violin. One audience member told me that “The second half probably won’t be anything like the first half,” and it wasn’t – but there was an odd sense of continuity. The instrumentals were often based on repeated but varied patterns, and there were long stretches in a single mode or scale. There was often a melancholy, nostalgic air. The vocals contributed to a quasi-pop atmosphere (Beth told me after the concert that they play “keening noir-pop”); but here was also a profound contrast. The first piece was entirely instrumental, with bass clarinet drones (created by an electronic loop) slowly fading over a series of raga-like improvisations; the second began in the same manner but went into minimalism – and then abruptly stopped. Then, the vocals (by Beth Fleenor) exploded. She let out a reptilian screech. She followed it with a series of yowls, hisses, screams, and sore-throaty rasps, all part of the standard “heavy metal” vocal weaponry, then settled into repeated “monkey” hoots and hiccups – this, in what had until then been music as gentle as the keroncong of the first half… Then, just as abruptly, the horror show was over, and the instruments returned to the front and the mellow quality returned. The mood had changed, however; Paris played the violin a little skitterishly at first (and Beth played the clarinet in strange jolts), before letting the melodic material bloom again – and all the music had (until the last piece) an intentional hesitancy, as if it was aware of a monstrous id lurking just below its surface. The last piece, pop-esque with its continuous rhythm by Beth on two shakers, finally broke the tension. This time Paris sang, over loops created by her violin and her own vocals – fluid, wordless melismas (her voice is reminiscent of Alanis Morissette or Jennifer Knapp) that “accepted” the singing as part of the instruments and thus negated its previous horrific interruption. Thus, although this may not have been planned, Double Yoko’s performance could be seen as a single large composition dealing with contrasts and acceptance of what is different.
Much of the music I listen to (and have talked about on this blog) is contemplative. This includes most of the StormSound Cycle music. But, I’m also something of a closet metalhead, and I like to listen to Wagner or Shostakovich with the stereo volume maxed out. Thus, I appreciate this incorporation of the primeval “heavy metal” vocal styling into a very different form of music. In this case, however, loudness was not the point. It seemed as though the scary vocals were intended to be an interruption by something threatening and alien, which was then incorporated into the rest of the music in a different form. The set ended in much the same relaxed mood as the end of the keroncong music in the first half.
(Oct. 3, 2010; 231 days until the first performance of the StormSound Cycle)