Point of Departure: Square Lake Festival redux at the Cedar

It's often said that nature abhors a vacuum, but it seems like it abhors an outdoor movie and music event when it comes to the annual Square Lake Music and Film Festival. Rain and thunderstorms seem to bedevil organizer Paul Creager's efforts almost every year, and this past summer, they had to shut down the whole thing early when an electrical storm threatened everyone's safety. But weather won't be stopping International Novelty Gamelan from performing their score for the 1926 animated feature "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" this Thursday at the Cedar Cultural Center. Creager has put together this Square Lake Festival redux to make sure their hard work didn't go to waste, and the night will kick off at 7 pm with a banjo performance by Paul Metzger, followed by thirty minutes of local film, then the performance by International Novelty Gamelan, and then close out with more local film.

And just what the heck is a gamelan? It's a traditional Javanese (and Balinese) instrument composed of many different percussion and resonating (i.e. gongs, xylophones) pieces that make a kind of ensemble when played together. Elaine Evans was kind enough to sit down with me and answer some questions about International Novelty Gamelan and their process for composing music for the oldest surviving feature-length animated film.

So tell me a little about International Novelty Gamelan.

The group started, I believe, in 2001. Most of us came out of the traditional gamelan group that's in town (Sumunar). It was run by the Schubert Club, and now there's an Indonesian Performing Arts Association of Minnesota (IPAAM) that runs classes for traditional gamelan so we were doing central Javanese gamelan. There was a group of us that were interested in composing and the instruments are ideal for people who are starting to get into composition. The instruments sound so beautiful whatever you do and the way that it's set up there are two different scales (slendro and pélog) and it can be really easy to plug stuff in or just to have different ideas.

So starting back then, a group of us just started meeting on our own and there's a core of maybe five people--the group sometimes is ten or fifteen people depending on who's in town--but it started out with just two of us composing, and now, every single person in the group is composing songs. So that's just been really nice to see because I think people have this idea that composing is something that just certain people do. People have that idea about art: "I can't paint" or "Artists do that." And I think it's even worse with music, with composing, because people think that's something someone else does but a lot of it is just opening your mind up to the idea that it's something you can do.

Elaine Evans (r) performing with ING at the Black Box Theater's Ice House

Elaine Evans (r) performing with ING at the Black Box Theater's Ice House

How many pieces is the gamelan you play?

We're bringing a smaller set and we have supplementary instruments, too, so I think about five of the traditional gamelan instruments: a set of hanging gongs, four or five of the metallophone instruments, the xylophone; we also have a plucked zither. And then for supplementary stuff, I'm going to be playing violin and bass clarinet and we have a cello and also the percussionist plays invented instruments, where he has pickups mounted on shelves and different metal things and has them go through effects.

What's the usual process for composing for the gamelan?

An interesting thing with all these different composers in the group [is that] people have very different approaches. There's one member who has a Ph.D. in composition from the U[niversity of Minnesota] and he's the one who has the real theoretical understanding of everything that's happening. He knows exactly how he wants things to be. Our percussionist has started composing more and he starts out mostly with a rhythm that he likes and maybe some notes, but people fill in notes for him. I kind of come up with more abstract ideas usually and find parts and then once I hear that I find other parts that fit in with it.

So is there any room for flexibility or is it more classical in how it's performed?

It really varies--it depends on the composer. Improvisation is the thing that I love most about playing music, so a lot of my songs do have some place where there's a looser structure where there's improvisation or sometimes it will just be kind of a construct and then there's improvisation within that. Some of the songs are very much written. And in general, our music is much more Western sounding than traditional gamelan music, because that's where our ear come from and a lot of the songs are Western songs that are just being performed on gamelan.

In terms of looking at doing a score for a film, how did the group approach that specifically?

We got together as a group and watched the film and talked with each other to see [what we wanted to do]. I know that I had a couple scenes that really struck me and I knew I wanted to compose for those themes or that character and so all of it came together kind of naturally. No one was fighting over the same scenes; everyone liked different parts. One person had one four-minute scene she wanted to compose for and didn't want to do anything else. Other people came up with themes for characters that would appear throughout the film.

Sort of a "Peter and the Wolf"-type thing?

Kind of: we tried to have some of that but not too much. We didn't want to have to play something every time a character came out.

And the film already had a score associated with it?

It did. Some people in the group have heard it, but I haven't. When they made the film in 1926, they had a score composed for it.

Do you think it's better to not hear the score?

It depends on the person. For me, I don't think it would make a difference because I feel like I have my own ideas that would be different enough that I wouldn't worry about being contaminated by it. But I know Paul [Creager] gave us a copy without it on purpose because he didn't want us to be polluted by it.

Did you have this all set to go for the SLF and then it just couldn't happen because of weather?

A still from "The Adventures of Prince Achmed"

A still from "The Adventures of Prince Achmed"

Yeah, we had our instruments out there in the truck and we were ready to start moving them out to the stage and then this electrical storm hit and we played in the truck for a little bit, just for ourselves, because we'd already moved all the there [laughs] and we'd been rehearsing for months. We were all psyched up.