Susheela Raman: making Ghost Gamelan 'like sculpting metal'
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Susheela Raman releases her seventh album Ghost Gamalan. The songs were written in the UK but a fortuitous meeting with gamalan musicians while on holiday in Indonesia transformed the project. Raman and guitarist/producer Sam Mills talk to RFI about the funny things gongs do to your brain and getting under the bonnet and tinkering around with all of that new sound.
Travel has long been a source of inspiration for Susheela Raman, an Anglo-Indian singer-songwriter raised in Australia.
"Sam and I like to travel together," she told RFI, "we love working with people from other cultures and we've done that a lot."
On a trip to Indonesia in 2015 they were introduced to Gondrong Gunarto - a leading contemporary player of gamelan: a traditional ensemble from Bali and Java using metallophones, xylophones, voices and especially metal gongs.
"The gongs are very stunning, actually just sitting next to them; the frequency, the vibration, they really have a great effect on your whole being somehow."
Gamelan has two streams: the traditional stream as practised in the courts and Balian temples and a contemporary stream known as kontemporar of which Gunarto is a part.
"They have a real sense of the avant garde and a sense of theatre so in contemporary gamalan things are allowed," says Raman, "they're allowed to set fire to the ukelele or whatever!"
If you're musically curious you can't avoid gamelan
Raman and Mills were drawn to the sense of atmosphere, theatre and community in gamalan, but it was the rapport they built up with Gunarto that would determine the next phase.
"You're not saying you want to work with this or that tradition," says Mills, "it's more that you meet somebody and something clicks. It's the personal dimension that's important."
So they returned to Java in 2016 and recorded a version of John Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows with Gunarto and gamelan musicians from Surakarta (Solo).
They say they became so "addicted" to the sound that when they finished writing material for their new album they wanted gamelan on there.
They follow in a long line of western musicians - Debussy, Satie, John Cage, Steve Reich - who've fallen under the gamelan spell.
"Gamelan has had a really profound influence on all kinds of music and I think on the most interesting kind of music makers of the 20th century," says Mills.
"Olivier Messian is very explicitly influenced by gamelan, so is John Cage, and then later on a lot of post-rock stuff is very indebted to gamelan.
"I think it's because of the sense of musical texture and the whole idea of ambient music, a lot of electronica, EDM [electronic dance music]. As soon as you start programming music in a loop the idea of gamelan comes. If you're musically curious you can't avoid gamelan."
But as with any cross-cultural musical project worth its weight, there were hurdles to overcome.
The duo's eight songs used all 12 notes but gamelan has only "seven or eight maximum," says Mills. "And they're not in the same place so your ear has to adjust with the tonality."
"They have two main scales and one of the transgressive things we did was to combine them because we needed all those notes," Raman adds, "to make something closer to the kind of notes we needed.
"Sometimes they'd think 'oh that's interesting' but other times things would just sound very wrong to them.
"We had very intensive sessions," she adds "20 gruelling rehearsals trying to create arrangements for everything."
"I think they thought we were pretty strange, but they went with it" admits the guitarist and album producer.
Hacking pitch and sculpting metal
After two months spent recording the body of the gamelan section, they returned to the UK and began shaping this "very peculiar and interesting source material".
"You become a sculptor in a way, sculpting this strange metallic stuff," says Raman. "The tunings were so wierd you'd be working on something and you'd go and have dinner and come back and it would sound completely different."
Mills says the experience of working on instruments that are tuned in a completely different way from their western instruments was stimulating in several ways.
"You realise working with it that a lot of our perception of pitch, of things being in or out of tune, is a kind of negotiation because we're used to certain things."
In reality he says nothing we hear is ever perfectly in tune and in fact if it didn't have odd harmonics it would be "almost unlistenable, like a casiotone on a telephone answering service. It has no soul almost."
It's your brain, he says, that does the work of putting things in tune.
"We almost felt we were hacking the idea of pitch and "in-tuneness". It was wonderful making a record that sort of plays with the idea of being in tune and being in time because nowadays so much music is done with computers and everything's fixed."
We airbrush visual imperfections, auto-correct auditory ones.
"People have got used to this sound. We're culturally brainwashed with a particular system we grew up with and became the norm, but it's not a given thing. So it's very interesting to get under the bonnet and tinker around with all of that. It creates a kind of magic."
So what did all this tinkering under the bonnet lead to?
"The record is evoking strange and ghostly presences," says Raman when asked about the album title. "All of the songs have this ethereal, spooky feeling about them."
The song Beautiful Moon is "about trying to strive for something you can't quite achieve". As such it's every bit as melancholy as the other tracks.
The gongs give added resonance to that sense of longing but "they were already melancholy," laughs Raman.
"A lot of the songs are reflecting on mortality," she adds, "so it may be exploring that liminal space which is somewhere in between."
"In between being and non-being," says Mills, demonstrating, not for the first time, the extraordinary complicity this couple share.
"Gamelan refers not only to the music, but to the actual instruments and the ensemble," he goes on, "so there's this sense of 'we're all linked up to these people'. It's almost like this music's being played in Java, but also in London, in Paris and somehow it's all occurring simultaneously. There's a sort of in-betweeness to the whole thing."
A spooky thought, beautifully rendered in music and song.
Susheela Raman and Sam Mills perform at the Seine Musicale in Paris on 29 June.
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