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What can we learn from the rhythm and meter of other musical traditions?

Throughout the history of western music there are moments when composers interact with music of another tradition for the first time. These moments have historical significance because they typically end up influencing the style of contemporary composers.

Let’s take a look at the Balinese Gamelan tradition as our first example.

1889 Paris World’s Fair

This is an event that receives many mentions in history and music history textbooks. It marked a significant influx of cultural diffusion into Europe and, notably, the music of Claude Debussy. Here’s an example of what Gamelan music sounds like:

What particularly inspire Debussy about Gamelan music was the timbre, tuning, polyphonic layering, and rhythmic structure.

It’s important to remember that at this point in time music only existed in a live performance. Recording technology was not invented at this time so the 1889 Paris World’s Fair was the first time many Europeans heard anything other than European music. According to Robert Godet, a friend of Debussy, said that the composer spent many hours immersing himself in these exotic sounds.

In his 1903 composition, Pagodes, Debussy recalled the sounds of the Gamelan orchestra he heard fourteen years prior.

In this work Debussy uses syncopation, rhythmic stratification, and macro rhythmic structures.

Syncopation is the rhythmic displacement of strong beats. In the European tradition beats 1 and 3 in 4/4 time are considered strong while beats 2 and 4 are considered weak. Debussy places many important notes on the upbeat of 4 and in general much of the music is paradoxically centered on the upeat.

Rhythmic stratification is an intimidating way of saying that there are clearly defined layers in this work and each layer has its own unique rhythmic material. The low notes in the left hand were intended to mimic the Gamelan gongs, while the middle register provides the pulse, and the upper layer is melodic and makes use of 16th notes.

We’ll talk more about macro-rhythm in the next section.

This piece may not be the most accurate representation of Gamelan music, but it is a fantastic example of how a composer can take unfamiliar sounds, like Gamelan music, and adapt them into a more familiar medium, like a solo piano work.