Setting: The music library of San Jose State University, 1979. A student happens to run into his teacher, perpetually jolly and genial composer Lou Harrison, outside one of the tiny, closet-like listening booths with their already antiquated turntables. The student plays in the gamelan ensemble on campus that Harrison leads, and somehow the subject comes up of Indonesian gamelan in its relation to Western music. The student confides that he is familiar with the work of Colin McPhee and his Balinese transcriptions of the 1930s; he believes these to be the earliest examples of a Western musician dealing with the potent influence of the gamelan.
Harrison counters, "Oh, no! There are certainly gamelan inspired works that are earlier than that -- don't forget about Debussy and Pagodes. Here, let me show you something.â€¦" Strolling leisurely down a narrow aisle of densely shelved music scores, Harrison stops at one spot and thinks out loud to himself, "Where is it? I should be able to find this, as it used to belong to me. Oh â€“- here it is," and pulls down a red-backed quarto of fairly thick size. "This is Leopold Godowsky's Java Suite which was published in the 1920s."
The book opens to the densest, blackest pages of piano music the student has ever seen; heavily marked, the music is obviously romantic in style, yet gamelan-ike passages, with their telltale rhythmic patterns, are clearly visible among the pages. The student asks, "Can you play this?" Harrison â€“- whose bearded visage was generally a little pale though ruddy at the edges -â€“ goes white as a sheet, and his eyes blink wide open. "Heavens, no!" he exclaimed. "I haven't known very many pianists that ever could. It's like the Ives First Sonata; you would love to be able to play it, but you can't, so you just read through it so you can get some idea of what's there. However," he added with a twinkle in his eye, "they do play some of these pieces in the gamelans in Java. And they play them in just intonation!" With that, Harrison's rolling laughter pealed throughout the library, enough to shake the windows. The student, while acknowledging the humor with a weak chuckle, glanced nervously around to see if anyone in this silent environment is disturbed. No one moves; they are used to Harrison's laughter.
Before taking leave, Harrison issues a warning to the student: "Godowsky's Java Suite is not authentic in regard to traditional gamelan performance. But," he added, "as music -â€“ on its own -â€“ it is scrumptious."
Decades follow. The student goes on to other schools, plays in punk rock bands, works in nightclubs. Periodically he returns to libraries and seeks out Godowsky's rare, yellowed, tattered score and studies it with disbelief -â€“ how can anyone play this thing? It remains a mystery, and year after year not a single recording of Java Suite surfaces.
It isn't until the turn of the next century that a recording of Java Suite finally appears on the obscure ProPiano label, played by Jakarta-born classical pianist Esther Budiardjo.
Leopold Godowsky -â€“ a calm, Buddha-like man -- was an Ã¼ber-pianist of titanic reputation, and his compositional output is dominated by transcriptions. Some of them -â€“ for example, pieces that superimpose one Chopin Ã©tude on top of another -â€“ are so complex as to inspire bewilderment rather than awe. The Java Suite is also sometimes mistakenly regarded as a transcription of Indonesian music, which it is not â€“- it is more like Godowsky's equivalent of AlbÃ©niz's Iberia, a large cycle of 14 piano pieces that categorize the extent of both his fertile imagination and technical resources. The Budiardjo recording reveals that though the level of technical pianisism is very high, especially so in certain passages, it is not the most difficult piano music ever written, just some of the most heavily marked, so laden with information about expression down to the last detail that it's near impossible to read. Nevertheless, Budiardjo makes it sounds easier than it looks.
In the Java Suite, we get to hear something of the spiritual properties reported as part of Godowsky's personality, yet seldom heard in his other music; Godowsky loved to travel and concertized all over the world, and his exposure to Indonesian music held a special significance for him. Godowsky didn't limit himself to Java alone in creating the four sets that make up the suite; it is a colorful crazy quilt of impressions and sounds drawn from his whole life's experiences, with the Indonesian aspect functioning as the glue that holds it all together. In some cases, Java Suite looks forward rather than backward; the movement "Wayang â€“ Putwa (Puppet Shadow Plays)" sounds like Bill Evans, who wasn't quite born when this music was written down. However, some of it plays well from within its era; at points, the music strikes a concordance with images of Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky caressing in some den of iniquity imagined by Elinor Glyn.
Since the Budiardjo recording, Constantine Lifschitz has also recorded the Java Suite for Marco Polo; indeed, the world might be a happier place if this beautiful masterwork were recorded as often as other, similar impressionistic collections such as Ravel's Miroirs or Debussy's Images; it was certainly one of the first instances in music where "East meets West." Nevertheless, one wants to pay a debt of gratitude to Esther Budiardjo for revealing the mysteries of the Java Suite, satisfying the curiosity of generations of students and confirming Lou Harrison's assertion that this music is indeed "scrumptious."
Esther Budiardjo - Godowsky: Java Suite I - ii Puppet Shadow Plays
Esther Budiardjo - Godowsky: Java Suite I - iii The Great Day
Esther Budiardjo - Godowsky: Java Suite II - i Chattering Monkeys at the Sacred Lake of Wendit
Esther Budiardjo - Godowsky: Java Suite IV - ii The Ruined Water Castle at Djokja