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Gamelan Debuts at UNC

January 18, 2002 - Chapel Hill, NC:

UNC's Gamelan Nyai Saraswati, to give her full name (it's a girl!), formally debuted in Hill Hall on January 18. The event was part of the ongoing William S. Newman Artists Series, an operation that in its innovative programming reaches beyond the norm. We have no idea why the event aroused so much interest, but the place was packed at 8:00 p.m. and at that time people were still lined up outside the venerable building that houses UNC's Music Department, trying to get in. The ensemble's director, Sarah Weiss, spoke to the audience at 8:15 p.m., explaining the situation and suggesting that another five minutes would do the trick. After a pause and brief remarks, the program began at 8:27 p.m.

Our own interest in what are commonly called "gamelan orchestras" began in 1957 when the distinguished philosopher James Lawrence Cole introduced us to Colin McPhee's "Tabuh-Tabuhan," in which (like Britten's The Prince of the Pagodas , "discovered" much later, and like a handful of other Western concert works, including several by Lou Harrison) the sounds - actual or re-created - of these Indonesian ensembles are embodied. It didn't take us long to track down a few field recordings of the real thing, and - as they say - the hook was set.

It's redundant to call collections of these instruments - bronze gongs, gong-chimes, metallophones, drums, flutes, chordophones, xylophones, cymbals, fiddles and zithers - gamelan orchestras," for "gamelan" is a generic term that describes various types of Indonesian orchestras, the configurations of which vary widely. There are two basic tuning systems, one (laras pelong) involving a scale with seven named notes (or degrees) and the other (laras slendro) involving five notes. The intervals vary from gamelan to gamelan so the same tune - and good players are said to have repertories of 100-200 pieces - can sound different from band to band.

The program for the Newman concert contained a brief introduction to gamelan music, details about UNC's acquisition of this orchestra, the names of seven visiting artists (who now hail from New York City and Woodstock and from various US colleges and universities), and the names of 22 apparently local ensemble players and singers. The printed program did not link the musicians to the instruments they played. There was not a formal conductor or leader but nominal director Weiss played prominent instrumental roles in several pieces and sang in the second half of the program. (Her vocal solos may have been unanticipated-the visiting female singer was never very prominent and seemed to experience some vocal distress as the program progressed.) The musicians sat on the floor, close to their instruments. There were no music stands but many players (atypically) referred to music or notes during the performances.

The program itself provided lengthy names for the five selections that were played but the notes did not explain the listings very well. The first one, for example, reads "Gendhing Bonang Tukung kethuk 4 kerep, minggah kethuk 8, Laras Pelong, Pathet Barang." What the first three words mean, more or less, is "composition, for gong-chimes, named 'Tukung'." The last four words tell us that the tuning used is the aforementioned seven-note "scale," for which there are several submelodies; in this case the third submelody of the scale, "Pathet Barang," is used. The intervening section tells us that the piece is in two basic parts, starting with a closely-spaced section that transitions to ("minggah") a small-gong portion that is somewhat more animated. The purposes of the works were not explained, nor was there any indication of what the singing-generally by one female vocalist and a male chorus, although there were several male solos and a mixed chorus was heard at the end of the concert-was about. We were told that, in keeping with tradition, the first half of the program was fairly heavy and the second half was "lighter." That was certainly true of the last two numbers, the first of which was apparently based on a popular Indonesian song (or song-type) that was in effect imported into the gamelan tradition. That tradition, incidentally, dates back several thousand years, to the Bronze Age; New Grove's article on the subject reveals that a three-note gamelan was documented in 347 A.D. but that the instruments it used may have been created in the 1st or 2nd century B.C.

What do these groups sound like? Well, imagine a whole orchestra of chimes, bells, xylophones and marimbas. Toss in numerous sets of tuned gongs made of polished bronze, arrayed on low platforms - gongs that resemble lidded soup tureens. Mix in devices that sound like the anvils in Il trovatore or Das Rheingold , engage as many as thirty people to hammer them - often delicately and subtly - with sticks of varying hardness, variously padded, and you may get some idea of the results.

Unfortunately, the works offered in Chapel Hill seemed somewhat similar and varied only in degree, rather than markedly. Presentations by visiting Indonesian ensembles (including an Indonesian Festival group that toured the US a decade ago) often feature dancers, traditional monkey chants, and many more percussion instruments than were present in Chapel Hill. At UNC, the music was highly repetitive and mostly subdued, and by and large the pieces ran their courses slowly. Listeners could chart the sections of the offerings - some were stand-alone works, others were suites in two or three main parts - by the sounding of the largest gong, which was used to signal the players that it was time to proceed to the next "movement."

We are delighted that UNC has such a marvelous orchestra and that it has seen fit to present it to the public. (There is one in Cullowhee, at Western Carolina University; and Duke may have one too but we've never heard it in a formal concert.) Fielding a gamelan orchestra - like a regular chamber orchestra - is a labor-intensive undertaking that requires a fairly large number of people, and because the music is literally "traditional," one must wonder how advanced UNC's presentations can - or should - become. If Weiss uses mostly students there is not likely to be much continuity over time, never mind development of technical expertise or expansion of repertoire. For now, however, Triangle residents should rejoice that this resource exists in our midst and that Weiss and Company have introduced Ms. Saraswati (or whatever the short form of the name is) to us. We'll look forward to hearing her again in the future.

The classic book on this subject is McPhee's Music in Bali. Ned Sorrell's Guide to the Gamelan was helpful to this writer during the aforementioned US tour of Festival Indonesia in the early '90s. Both are (or have been) available in paperback. The website of the American Gamelan Institute, at [inactive 3/05], offers audio samples, and photos of gamelan instruments are posted at [inactive 1/13/03] .