In Search Of The Gamelan

My work consists of the touring delivery of Gamelan workshops throughout rural Somerset. I have had a long relationship with this music since my time at Dartington College of Arts, yet I must admit to a limited enthusiasm for the west’s obsession with the purloining of musics from other cultures for its own gains (an issue that perhaps warrants investigation another time), I believe the Gamelan ensemble to be one of the best music workshop resources I have ever come across. Irrespective of age, experience, or musical background the simple disciplines of playing in groups are paramount in the performance of Gamelan music. It’s abundance of melodic and rhythmic lines offers unique opportunities for beginners and the more experienced alike to enjoy the creative process of composition and playing together.

Several years ago, I visited Bali; taxi-ing through paddy fields and 80% humidity to research the Gamelan music of the island.  I was interested in two things: The cost of shipping one home, and finding contemporary practitioners who were composing music outside the tradition as I then understood it – something that interested me particularly. As anyone who has travelled to Indonesia will know,  the music of the Gamelan surrounds you immediately. Echoing through the villages, it is inextricably linked with the community. It is Muzak, an ‘authentic’ cultural display for tourists, and is always to be found at larger events and ceremonies. During my visit, one of the local ensembles were playing both at the opening of a new shopping mall and by-pass over the coming weeks. Despite this, I was convinced that in any music tradition there must be composers stretching the envelope and exploring new ways of working with the laras (sounds and scales), of the instruments. After days of enquiry, I met up with a local connection in Ubud.  He told me of a musician friend of his that I had to meet and after another brief journey, this slightly nervous westerner pitched up to a house somewhere right in the midlands of the island where I found what I was looking for.  Sort of.

There I am–in a landscape that I have only previously experienced through war films–listening and talking to a man who defies his deep-seated tradition with a file and an ear for western prog.

Between the mountains and rice-fields, I meet a contemporary musician who has made himself persona non grata by filing down a full set of instruments to tune into a diatonic mode. However, enabling himself to create music with his own ensemble that integrates western and Gamelan music. He works with Western instruments that we would deem rhythm section instruments, and the tapes he plays me are if anything akin to 70s prog/jazz.  There I am–in a landscape that I have only previously experienced through war films–listening and talking to a man who defies his deep-seated tradition with a file and an ear for western prog. Undeniably, quite a surreal experience! Sadly however, I didn’t have the time to pursue this exploration further, but it remains with me as a precious memory; one that has educated my practice since.  It re-affirms my belief in creativity through irreverence.

In the more recent past, the music service of my home county Somerset takes delivery of a beautiful Javanese Gamelan.  And now – as a result of the new partnership between my organisation Actiontrack and others for music delivery through the development of music hubs – I spend a good deal of my time with the Gamelan. Through the delivery of workshops, we aim to bring pupils and students from all levels of education together to play the Gamelan and learn about its social and cultural context.  As I mentioned previously, I feel the Gamelan orchestra is a fantastic workshop resource.  Within minutes 30 or so people can be sharing a new and creative musical experience together. ‘Musical’ in a listening, playing, and in a sharing sense.

Once the music starts to work;  as the groups learn to listen and play together, often quite simple–but intriguingly created–pieces of their own come to fruition. First, a concentration is established, this then progresses into enjoyment and then into a dreamlike state achieved within the room.  Once that level has been reached, no-one ever quite wants to leave.  As the final gong fades no-one moves or makes a sound until its sound disappears; the atmosphere is entirely calm and almost meditational.  Not bad for a music that in its homeland is commonplace, and in many cases reduced to a mere tourist attraction. Perhaps there is something in this purloining of world music after all?

And the strangest thing? Don’t ask me how or why but the Gamelan that we use is almost exactly diatonic.


Author: Nick Brace

Nick Brace is a composer, director and writer.  As Artistic Director of Actiontrack Performance Company he has worked for the best part of 30 years delivering participatory performing arts residencies, workshops and interventions in the UK as well as abroad.

Artwork: Joel Whitaker