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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Boston Village Gamelan brings Javanese music to Brandeis

Published: March 23, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

“Welcome to the workshop! You can watch us for 10 minutes, then you have to start playing.”

It was 4 p.m. on Wednesday, and I had an hour before class on a beautiful spring afternoon. On the idealized silver screen, settings like this are for lounging on the lawn and reading or dozing off; perhaps some vaguely foreign, New-Age-y music plays in the background.

But this is not my scene. The Greeks could gaze on the Sirens without fear, but just a note of their song would send sailors diving into the brine. Likewise, this Argonaut can resist everything but music, so I found myself walking into The Rose Art Museum on a day when being indoors was no better than Davy Jones’ Locker.

My reward, however, was significantly better than Hollywood’s New Age crap. This was the real deal: a full gamelan, courtesy of the Boston Village Gamelan, and a well-trained ensemble to play it. A full ensemble … and myself, that is. I was not yet down the stairs when Professor Judith Eissenberg recruited me to join them, and her simple declarative gave me no room to demur.

* * *

I first heard of gamelan through the music of King Crimson, the endlessly inventive and under-appreciated paragons of rock music’s avant-garde. After single-handedly inventing progressive rock with 1969’s “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the band endured several years of instability. They righted the ship in 1973, and it was here that the rich tradition of Javanese music entered their work. Buoyed by a line-up that included both a drummer (Bill Bruford) and a percussionist (Jamie Muir), “Larks Tongues in Aspic” opens with a minute and a half of tinkling, polyrhythmic percussion clearly borrowed from the gamelan. Hints of gamelan influence pervade the album; however, King Crimson’s focus shifted until their 1974 break-up.

The mighty Crims reunited in 1981, and the gamelan influence returned. Bandleader Robert Fripp spent much of King Crimson’s hiatus developing Frippertronics, a technology and technique that allowed him to loop his guitar to create layered soundscapes. Belew, from stints with Frank Zappa and Talking Heads, was pursuing his own interest in guitar textures, which eventually led to 1995’s “Experimental Guitar Series Volume 1: The Guitar as Orchestra” (which is exactly what it sounds like). New bassist Tony Levin had mastered the Chapman Stick, a 10-string instrument that allowed him to play separate melodies with both hands concurrently. The musical ingredients were in place for bold rhythmic and textural experimentation, and it was the full sound of the gamelan that provided its structure.

“Discipline,” released in 1981, is a masterpiece of rock’s outermost edges. Melodies fly past each other at different tempos, mathematically woven into perfect coherence. The highlight may be “Frame by Frame,” in which layer after layer is added at such breakneck speed that you’d swear it must be the product of studio overdubs—except King Crimson was able to replicate it perfectly on stage. “Beat” in 1982 and “Three of a Perfect Pair” in 1984 continued in a similar vein with slightly diminishing returns, but “Discipline” had a tremendous impact on my musical consciousness. If this was what gamelan sounded like, then I needed to hear more of it.

* * *

The prospect of taking my turn on the gamelan was nerve-racking, but after watching the workshop for several minutes, I was itching to cast off the guise of curious reporter and unleash the intrepid musician within. The gamelan is not one instrument; it is a battery of flutes, strings, and xylophones and drums of various shapes and sizes. Though the more complex instruments were being manned by the experts, my fellow gamelan newbies were at a long row of sarons (small xylophone-like instruments). They banged with little technique and gazed at their instruments with perplexed faces, but the sound they made was sweet and consonant. To be sure, much of this was because the pros were holding the music together; still, it was clear that the mechanics of the sarons were simple enough to invite beginners to participate.

I soon got my chance to join, and after slipping off my shoes, I picked up the hammer and studied the broad, wooden keys. They were marked with stickers reading “1” through “7”. “What are the actual names of the pitches?” I asked Boston Village Gamelan leader Barry Drummond. “Ji, ro, lu, pat, ma, nem and pi. That translates to one, two, three …” That’s simple enough.

Behind me, two musicians were preparing the giant kempul (pitched gongs). “Be sure to hang the three,” one said.

“Oh yeah, I forgot we brought the three!”—a recollection heard only in the mines of Digitopolis or the latest version of “Shit Gamelanists Say.”

Barry began teaching us the first pattern, which consisted only of a series of pitches played on the quarter notes (ignorance defaults me to Western terminology). A request for written notation was denied: “This way, the music stays in your head.” He’s right; more than a day later, and I still know my first gamelan piece started “six, two, seven, two, three, two, five, seven, six …”

The trouble with the gamelan is that everything looks inviting once you begin playing. My ambition outstripped my competence, and I hungrily eyed the larger, more complex instruments long before I had mastered my simple pattern. When Barry screened for promotions by asking for music majors, I wasn’t going to lose my chance.

“I’m a music minor,” I piped up. I was ushered over to a long rack with 14 big brass kettles. Jackpot!

The bonang proved much more difficult than the saron. I had to play triplets now, and memorize a more complex series of pitches. Very patiently, the musician who was instructing me kept explaining the pattern.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I must not be explaining this very well.”

I assured her this was not the case. The melodic patterns in gamelan music are so foreign to the Western tradition that it would take months of study before they came to me naturally. The accented beats vary among instruments, so there’s no easy way to jump back in if you lose your place. The fundamental saron patterns can be deceiving; this is very difficult, meticulously-composed music.

* * *

Not everyone had difficulty with the finer points of the gamelan; Chris Miller, for one, had no trouble at all. He shouldn’t; he’s been playing gamelan music since 1991 and has traveled to Indonesia for advanced study. Now, he leads the Cornell Gamelan Ensemble.

On Wednesday night, I asked Chris about the tonal system that underpins gamelan composition, and he explained the two common scales of Javanese music. Sledro is pentatonic, and pelog, the tuning of the Boston Village Gamelan’s instruments, has seven notes—though only five are used in most compositions. There is no theory of temperament. A “ji” can vary from ensemble to ensemble, and even the intervals between pitches are not consistent among instruments from different gamelans.

Chris gave me a sheet of vocal music to look at, but its simplicity made it incomprehensible to me. Three lines of text lay under two lines of numbers, which were circled, dotted, tied and underlined. Chris told me that the single sheet could be the basis of a 20-minute composition.

Playing with the Boston Village Gamelan was a unique and special music experience, and I was proud to pick up enough of the technique to avoid ruining the entire piece. More than anything else, it taught me enough to appreciate what the full 20-piece ensemble must sound like when they weren’t compromising themselves for our benefit—exactly the way they performed for us three hours later.

This article is the first part of a two-part piece; the second part will publish next week.