Last Spring, I had the pleasure of joining the UTK Gamelan Ensemble, led by my friend, colleague, and erstwhile committee member Leslie C. Gay. The band (so to speak) was composed of an eclectic mix of students and community members ranging from the musically gifted (e.g. David Webb, Kali Altintasioti) to the less so (Tyler Sonnichsen). I was excited to continue with the ensemble this Fall semester when I received a disappointing email from Les saying that there would be no Gamelan until the Spring. This was nobody’s fault; our Gamelan had been borrowed from some institution in California, and the music school’s term of lease had expired. The good news was that an all-new Gamelan contracted for UTK was in the works somewhere in Bali. The bad news was that it wouldn’t be ready on time to ship and arrive in Knoxville anytime this Fall. As the saying goes: cheap, fast, or good… pick two (and even two is often pushing it).
I should have anticipated how much I would miss the Gamelan, considering how busy last semester was. Last Spring, it became a perfect break from my routine: two hours every week where I crossed campus, unplugged from the matrix, and played music that I never had to feel guilty for not practicing because I couldn’t practice it (unlike those childhood piano lessons for which my mom essentially set her money on fire…sorry, Mom). This semester, being back on the full teaching schedule, highlighted the Gamelan-shaped abyss in my life.
First, What is Gamelan?
I’m going to pretend we’re having a conversation, and you just asked me this question and that you’re not reading this on the internet with the ability to open up a new window, scroll through dozens of articles explaining it, hundreds of photos, and thousands of hours of streaming video of people performing it better than I ever could. But, since that’s the first question I get whenever I tell anyone in person that I was in a Gamelan ensemble, I’ll answer the question here as I would in person.
The Gamelan is a coordinated set of percussive instruments intended to be played (often, but not always) in syncopation. It’s associated with Southeast Asia, predominantly Indonesia, though different islands have differing styles and approaches to performance. I’d be loathe to call it a “performance,” too since the islanders willed it into existence as something more spiritual and communal.
Spiritual AND Communal? Tell Me More!
This is my favorite thing about Gamelan. Everybody in front of a set of chimes or the gong (the one Indonesian word that sneaked its way into English) is equal. Almost any of the instruments can be foregrounded in performance. Anyone can sit down and play. Of course they would improve the more time they spend playing just as with anything, but it’s a percussion ensemble that encourages everyone to play, not just the handful of people who can shred. That being said, the Gamelan can integrate an electric guitar and nobody would complain. This Spring, Jorge Variego sat in on bass clarinet to debut what could only be described as an avant garde art piece (free-Gamelan, in other words, like free jazz), and the audience ate it up.
An epiphany I had at our first practice was that this was an approach that much Western popular music had forgotten. I know that trained musicians (or musicians in general) in countries like the States have been gradually disappearing in an age where STEM has conned its way into near-hegemony in our schools and funding for music programs is being slashed. Still, music cannot fully shed its promordial function as a group activity, not something reserved for a privileged few. Prior to the modern phenomenon of music publishing and copyrighting (less than 200 years old in the United States), music had enjoyed a long history of user-friendliness and root populism. Broadside ballads like “Barbara Allen” were meant to be sung by inclusive groups of revelers in parlors, as seen here in one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.
Arguments do exist that music predates language; humans are born with a variety of potential instruments on their person. Tuvan throat singing styles clearly mimic sounds of nature. Hamboning, an autopercussive song-and-dance style, worked its way into the Southern legend via slave traditions. Even some 80’s dream-pop songs with non-linguistic, non-lyrical vocals could be argued to be instrumentals.
So, Why Is It Important?
Obviously, in the handful of communities (mostly Universities) lucky to have one available, the novelty of Gamelan is one reason for its surging popularity in the United States as much as its accessibility. You know it’s novel enough for Fred Armisen and IFC to cart one in for a joke in the Documentary Now! series. But, novelty breeds fads, which gamelan clearly isn’t. The syncopation, timbre, and democracy all form a trusty foundation through which to expand the music’s appeal worldwide. In so much Western music, percussion is relegated to the background of the band, and percussionists (well, rock drummers) become the butt of jokes. Even in bands where the drummer is the best actual musician (e.g. Fugazi, Manic Street Preachers), fans tend to take them for granted. It’s always gratifying when percussionists get the respect they deserve, and even better when Gamelan foregrounds all the different ways, usually several within the course of one performance, someone can simply be a percussionist. To put it most bluntly, it sounds gorgeous, and most importantly, it’s just really, really cool.
For me, at least, being in a gamelan ensemble provided the grounding experience for which so many people turn to yoga, meditation, prayer, or some combination of the three. It was great to have in my life for a semester, and then it was difficult getting used to not having it. Today, however, I got a message from my old friend Konstantine, who will be stepping in for Les and leading the UTK Gamelan Ensemble this semester. Our first meeting/practice/jam session is next week, and I can’t wait. I’ll announce it again as it gets closer, but make your calendars for April 17th.