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Pacific Rim Gamelan preview: Cross-cultural composition

May 17, 2014
Students practice using Balinese gamelan instruments. View Video. Photo by: Gary Ferrington

Students practice using Balinese gamelan instruments. View video. Photo: Gary Ferrington.


The sound of hammers percussively striking metal bars explodes in an unexpected complex of tonal structures and rhythms. For those listeners with an ear tuned to traditional Western music, an initial encounter with a gamelan ensemble may be quite startling — a musical soundscape that most have not experienced. ArtsWatch readers will be able to explore this exciting sound when the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance presents its spring 2014 Pacific Rim Gamelan concert Tuesday night at the UO.

Since 1991, when Dr. Robert Kyr, professor of composition and music theory, created the Pacific Rim Gamelan, the UO has become known for its gamelan studies and performances, made possible through a gift of a beautiful set of Gamelan Suranadi Sari Indra Putra instruments donated to the school in 1986 by John and Claudia Lynn of Eugene. Closely translated as “Gamelan Holy Springs: Ascent of the Song of the God of Rai,” the instruments, in the Balinese tradition, have become an integral part of the composition program.

“Almost all of our composers (both undergraduate and graduate) take the Balinese gamelan course at some point and the piece that they compose becomes part of their degree portfolio,” wrote Kyr in an email to OAW.  According to Kyr, “the gamelan is a unique artistic community in that each player is both a composer and performer, which means that each musician is both a creator and interpreter. No other school offers this kind of experience and opportunity to explore new worlds of music as part of its curriculum and as an essential part of the musical education of its composers.”

Gamelan is a percussive music using an array of hammers and mallets Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Gamelan is a percussive music using an array of hammers and mallets.
Photo: Gary Ferrington.

The Javanese word ‘gamel’ refers to a hammer, similar to that used by a blacksmith. A gamelan (pronounced “gah’-meh-lahn”) then is a set of primarily percussion instruments, struck by hammers or mallets and is played by a group varying in size from four to forty musicians. (Somewhat confusingly, the word “gamelan” is often casually used to refer to the performing ensemble as well as to the instruments they play.) Such ensembles form the traditional music of Bali and Java.

The Balinese gamelan creates a rich, bright explosive sound with shifting rhythms and changes of tempo. The Pacific Rim set consists mostly of a family of instruments with bronze bars hung over bamboo tube resonators. An informative article, “Javanese and Balinese Gamelan Music” by Bruno Deschenes, provides insightful information about the configuration of both the Javanese and Balinese gamelan. (See sidebar below.)

A World Orchestra

Western composers such as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Benjamin Britten, Harry Partch, John Cage, Lou Harrison and Steve Reich, to name a few, have been inspired by Indonesian gamelan music. The Pacific Rim Gamelan follows in this tradition of cross-cultural exploration.

Seola Kim performs her composition for ajaeng and gamelan orchestra. Photo by: Oregon Composers Symposium

Seola Kim performs her composition for ajaeng and gamelan orchestra.
Photo: Oregon Composers Symposium.

“Our gamelan is also a “world orchestra,” a term that I coined … when I founded the ensemble,” Kyr says. “A world orchestra features instruments from around the world combined with the gamelan that forms the largest section of the ensemble.” The ensemble consists of 20-25 students, who learn to play the instruments and compose the music that PRG performs.

The following videos demonstrate this intercultural blending. Seola Kim’s 2013 composition Twilight uses the ajaeng, or Korean table harp. Brandon Scott Rumsey’s 2011 When one world ends… employs the Australian didjeridoo.

The May 20 concert includes several pieces on the program that combine the piano with the gamelan, which brings two vastly different tuning systems together in order to create new and kaleidoscopic musical colors and textures. “And several pieces,” Kyr notes, “feature other Western instruments, including violin, clarinet, and alto saxophone, which to everyone’s surprise, works especially well with the Balinese gamelan. A few pieces also use electronics, which in combination with the gamelan also create unexpected and compelling sound worlds. One of the works features the Uilleann pipes (the national bagpipe of Ireland) juxtaposed against and in combination with the gamelan, which is both striking and unusually haunting in color and affect.”

Prof. Robert Kyr introduces an audience to the unique instrumentation of the Pacific Rim Gamelan. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Prof. Robert Kyr introduces an audience to the unique instrumentation of the Pacific Rim Gamelan. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Three composers share notes about the unique instrumental combinations they use in works that will be performed on the PRG program.

Bryce Miller’s Plain: for Soundplane, Piano and Balinese Gamelan introduces electroacoustics into a mix of traditional gamelan and new technologies. The Soundplane, a computer music controller that Miller describes as having the unique feel and sensitivity of an acoustic instrument, provides him with a wide range of capability by moving his hand across its surface or through various levels of pressure. It allows Miller to experiment with microtonal possibilities and gives him the flexibility to more closely relate his composition to the five-note scale of the gamelan orchestra.

In his duo Hyacinth, composer Benjamin Penwell says he treats the piano as just another textural element, and it plays only three different repeating patterns. The violin, while playing a solo role, also plays repeated patterns. “Because the instruments of the gamelan are confined to a five-note mode, the melodic and harmonic possibilities are limited,” Penwell notes. “Instead of approaching it with the traditional aim of melodic and harmonic development, I instead approached it with the goal of textural development. The gamelan instruments have a wealth of overtones that shimmer against one another because no two instruments are tuned quite alike. I don’t want the listener to be focused on motivic development or key areas. I wanted to use that to create an atmosphere,” he explained.

Alex Johnson got the idea for Dream and Wander Still in the middle of a conversation with UO musicology professor Eliot Grasso, “when I remembered that he is an accomplished uilleann pipes player,” Johnson recalls. “I was drawn to the mixing of timbres between the gamelan and the uilleann pipes, which both have very distinct sounds. I couldn’t resist the potential for combining the two families of instruments and creating both an unexpected cross-cultural ensemble and a composite musical sound unlike any other. It was a great opportunity to combine two very different musical cultures into a single piece.”

While many Western listeners may be unfamiliar with sounds and musical approaches from other cultures, “I believe that this experience of intercultural music-making is essential for composers in the 21st century,” Kyr concludes, “because it enables them to explore a wide range of sound worlds that greatly expands their musical horizons and affords them a host of innovative creative opportunities.”

UO School of Music and Dance Balinese gamelan instruments. Photo: OBF Composers Symposium.

UO Balinese gamelan instruments.
Photo: OBF Composers Symposium.

Sidebar: Bronze Beauty
The beauty of the school’s Pacific Rim Gamelan ensemble is the opportunity it provides composers to create new sounds using an array of fascinating instruments that include (see photo at top and left):

  • 4 Kantilan: each with 10 metal bars
  • 4 Pemade: each with 10 metal bars
  • 2 Jublag: each with 5 metal bars
  • 2 Jegogan: each with 5 metal bars
  • Reyong: a horizontal rack of 12 nipple gongs
  • Kemong: small suspended gong
  • Kempul: medium-large suspended gong
  • Kendang: two-headed skin drum

Source: Dr. Robert Kyr, Music Today Festival program notes Feb. 2, 2005.

Pacific Rim Gamelan performs its spring concert at 8 pm May 20 in the UO’s Aasen-Hull Concert Hall, Eugene.

Gary Ferrington is Senior Instructor Emeritus, College of Education, University of Oregon.

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