Borrowing, building on Southeast Asian tradition

Gamelan Pacifica: Trance Gong


Before I try to explain exactly what a gamelan is, let me share a quote with you that beautifully captures the spirit of gamelan music. I shamelessly cadged it from the Internet somewhere; it is attributed to Jaap Kunst, who wrote on the music of Java in the 1930s and ’40s: “Gamelan is comparable to only two things, moonlight and flowing water. …mysterious like moonlight and always changing like flowing water…”

Cool, but what is it? A gamelan is a traditional Indonesian instrumental ensemble typically featuring a variety of percussion instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, drums, and gongs. Bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings and vocalists may also be included. Although a gamelan is a set of instruments requiring as many as 17 or 18 musicians to play everything, it is seen as a single entity, built and tuned to stay together.

Gamelan are found in the Indonesian islands of Java, Madura, Bali, and Lombok, and gamelanlike instruments are ubiquitous throughout much of Southeast Asia.

They’ve also found a home within the academic hippie Birkensock crowd [people who wear socks with their Birkenstocks, a wonderfully snarky term I picked up from daughter Laurel]. While my tastes in music don’t generally track with this group [don’t get me started on what passes for music on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion], I must admit I’ve embraced gamelan music. Gamelan orchestras and societies have sprung up throughout the western world.

Gamelan Pacifica is one such group, but with a twist. Based at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, they use the gamelan to perform new music, much of it composed by group founder Jarrad Powell. One of the six tracks on this disk is even a composition by John Cage, arranged with his permission for the gamelan by Powell. Still, the music retains the essential spirit of the traditional music of Java and Bali. Partly because the group nods heavily towards these traditions in its work and partly, I have to imagine, because that’s where the gamelan wants the music to go. And where it goes is a magical place. A place of moonlight and flowing water.

2 Responses to “Borrowing, building on Southeast Asian tradition”

  1. The taste of summer memories « Blue Kitchen Says:

    […] around the clock to serve you better. What’s on the kitchen boombox? and WTF? Random food for thought. have graduated from being sidebar pages to being full-fledged […]

  2. Mimi Says:

    I remember a gamelan concert my first summer in Madison – it just charmed me. I know what you mean about NPR, too. Ear torture sometimes.

    I am going to enjoy your newest ventures, TerryB.

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