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Inspiring foreigners, ignored by locals

Dylan Amirio
Dylan Amirio

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Fri, September 22, 2017 | 09:52 am
Inspiring foreigners, ignored by locals

San Francisco's Gamelan X ensemble (

While hidden in semi-obscurity back home, Indonesia’s gamelan instruments have managed to penetrate the experimental mindsets of Western musicians.

There are several forms of gamelan, depending on the region. There is the Javanese gamelan, the Sundanese gamelan and the Balinese gamelan, among others. Each of them has a different sound, scale, playing method and tools.

A gamelan ensemble can consist of 20 or fewer players playing various bronze bell-like instruments, brass glockenspiels, stringed zithers, wooden flutes or gongs.

The gamelan is largely overlooked as a niche art form in mainstream Indonesian society. However, it has attracted the appreciation of musicians in the West because of its interesting complexities. This is the topic that American PhD candidate and ethnomusicologist Jay M. Arms has chosen to delve deeper into. He feels that the gamelan, with its many forms, details and techniques is worth researching about as a result of its hidden significance in the global music character today.

The first notable exposure of the gamelan to the West can be traced back to the 1889 Paris Expo, during which a then-budding French composer by the name of Claude Debussy came across a Javanese gamelan orchestra and fell in love with its soft dissonant tones and non-rhythmic structure. He then incorporated the sounds of the Javanese gamelan into his piano pieces.

Read also: Siswa Sukra a British gamelan affair

Debussy’s integration of the gamelan’s scale and lack of dominant melodic structure later spread to the works of his fellow Impressionist-era peers, including Erik Satie, who himself had a penchant for composing piano works that lacked time signature and dominating melodies.

In recent decades, the gamelan has made its way further into contemporary Western experimental artists’ music, as current artists have begun to take up the ambient, atonal sounds for use in their music. In the 1980s, British progressive rock band King Crimson aimed to recreate the atonality and free structure of the gamelan in three of its albums in that decade.

And in recent years experimental musician Dan Deacon has managed to sneak sonic elements into one of the songs on his 2012 album America, while innovative Canadian post-rock unit Godspeed You! Black Emperor also incorporated a gamelan-like ambience as part of one of its songs on the cathartic 2012 album Allelujah Don’t Bend, Ascend!

While contemporary Western indie musicians are incorporating exotic sounds such as the gamelan into their repertoire, Arms admits that the gamelan has yet to integrate into experimental Western music repertoires completely, outside of the few musicians who actually practice the art itself.

Jakarta Arts Institute (IKJ) lecturer and cultural observer Julianti Parani argues that knowledge about the gamelan as a whole is limited to those who have access to information about it, highlighting a possible class distinction over who plays and is interested in the instrument.

Outside of learning centers, hotel lobbies and educational institutions, the gamelan itself is very rarely heard in Indonesia and a desire for locals to learn the instrument can be said to be limited as well.

Arms recalled a notable incident that happened to him when he landed in Indonesia earlier this year. His taxi driver asked what he was doing in Indonesia, and when Arms answered that he wanted to study and research about the gamelan, the driver laughed.

“It’s funny that you westerners want to come here and study the gamelan, because the people [in Indonesia] don’t really care about it!” Arms recalled the driver’s words during a recent lecture at the IKJ.

Julianti pinpointed that incident as a direct example of class distinction regarding the gamelan, because only a certain group of people in Indonesia really do care about it.

“There is a class distinction in Indonesia and in the United States regarding the gamelan, because it’s a matter of access. This can also serve as a critique of the avant-garde movement’s habit of exclusivity because that movement tends to alienate those who they feel they cannot understand, in this case, gamelan,” she said.

In the US, the only place that one can learn the gamelan is at a university, Arms explained.

It is also notable that because gamelan sets built in America rarely use the standard bronze or copper used in Indonesian sets, instead opting for more accessible materials such as brass, steel or iron, the sound of the American sets is very different.

Gamelan studies in the US began around 1967, when Indonesian ethnomusicologist Hardja Susilo first brought gamelan studies to the University of Hawaii, where he became the first Javanese gamelan teacher in the US. From there, the interest in mainly Javanese gamelan spread to the American mainland, with ensembles forming in several universities.

Most of these ensembles, such as New York’s Gamelan Son of Lion, branched into the instrument as a result of their interests and studies regarding American experimental music at the time. American experimental music of the 1960s to 1970s liked to dabble with unconventional methods and scales and the gamelan’s distinctive slendro or pelog scales caught the ear of composers, with figures such as Philip Glass, John Cage and American gamelan practitioner Lou Harrison incorporating elements of the gamelan into their music.

Formed in 1976, Gamelan Son of Lion is an ensemble that continues its work today. Other ensembles include the Boston Village Gamelan and the Gamelan Sekar Armsa, both formed in 1979 in Boston and San Francisco respectively.

There have also been modern gamelan ensembles in the US, such as San Francisco’s Gamelan X and Oakland’s The Lightbulb Ensemble, which adopt a more stripped-down acoustic approach.

Arms feels that these ensembles, although few in number, are living proof of the gamelan’s ability to attract devoted performers in the US.

With such interest abroad, Julianti laments the fact that there is less awareness of the gamelan and its diverse technical abilities in Indonesia itself, where it should be the most appreciated. Awareness and a willingness to collaborate and partner with overseas gamelan teachers and players should be the key to not only preserving the instrument, but for Indonesian musical culture as well.

“People in America have reached out to our culture, proving that they are genuinely interested. It’s up to us to develop the will to maintain this art, and [Arms’ research] proves that if we need help from abroad to do so, it’s available,” she said.