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Gamelan Fever

Speaking of banging a gong, Nick invited me to accompany him to Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT for a Gamelan session. The three of us - Nick, Stuart and I - met at a Chinese bakery on the Lower East Side, piled into Stuart's car, and arrived by 4:30 in the afternoon. The affair lasted until 3:30 am. That's eleven hours of gamelan. This was a special session, with around twenty musicians there, including four Indonesians, at least two of whom are among the finest gamelan musicians in the world. For the last couple of days I've been thinking about gamelan music and trying to put my thoughts in order. This is a preliminary attempt to get these thought down on paper (in a manner of speaking).

The first thing is to hit up Wikipedia for some info:

"A gamelan is a kind of musical ensemble of Indonesian origin typically featuring a variety of instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, drums, and gongs; bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings, and vocalists may also be included. The term refers more to the set of instruments than the players of those instruments. A gamelan as a set of instruments is a distinct entity, built and tuned to stay together — instruments from different gamelan are not interchangeable."

Gamelan music seems ambient rather than driven by melody. While it is rhythmic, some instruments anticipate the beat, while others play behind the beat. Every piece seems to have variations in tempo, sections that slow down and speed up. On first listen, it seems "free," but you soon realize the pieces are subtle, intricate and sophisticated. The pieces are modal, with different modes (fixed groups of notes) for different styles. The metallophones provide the underlying structure, while the other instruments enhance or compliment the notes. Notes are numbers and the measures come in groups of four. It's not quite 4/4 time though, for in many tunes you could count as many as 16 beats between one number and the next. the music would look like this:

6355 33•• 6521 6356 etc.

The dots are rests. Western music, jazz especially, features the "big one," an emphasis on the first beat of the measure; in contrast, gamelan music seems to emphasize the fourth beat of the measure. The songs are divided into sections, with an intro, a longish first section, a short middle part, then a long final section. A bang to the gong, always after the beat, signals the end of a section. Sections include repeats and a device similar to the coda. Apparently there is also a reduced number of stock endings.

At Wesleyan, there were people there who could play the two-stringed fiddle, and there were also singers, but the leader was the drummer, who controlled tempo and also signaled the musicians.

At one point I counted 19 musicians on the gamelan the other night at Wesleyan. One of the things that impressed me is that musicians will play different instruments. I was also impressed by the fact that musicians of different levels of sophistication can play together with total naturalness. That night there were 10 year old kids playing alongside masters from Indonesia. While some songs are more boisterous than other, the general mood is mellow, and a certain informal tranquility is the norm.

I can imagine a gamelan in Indonesia, with an old man at the gong, he looks like he's almost asleep as he lounges with a clove cigarette in his mouth. He comes to life to bang the gong at the end of sections, then returns to his reverie.

Those guys let me play at the end of the evening as things were winding down. I had enjoyed listening all evening, but playing was even more satisfying, even though I found it very difficult to keep track of my place on the music. I just watched Nick, who was also playing the metallophone, and played what he did.

I may have caught the gamelan fever.
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