Peni Candra Rini walks an interesting line. The Javanese singer and composer is not only keeping alive the traditional music of her culture, she's bucking the same traditions by taking it to different places.
"I use gamelan as a medium for representation in not only the traditional but in the contemporary," the smiling Rini says in a Zoom call from Indonesia. Many of her original lyrics are about repositioning the role of women in Indonesian culture, she adds. "I'm different in that I get to explore art. But it is very rare. Javanese women usually stay at home as a wife and a mother and cannot do work."
This spring, the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University will co-host the Javanese "sindhen" (female solo singer who performs with a Gamelan ensemble) as a visiting Fulbright artist scholar. During her semester-long residency, which starts next week, Rini will also be the visiting artistic director for Gamelan Raga Kusuma, a community ensemble that meets regularly to play Indonesian music using traditional instruments.
"This means that members of the public will have the chance to study with her for free," says Kusuma's co-founder Andy McGraw, an associate professor of music and ethno-musicologist at UR. "It's a very rare opportunity."
Rini will begin rehearsals with the gamelan on the 12th, he outlines, and their open Javanese jams will be held Thursdays and Sundays throughout Rini's Fulbright stint in UR's North Court residence hall. Players don't have to be accomplished musicians to participate. "Can you hit a gong and count to eight?" McGraw asks with a smile. "Then come on out to a rehearsal with Peni."
The Javanese, emanating from the Island of Java, are the largest ethnic group in Southeast Asia, mainly centered in Central and Southeast Indonesia. Their hypnotic two-tone music is performed by a gamelan ensemble that includes exotic metallic idiophones, sitar, gongs and drums, and is central to religious rituals, weddings, funerals, temple festivals, even political ceremonies in her native land.
McGraw says that Rini, 39, is part of a new generation of Javanese composers doing innovative things with these ancient songmodes. "It's very strong in tradition but also experimental and adventurous .... but there aren't a lot of women. Most of the composers are men, especially the experimental composers, so Peni really stands out."
He says that the music of Javanese Gamelan is much slower and more meditative than the more well-known Balinese variety. "It's exploratory, and more dominated by the voice."
Free local classes and performances
During her five-month stay in Richmond, the visiting faculty member from the Indonesian Institute of the Arts will teach introductory Gamelan courses at both UR and VCU. She will also give a series of regional concerts with Gamelan Raga Kusuma and other area groups, such as Rumput, a local ensemble that plays Indonesian-style "Kroncong" music utilizing flute and strings. At Gallery5, Peni will be performing new music with Rumput from an album produced by indie-rock band Deerhoof's John Dieterich, during a workshop on April 14.
San Francisco's Kronos Quartet is currently performing Rini's latest chamber work, "Maduswara," which the acclaimed chamber group will premiere later this month at Carnegie Hall in New York City (the composer is scheduled to sit in). Kronos will, coincidentally, be in Richmond performing another work at UR's Camp Booker Hall of Music on Jan. 21 [see upcoming Style interview]. Also the members will be part of a special community talkback event the day before at UR's International Center, where an excerpt from Rini's work will be featured. "Maduswara" will also be performed at a special chamber music concert at UR's International Center on April 17.
Rini's work as a performer and teacher has benefited from grants by the Asian Cultural Council, and she's a two-time grantee of the U.S. Department of State’s One Beat Program. Earlier this year, she was named an Aga Khan Foundation laureate of the arts. During her travels, which include two shorter stops in Richmond in 2012 and 2018, she has taught Javanese music to people around the world. But is it hard to teach the trance-like sounds to American ears?
"It will not be difficult," she laughs. "Music is the international language. It's not hard to transfer it to other people."
A list of events
Peni Candra Rini and Gamelan Raga Kusuma will host Javanese music workshops every Thursday and Sunday starting Jan. 15 at 6 p.m. in North Court, University of Richmond, 426 Westhampton Way.
A Public Discussion with Kronos Quartet and Peni Candra Rini at UR's International Center on Jan. 20. 12 p.m. Free.
Other upcoming appearances (most free of charge):
Peni Candra Rini with Rumput at Richmond Public Library Main Branch on Friday, March 3. 7 p.m.
Peni Candra Rini with Gamelan Raga Kusuma at Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Saturday, April 1. 7 p.m.
Peni Candra Rini with Gamelan Raga Kusuma at the James W. Black Music Center at VCU on Thursday, April 6. 7 p.m.
Peni Candra Rini with Rumput featuring new music from an album produced by Deerhoof's John Dieterich, during a workshop at Gallery5 on Friday, April 14
Peni Candra Rini with UR Chamber Ensemble performing "Maduswara" and other works on Monday, April 17 at University of Richmond.