When he organized the first gamelan performance at the University of Richmond, ethnomusicologist and UR assistant professor Andrew McGraw was surprised that the folk music from the Southeast Pacific islands of Java and Bali drew a full house to the Modlin Center's Camp Concert Hall. The November event brought together Indonesian performers from New York and Washington and students from UR.
On Jan. 20 he hopes to not only attract an audience, but also recruit a band.
Gamelan music is chaotic in the modern mathematic sense: a complex construction of patterns within patterns. To Western ears, its metallic tonal language is both profoundly foreign and strangely familiar, a fully developed realization of an alien cultural tradition from the far side of the world. It can unfold with the asymmetrical languor of wind chimes or build to storms of layered complexity.
McGraw's task is not as daunting as starting a classical orchestra with beginners. The music is constructed of multiple parts with different levels of difficulty. Neophytes can quickly play with virtuosos, but it is community music; no one can play it alone.
"It's open to everyone," McGraw says. "There is no notation. All instruction is oral and by example. All you need is a decent sense of time and a memory. Since all the parts are doubled by another player, you have backup if you make a mistake."
In McGraw's experience, a musical background may not be an advantage. "A lot of people with rigorous training in Western music just can't get their heads out of the way," he says. "There is a group from MIT who are better than most conservatory players; they don't consider themselves musicians, just obsessive-compulsives who are going to work out their parts. And kids are the best their brains are sponges."
The word gamelan refers to the ensemble of instruments, covering the acoustic spread of a symphony. These include xylophones, metallophones, cradled and hanging gongs, flutes, drums and strings tuned to specific pitches and vibratos built to be played together. UR's custom-built instruments, which can accommodate up to 25 players, blend artistry and spirituality. Intricately carved, forged and assembled over six months by a team under the supervision of Bali's foremost gongsmith, they were sanctified in a Balinese Hindu ceremony before being transported by cargo ship to New York harbor.
The instruments' November debut drew many from the music's culturally diverse homeland. "We found that there is a really large and connected Indonesian community in Richmond," McGraw says. "At home they may have had nothing to do with traditional music; here it becomes a symbol of identity."
The appeal of the music may lie in its welcoming depths; playing takes minutes to learn but years to master. "Some people may associate world music ensembles with drum circles or just jamming on instruments," McGraw cautions. "But it has to be played a certain way, acoustic but loud. There is no improvisation. You have to develop speed in the hands."
The goal of this first rehearsal is to recruit a group of up to 25 players (regular rehearsals, tentatively scheduled for Wednesdays and occasional weekends, will follow). "People will shift around from position to position," McGraw says. "People will find out what they like and what they can do. Just sit down and play, and find out if it's your thing." All are welcome, he says. "What other music can children play alongside adults?"
In acquiring the gamelan, UR agreed to more than just buy a lovely set of instruments. "When we took the music off the island, we accepted an obligation to spread it," McGraw says. The Jan. 20 rehearsal is one step toward reaching new listeners.
In 1977 the stately Javanese "Kind of Flowers" was sent into deep space on the spacecraft Voyager, along with music from Bach, Beethoven and Chuck Berry. Representing the best humankind had to offer, it may one day test gamelan's appeal to a truly alien audience. S
Andy McGraw will hold an open rehearsal at The Modlin Center's Camp Concert Hall on Saturday, Jan. 20, at 2 p.m., free.