I’ve played Gamelan music on the radio often enough but had never heard it live until this week. I suppose it’s because I’ve chosen to live in mostly rural communities. The Gamelan is not one instrument but an ensemble from Java and Bali played for the temple, shadow puppet plays and traditional secular dances. Gamelan is a classical music form and predates Bali’s conversion to Hinduism. It’s recently has made its way into Indonesian pop and hip hop.
Traditional Gamelan became part of community radio playlists when Nonesuch Records released several recordings as part of its Nonesuch Explorer series. Gamelan music became the punchline of several community radio jokes about our small audiences due to our weekend festivals of Balinese temple bells.
Gamelan influenced Western classical music. It was featured at the Paris World’s Fair (of Eifel Tower fame) in 1889 and both Claude Debussy and Eric Satie heard it. Debussy incorporated some of the forms into his piece “Pagodes” in 1903 and Eric Sate into some of his piano music. I learned this while trying to justify inclusion of a “Non-Western Classical Music” feature on KUOM (a traditional classical station) on Wednesday evenings in the summer just before this daytime AM station signed off. I think I got to do it because the manager directed his church choir on Wednesday nights and didn’t have to listen. (On a sad note, Curt Oliver, KUOM’s Music Director, who helped me research music and supported my efforts recently passed away.)
Later the gamelan inspired John Cage, who tried to replicate the sound with a “prepared piano,” a piano with bits of hardware placed on the strings. Anyone who knows Phillip Glass can hear the Gamelan in his repetitive forms.
The distinct sound of the Gamelan comes from an instrument called the metallophone (gender). The Gamelan also includes drums (Kendhang), a bell (Kenong), and gongs. I got the opportunity to hear Gamelan, live, several times in my two days in Bali. More importantly I got to see the instruments and watched how they were played.