I spent three hours yesterday at Victoria University’s music department doing a gamelan workshop and just totally loved it! The workshop was taken by Budi Petra, a master musician from Indonesia who is resident at the university. Following the signs on the way to the gamelan room, there was no doubt we were in the right place when we walked into this room (click image for larger version)
Budi demonstrated the role & sound of each instrument in the orchestra & also explained the difference in tone & approach to Javanese gamelan as compared to Balinese gamelan (there was also a balinese gamelan set in the other half of the room) – the main difference being that Javanese gamelan tends to be played more softly and have a softer tone. This was evident through the implements used to play the instruments too; the Balinese tend to use quite hard sounding small hammers whereas most of the Javanese implements were dampened…. There was a total of ten people attending, all beginners & Budi slowly taught us a simple piece of music and once we had a section basically working, we would swap instruments to get experience with the different tones & roles… I, of course, gravitated to the big bass gongs & spent the last hour playing these as the piece we were learning developed and the ten beginners slowly began to form a slightly dysfunctional gamelan orchestra. Once the rhythm was locked in & we could stop watching the pattern Budi had written for us on a whiteboard I found the experience totally trance inducing – that beautiful no-mind state where you are totally present & participating but not consciously thinking at all. Occasionally Budi would join in on one of the instruments & I almost lost the plot a few times through listening to his syncopation instead of staying focused on my own playing!
Its funny too – there are moments in gamelan music that give me a deja vu feeling from messing with beats in the computer. Back when i used to make drum & bass I always loved having the sped up beat clocking at 160bpm & then at some point dropping into half time, so its kind of like playing a hiphop beat at half speed, and some gamelan patterns evoke the same feel especially when the beats are distributed across the instruments of the gamelan orchestra…
Apart from the beautiful tones produced by the instruments, there were two other aspects to gamelan music that I thoroughly enjoyed. First was dynamics: Budi would conduct us to go from playing ‘normally’ to much softer, and hearing the tones blurr at a quiet level was just so beautiful. The second was tempo changes: Budi would play one of the oblong drums, which is often used as the tempo reference for all of the players to follow, and once we had a pattern of music working he would then over the course of 16 bars do a beautiful tempo deceleration down to a final note, and as we got (marginally) better at playing, the deceleration felt so natural and organic, almost like a pendulum coming to rest.
I put my name down to be involved in further workshops. Victoria University has a first year paper in learning gamelan, but its impossible for me to attend such things during daylight hours. But it was suggested that if there was enough interest a weekly Thursday night session could be started…. fingers crossed!