Gamelan group bringing Javanese tradition to Rose

Tufts-based players doing a one-day MusicUnitesUs residency Wednesday

When Boston Village Gamelan visits the Rose Art Museum Wednesday, its members will perform a structured, indoor concert rather than the informal, outdoor extravaganza of the Indonesian tradition from which the music arises. But Judith Eissenberg, founder and director of MusicUnitesUs, the program sponsoring the residency, hopes it will give listeners something of a feel for Southeast Asian philosophy.

Gamelan, an Indonesian ensemble of instruments, consists primarily of several varieties of bronze gongs and sets of tuned metal instruments that are struck with mallets. Its name comes from the Javanese word “gamel,” which means to strike or to play. The ensemble creates a flowing sound that has been compared to “moonlight poured over a field.”

One of the world’s most complex forms of music, gamelan is marked by colotomic structures, or layers of gong cycles that determine the rhythmic framework of each piece, which Eissenberg describes as a giant clock that measures the flow of time. Rooted in Hindu cosmology, the number of beats in each cycle varies according to the composition but is always divisible by two, an aesthetic representing dualities like light and dark, good and evil. Likewise, ensembles traditionally include two sets of each instrument to create two tuning systems.

“Despite a sense of the objective, eternal flow of time, there's elasticity to it - a wooziness from some of the melody instruments,” says Eissenberg, who will continue to expand her own knowledge about gamelan when she participates in a three-weeks Indonesian Encounters program in Java and Bali, made possible by a grant from the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation. “At its core, the music is bound together by cycles within cycles of rhythm and a melodic treatment that is shared by all the instruments in some fashion... but it can sound like a polyphony of voices, on the surface unrelated."

Gamelan, which originated in Java and Bali, is an integral part of Indonesian rituals. It is traditionally informal outdoor music, often accompanying dance or shadow puppet theater, and is used to tell epic stories that can go on all night.

Though the performers will be in a more structured environment, Eissenberg hopes some of the core social values associated with the music in Indonesia will be in play – everyone does their part for the good of the whole. She refers to lagu, inner melody, which is the imagined melody in each performer’s mind before they begin to play.

“Even if you don’t know the melody and have never heard gamelan,” Eissenberg says, “you can appreciate the beautiful sounds and sense the layers upon layers of the music.”

In its one-day residency, Boston Village Gamelan will offer insights in Eissenberg’s “Intro to World Music” course, which is currently studying Javanese music, at 1 p.m. Students will learn more about instruments like the saron, bonang and gongs. At 4 p.m., the ensemble will conduct a gamelan workshop (open to all) at the Rose Art Museum and will perform a more formal concert there at 7 p.m.

Boston Village Gamelan is based at Tufts University. Formed in 1979, it is one of the first independent gamelan groups in America. Its members have been mentored by prominent Javanese musicians including I.M. Jarjito, Sumarsam and Wakidi Dwidjomartono. The ensemble is currently directed by Barry Drummond, who also directs the Tufts University ensemble.

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