story by Jamie Winpenny
photo by Ann Cecil
Stroll the University of Hawai‘i’s Manoa campus, over near the School of Ethnomusicology, and it’s not unusual to hear an ethereal sonic narrative, bringing to mind images of tropical forests and mythical beasts. This is the sound of gamelan, the indigenous music of Indonesia.
Primarily composed of percussion instruments, gamelan is markedly different from Western music in its composition, tonality and performance—which, traditionally, can last all day. And then there is the orchestra itself: The instruments are generally made of brass, and tuned only once.
“The only way to tune these instruments is by grinding them down,” says Byron Moon, with a chuckle. “So if you tune them often, eventually you’ll have nothing left.”
Moon is head of the university’s two gamelan ensembles, one Balinese and one Javanese. As he explains it, gamelan compositions are on the one hand technically rigid, with little room for expressive improvisation. On the other hand, there is a kind of “intervallic freedom” here that does not exist in Western forms. That is, while a note’s pitch is strictly delineated in Western music, in gamelan an accurate note can be played anywhere within a certain range: Something that would be defined as either “sharp” or “flat” in the Western convention still falls within acceptable parameters in gamelan. This creates an eerie aural experience … and one that lends itself well to visual displays, which is one reason gamelan performances are often accompanied by shadow puppetry and dance.
The university’s ensembles carry on all of these traditions. Founded in 1970 by master performer Hardja Susilo, each ensemble is comprised of performers from both the university and the community at large. And while most university ensembles lose musicians with each graduating class, having access to UH’s outstanding collection of instruments keeps players returning year after year.
“We have people that have been here since the beginning,” says Moon. “We’ve had people who met through gamelan here and eventually got married, had children, and their children grew up to join the ensemble.”