A new kind of music

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November 17, 2011

9:39 PM

A short walk from the Sunken Garden on Armistead Avenue, there is a little-known part of campus called the Bozarth Garage. This building houses the College of William and Mary Gamelan, a unique collection of hanging gongs, kettle gongs and xylophones set up on ornately decorated stands. Here, under the direction of instructor Cynthia Benton-Groner, students learn Indonesian Gamelan, a unique type of music that originated in Central Java centuries ago.

Each Gamelan is special and cast with tuning relative to other instruments in the collection. The College’s Gamelan was constructed in central Java.

“Initially in 1999, there was a spouse of someone in the music department who left his instruments,” Benton-Groner said. “After I started working in 2003, we found funding to purchase these instruments from him.”
The College’s Gamelan was officially named “Gamelan Tunjung Baskara,” which means “Sun Lotus”, by the University of California at Berkley Javanese teacher Midiyanto during a ceremony in March 2006.

The College hosts Gamelan one concert per semester in which both beginner and intermediate groups perform. This past Tuesday, the group put on a performance with a repertoire featuring a mix of short and long pieces, both ancient and modern. Two dancers and a drummer from the Indonesian Embassy also performed with the students.

“Traditionally, the music was to set an atmosphere for puppetry, drama or dance,” Benton-Groner said. “We invited drummers and dancers because there is no [Indonesian] dance program at William and Mary.”

The two guest dancers added much to the performance. During one piece, a dancer gently strutted across the floor, waving her scarf and bobbing her head set to a smooth, languid song. Upon the piece’s completion, Benton-Groner explained that the song was meant for royal entertainment, and the dance originated in the streets but was later refined and perfected.

Gamelan differs greatly from European music ensembles, which are characterized by rigid seating based upon skill. Between every song several players switched seats, trading huge hanging gongs for delicate-looking xylophones. The ensemble also had no conductor, and the instructor Benton-Groner sat alongside her students for the duration of the concert.

“The whole point of Gamelan is to switch around,” Elise Vess ’13 said. “There’s no hierarchy. We all learn it together and play every instrument.”

The written music also shares few similarities with music of the European tradition; rather than staffs, keys and notes, Gamelan is written with a numbered notation and is performed as a song cycle. Cycles can be short, consisting of several bars, or go on for hours. Traditionally, in Indonesian palaces Gamelan was believed to protect people from evil and would be played all night.

“It’s a cycle of songs,” Tera Morris ’12 said. “It’s not Western at all.”

All the songs performed had a pervasive mood of relaxation and tranquility. The timbre of the instruments is gentle and pleasant on the ears. One traditional Javanese song performed was explained as being about a river that heals and calms.

Gamelan spans across many parts of Indonesian culture, both in past and modern times.

“It is still is a very strong component of Indonesian culture,” Benton-Groner said. “There are still shadow plays that go on all night. There is more contemporary music arranged for Gamelan and is played on the radio.”

Although Indonesian Gamelan is just one of many lesser-known activities going on at the College, the performance was attended by several staff members and friends of the performers. Benton-Groner expressed great optimism about its future growth.

“There are talks of a new art center, and I am looking forward to the day when we are more a part of the mainstream college,” Benton-Groner said. “It’s like learning a different language; it’s so different from Western music. It gives people who are looking for a GER 6 a chance to learn music and a different culture.”

Two one-credit Gamelan classes are offered at the College. Both are on Tuesday; beginning players meet at 4 p.m. and intermediate players meet at 7 p.m.

“It’s once a week,” Morris said. “I took it because I didn’t know anything about it and I wanted to try something I’ve never heard of.”

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