The History of the Instruments
The gamelan at UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance is a Balinese ensemble in North America, where there are already nearly 100 Balinese gamelan ensembles in residence at colleges, universities and private organizations. The ensemble, made by Bali's most highly respected composer, tuner and gong-smith, I Wayan Beratha, is a gamelan semara-dana, a modern ensemble invented by Beratha in the 1980's which represents the combination of two older ensembles: the gamelan gong kebyar, pentatonic secular ensemble which emerged around 1915, and the gamelan semar pegulingan saih pitu, a septatonic sacred ensemble which emerged in the ancient courts of the Balinese rajas sometime before the 16th century. The ensemble consists of numerous metallophones, vertical and horizontal tuned gongs, cymbals, flutes, fiddles and drums and can accommodate a group of up to 28 performers. The instruments, mostly made of a highly polished, brilliant bronze, are housed within elaborately carved and painted teak cases. These cases display highly detailed carved panels which on the front depict selected episodes of the Hindu Ramayana epic and on the back the parables of the ancient Indian (and Balinese) Tantri (animal) tales, much like Aesop's Fables. The sides and edges of the gamelan cases display carvings of fierce fanged bhuta- kala, specters meant to frighten away evil spirits, and to keep the gamelan and its performers safe. The instruments display the University's logos carved within the instrument panels which are painted in the school's colors of blue and gold.
The gamelan at UMKC was forged in small smithies in Bali and Java. The large tuned gongs, which reach a diameter of nearly a meter -- some of the largest gongs in the world, were hand forged and shaped in the famous furnices of Solo, the seat of the ancient Sultanate of Java. These gongs, (the word 'gong' is Javanese in origin and it is, along with 'amok' and 'ketchup,' one of the very few Malay words to make it into the English language) are created slowly over several days, hot hammered from an ingot of bronze measuring only 7 inches in diameter at the beginning of the process. All of the large gongs found in Bali are actually born in Java as the smithy's of central Java, who's craft is still handed down through hereditary lines, have carefully kept the ancient secrets of metallurgy and tuning needed to create these massive gongs. The small gongs and tuned bars that make up the bulk of the instruments in the UMKC gamelan were forged in smithy's in Kelungkung, the ancient kingdom of East Bali, and were then transported to the capital city of Denpasar where they were fine tuned by hand. The cases were made in Beratha's main shop in Denpasar, and were made to fit these keys and gongs specifically, as there is no uniform and standard measure or process for the creation of Balinese instruments. Likewise, the tuning of the UMKC gamelan, while very similar to other ensembles made by Beratha is unique as well; there is no tuning standard in Bali, as there is in the West's system of equal temperament and a standard of A=440. When the construction of the UMKC gamelan, a process which took nearly 7 months, was first finished in the spring of 2002 the ensemble was given to several of the best performing groups in Denpasar, the island's capital. This insured that the ensemble was played on every day, gaining a kind of spirit or taksu and, more importantly forced out of tune. As all newly cast bronze is still unstable, and according to Balinese gong-smiths is still 'wet,' the metal gradually detunes within its first year. This process can be sped up if the keys are frequently struck. By late summer 2002 the UMKC gamelan was already somewhat out of tune and was given its first re-tuning by Beratha before being shipped. Before being placed in the rough wooden creates that protected the instruments in the months long journey by cargo ship, the gamelan was given an elaborate ceremony and blessing, presided over by several Balinese Hindu high-priests. The ensemble today still displays the now desiccated palm and leaf offerings tied to the cases by the priests and the oxidizing stains of the holy water sprinkled on each of the keys and gongs.
I Ketut Gede Asnawa is a master Balinese gamelan performer and composer. Mr. Asnawa is faculty at the Indonesian High School for the Arts and his numerous compositions, both in traditional and experimental forms have won him Bali's highest arts awards many times over. Mr. Asnawa received his masters in ethnomusicology at the University of Baltimore under the guidance of Mantle Hood, and has taught Balinese gamelan at the University of Baltimore, the Eastman School of Music, Bard College, and Illinois State University. Mr. Asnawa was in the United States as a visiting scholar at the UMKC Conservatory of Music with support from the Chancellor's Office, the Provost's Office and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. His wife, Putu Oka Mardiani, is a graduate of the dance department of the Indonesian Conservatory of the Arts and is available to instruct interested students in traditional Balinese dance. Patrick Alonzo Conway, a musician with a Masters in composition, now directs the ensemble.
Bali and Gamelan
Bali is a small volcanic island which lies in the seas of the South Pacific just to the East of Java in the center of the vast Indonesian archipelago. The Balinese represent a small island of Hindus living peacefully within a sea of Islam. Indonesia is the world's largest Islamic nation. Hinduism reached the islands of the archipelago before the 9th century, and while Islam slowly gained favor among the Rajas (later Sultans) of Java and Sumatra in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Balinese remained steadfastedly Hindu. Music, even before the coming of Hinduism, has played a major role in the daily, court, and religious life of the Balinese until the present day. Music is for the Balinese a kind of aural offering to the Gods, as necessary to the proper fulfillment of a ceremony or rite as are the physical offerings of fruits and meats, the burning of incense or the sanksritic recitations, sloka, of the Balinese Hindu priest. The sounds of the Balinese gamelan, a large set of tuned gongs, flutes, fiddles, xylophones and voices, of which there exist a least 25 different varieties on the island, is a permanent fixture in the Balinese temple. But gamelan/music (the terms are not separable in Bali) also exists in secular contexts and in the highly competitive environment of the annual Balinese gamelan gong kebyar competitions there exists the endless intrigue of musical trade-secrets, hours-long rehearsal sessions lasting well into the night, gamelan 'spies' who sneak into rehearsals to steal the newest ideas of Bali's leading composers, and at times the casting of stones at performers who play sloppily or miss a note in the charged environment of the mabarung, the Balinese musical contests which resemble a British soccer match more than an American orchestral concert.
Balinese gamelan is essentially communal in nature, as is so much of Balinese culture. At the core of all Balinese music is the importance of interlocking patterning played by at least two individuals. And so, aside from stylized vocal genres, no Balinese music can be played by a single person. Musical parts and lines are constructed in such an ingenious fashion so that it is impossible to be fully realized by individuals, but only by the tight coordination of parts, memorized by rote in rehearsal (musical notation is not used in Bali) by a community of performers. Furthermore, the Balinese gamelan is stratified to include a gradation of difficulty. That is, there exist simple, intermediate, and difficult lines, without there being a hierarchy of value imposed upon these roles. This allows the community of players in a gamelan to include a range of talents, and also ages: often one finds very young children, as young as 6 years old playing the easier lines, adolescents playing the intermediate parts, adults playing the most difficult roles and finally the older players, hands stiffened by age, joining the children on the easier and slower moving parts. The gamelan structure therefore provides an excellent scene for musical and cultural socialization.