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Gamelan's gameplan: Navigating an uncertain future at the 'U'

Nicholas Williams/Daily

By Gillian Jakab, Community & Culture Editor
Published February 12, 2014

We have a gamelan … but what is it?

A gamelan is a group of musical instruments — ones steeped in thousands of years of Javanese and Balinese tradition and built and tuned as a unified harmonic ensemble. Each gamelan is unique, and instruments from one gamelan are generally not interchangeable with those of another.

Gamelan performances can range from just music to a multi-art spectacular featuring traditional dance, costumes and elaborate puppet theatre. Ritual preparation precedes the performances. Offerings are presented to the spirits of the sacred musical ensemble. Drawing from Hindu and Buddhist practices, performers work to reach a level of profound concentration and fiery enthusiasm.

There are fewer than 200 gamelans in the United States and only one in Michigan — ours. But now, with changes looming at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, some fear the future of our gamelan isn’t so secure.

We have a gamelan … but how’d we get it in the first place?

1965 was a year marked by growing tensions in American relations with Southeast Asian nations and an escalation of the war in Vietnam. In March of that year, the University witnessed the first major “teach-in,” an educational anti-war demonstration that later spread to many other institutions of higher education. Meanwhile, the 1964-65 World’s Fair, with its theme of “Peace Through Understanding,” served in some ways as a beacon of hope. Indonesia was the first Southeast Asian nation to agree to participate — a 69-piece Javanese gamelan was a highlight of its exhibit. But anti-Western sentiments caused Indonesia to withdraw from the United Nations and remove its exhibit from the World’s Fair. Due to financial difficulties, they needed to sell the gamelan.

The University competed with Wesleyan University to purchase it, each putting down $2,000 for the set. Somehow, a second gamelan was procured and each institution received one.

We have a gamelan … now what?

Judith Becker, who was a graduate student studying ethnomusicology at the University when the gamelan arrived in the ’60s, was thrilled when it was first delivered to campus. She listened to recordings, learned gamelan herself and helped establish an ensemble. A year or so later, Susan Walton, now the director of the University’s ensemble, joined the gamelan.

“I found the gamelan just by luck and fell in love with it,” Walton said. “It taught me all sorts of musical principles that I hadn’t been aware of. It also modeled a kind of communal way of doing music, which I thought was wonderful: the notion that anybody can play music. That playing music together was like having a party together. Some people at the party know how to sing better than others, but nobody really cares — the whole point is that you’re playing it, you’re singing it together.”

By 1971, Walton was traveling to the archipelago nation to do original research and make connections that would later help to expand the University’s gamelan program.

“I was learning about another culture and falling in love with the language and the people, the history and the art and music it’s almost like a love affair — just a passion for everything Indonesian. And I see that in so many of my students too,” Walton said.

Over the years, Becker and Walton have attracted generations of renowned artists for gamelan residencies. Since 1967 there have been 51 residencies of puppeteers, dancers or musicians. Some are for a year, some for a semester, others for just a short time.

We have a gamelan … Saturday, Feb. 15 at Stamps Auditorium.

The University’s gamelan resident is Midiyanto, the director of the University of California, Berkeley Gamelan and a seventh generation gamelan performer. He’s been coaching student and faculty performers in preparation for Saturday’s concert. He’s also teaching a Wayang Kulit
workshop exploring the symbolism and philosophy of traditional shadow puppet theater, and the stories it often depicts from the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

In 1988, a young Midiyanto came to the University for the first time and played with the gamelan ensemble. Fifteen years later, he returned for a residency. Now he’s back for a third go-around. Instead of staying on the west coast for UC, Berkeley’s winter break, Midiyanto chose to spend these six weeks in Michigan.

“The gamelan program at the University of Michigan is one of the oldest and most successful gamelan programs with ethnomusicologists in the United States. Judith Becker is kind of like the mother of all modern ethnomusicologists,” Midiyanto said. “There are about 200 sets like this in America. And the University of Michigan has one of the oldest and one of the most established gamelan programs.”

Midiyanto added that only three out of the 200 have the rare instrument known as the Bonang Panembung, or large set of gong-chimes: Wesleyan, Berkeley and Michigan.

Sitting in on one of the gamelan ensemble’s Tuesday evening rehearsals, I understood what Susan Walton meant by saying that the music was more than the instrument’s mellifluous sounds; it was a window into the humility and egalitarianism of Javanese culture and values.

“When you learn Javanese gamelan, it’s because you want to pacify your own mind,” Midiyanto said. “(It’s a) reflection of society; there’s no one more important than the others. It’s all equal loudness, softness. There should not be ego in the community. No one should feel like ‘Oh, I’m the leader.’ It’s communal; it’s a responsive and interactive thing … We just try to be humble; as you see we sit without chairs.”

Saturday’s concert will showcase both traditional, central Javanese music pieces and new compositions that meld Western and Eastern influences. A dancer from the Indonesian consulate in Chicago will also perform a dynamic and flirtatious piece often seen at weddings. Composer Lou Harrison, who passed away ten years ago, wrote a piece for the gamelan and a viola called “Threnody” that will be performed by a student on her double bass.

I have a gamelan … you have a gamelan.

The diverse group of students and professors who comprise the University’s gamelan ensemble sit cross-legged on the regal red carpet. After a round of music is over, they get up and rotate to another instrument.

“To be honest there are usually separate ethnic or cultural groups when performing a world art form,” said Beth Genné, Professor of Dance History in Arts and Ideas at the Residential College and in the Dance Department.

Genné believes the Gamelan Ensemble has been one of the most diverse performing arts groups on campus. The gamelan attracts students from all over Asia as well as the West. Genné is a long-standing member of the University Gamelan and has great affection for its democratic approach to music.

“It’s in the culture to cooperate,” Genné said. “In the West, it’s all about competition, who’s better than the other — in this environment, the Javanese culture stresses community. And so it is when you’re doing the music. And then of course you fall in love with the music and dance — oh it’s such a gorgeous literature.”

“I think there have been generations now of students who’ve learned from people like Midi what Javanese culture is,” Genné said. “It’s certainly been true for me, to really understand and be connected in a very straightforward way — a very strong and heartfelt connection because you’re doing music and dance … It’s friendship. My understanding, and I know for many of the students that I’ve had, their understanding of Indonesia is a personal one. And it’s through music.”

Midiyanto speaks of the powers the gamelan has in fostering peaceful relations. Even when there were no formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Indonesia, the University of Tel Aviv prized its gamelan. Indonesian passports warned their holders to avoid Israel, but it was powerless to stop the gamelan exchange.

“It’s through cultural connections,” Midiyanto said. “It’s nothing to do with the political or diplomatic channel. That’s very important.”

With the University’s emphasis on internationalism, study abroad experiences, and global partnerships, we can look at the gamelan, which has been facilitating those experiences since 1965, as a model.

“I think that Mary Sue Coleman has initiated a program to make the University more international, and global, and the gamelan has been doing this kind of global work for decades,” Walton said. “It’s a wonderful way of bringing people, who otherwise would have had no interest in doing international studies, to that part of the world. It’s very successful way of encouraging internationalism.”

After playing in the gamelan or taking one of the courses taught by a Javanese guest artist, many students have decided to travel to Indonesia to study.

“One of the great opportunities of the students here has been to be able to not only study with people like Midiyanto, but also to travel to Indonesia to study,” Genné said. “We’ve had a whole succession of students — undergraduates and graduates — that have gone.”

I spoke with Music, Theater & Dance junior Alexis Turner about her experience in visiting artist Anon Suneko’s Javanese dance class last year and her performance in the Gamelan concert. As part of their curriculum, dance majors are required to take two world dance classes. Having already immersed herself in Afro-Caribbean dance, Turner decided to go for something else: Javanese.

“I wanted to try class that had movement that wasn’t necessarily on such a large scale, but was more intricate and really focused on elegance and gracefulness —and something that would be out of my element,” said Turner. “It’s something that I knew I could only get training in here; it’s not such a common form of dance … it’s these experiences that make U of M — you can’t just go anywhere and take a Javanese dance class or go take a gamelan class.”

Saturday’s concert, some worry, may be the last the University will enjoy in its full 69-instrument gamelan splendor — at least for a couple of years. Due to the School of Music, Theatre and Dance’s long-needed renovation, the gamelan will be temporarily displaced and will find itself with room for only about one-third of its instruments.

“The concert in Stamps on Feb. 15 may be the last concert of the full gamelan that we’ll ever have at the University of Michigan — we don’t know,” Walton said. “We’ve only been promised 19 instruments. And we may not even be able to use those. So this is a wonderful opportunity to see the gamelan.”

Although Christopher Kendall, Music, Theater & Dance dean, expresses his support for the gamelan and his hopes for it to continue, there’s a degree of uncertainty with the school’s plans for the ensemble following the construction period expected to end around the fall of 2015.

“We have to be very, very careful about moving forward, because this project won’t address all of our space issues,” Kendall said. “It’s an exciting project, but it does involve moving a number of things around both temporarily and permanently because the building is going to change pretty significantly. This process is going to be disruptive — there’s no question.”

“The School of Music’s priorities have shifted, and they have told us that the gamelan is low on their priority list,” Walton said. “And so they have decided to take over the space that was specially created for the gamelan in 1996, and use that for piano pedagogy.”

Walton continued to echo this sentiment.

“We see a trajectory of the gamelan,” she said. “The School of Music reducing our funding — most of our funding — and then the graduate student instructor for the gamelan, we won’t have him. We no longer have the room in the School of Music. We no longer have most of our instruments. It’s a gradual erosion of our resources and it makes us fear for what will happen in the future. So that’s what we’re faced with.”

After the construction is completed, the current gamelan practice space will not be it’s home. The dean hopes to find a better room for it, saying he thinks the original room was too small. But this point does not know where that will be.

“We don’t have the solution yet, but our effort is really to find appropriate space for it and hopefully it’s optimal space,” said Dean Kendall. “You know obviously when you’re going through a process like this there are some uncertainties and some disruption that can be upsetting, but I think the intentions and plans are very positive and supportive.”

Kendall, and people such as Walton and Genné, have mentioned the possibility of support for the gamelan outside Music, Theater & Dance. Walton hopes that the gamelan can get into LSA and thinks the ensemble would be a good fit to the liberal arts curriculum. The gamelan courses don’t just teach the music, but emphasize the culture, history and interdisciplinary expression in the traditions. She would love for it to find a home in the Residential College — where many of the associated workshops are taught – but knows it too has limited space.

“I think just the main point is, as the University is striving to forge a more international image of itself, the gamelan is already here to help accomplish that goal,” Walton said.