Inside a large room in the School of Music building on North Campus, the rhythmically timed sounds of percussion thump. It’s a soft, melodious music, and distinct from anything else one might happen to hear around Ann Arbor. The space is filled with cast bronze instruments of all shapes and sizes, arranged in a manner allowing perfect synchronization.
Everyone sits barefoot and cross-legged next to their instruments, paying close attention to a series of numbers written on a white board. This is the home of the University’s Javanese Gamelan Ensembles.
Taught at the University since 1967, Javanese Gamelan is musical style imported from the Indonesian island of Java. A gamelan is a collection of many instruments meant to always be played together, comprised of drums, xylophones and gongs.
“It’s a tradition all on its own, without any standard,” said Dr. Susan Walton, the LSA and Music, Theater & Dance professor who leads the group.
Walton describes the gamelan as “an orchestra, but a specific orchestra where none of the pieces can change.”
Each gamelan is given a name that reflects its individual spirit.
“Ours is named Kyai Telaga Madu, which means ‘Venerable Lake of Honey’ because of our position here in the Great Lakes,” said Beth Genne, an LSA and MT&D professor who practices with the ensemble.
According to Walton, after the 1965 New York City World’s Fair was held, the Indonesian exhibit tried to auction off its gamelan. The University went into a bidding war for the gamelan and lost to Wesleyan University. But when another gamelan became available, the University purchased it directly from Indonesia. Judith Becker, a graduate student at the time, hired a Javanese musician and the first ensemble was born.
Open to all members of the University community, the ensembles are made up of both a beginning and an advanced class with two to three performances each year. According to Walton, the members of the respective groups come from all areas of the University.
“We’ve got engineers and librarians and scientists,” she said.
Some students take the courses to fulfill credit hours, but most are devoted to the ensembles. Family is an important aspect of gamelan, and in Indonesia it’s not uncommon to have both parents and children involved in the same ensemble. The University ensembles take this value to heart. From the students to the faculty, the participants are committed to this staple of Indonesian culture.
A musical tradition with deep cultural roots, gamelan is typically performed in conjunction with ceremonial events like weddings and coronations. But recent years have seen a resurgence in popularity of classical music and dance in Indonesia.
“This has led to more young people wanting to learn gamelan,” according to F.X. Widaryanto, a Javanese ethnomusicologist in residence at the University who works with the group.
He emphasized that gamelan is a peaceful art form, which celebrates community and togetherness, unlike western classical music, which can be accompanied by high levels of competition.
“It’s a way to relax, and the structure of the music reflects this relaxed quality. There’s no scolding in the instruction of gamelan,” he said. “It’s about harmony.”
Similar to American jazz, the musicians are all dependent, constantly playing off of one another.
“Everything you do is always in relation to someone else,” Genne said.
According to Walton, Widaryanto’s guest instruction has boosted the popularity of the gamelan this year at the University. An accomplished musician, choreographer and scholar, his presence breathes new life into the group.
“Having (Widaryanto) here with us is the equivalent to having a great western artist,” Genne said.
The group’s primary concert won’t be held until March, but Widaryanto can be found performing different styles of Javanese dance in the Keene Theater in the Residential College on Nov. 6.
In many ways, the ensemble is as much about exploring traditions outside our own as it is about learning the music. The class is conducted in the traditional Javanese manner and Javanese customs are upheld and respected — no one is allowed to step over the instruments, as this is considered a form of disrespect to the gamelan in Javanese culture.
Gamelan transports the listener to a part of the world radically different from campus life. Inimitable in its style, it’s an art form steeped in history. But more so than anything, it’s the music itself that stands out.
“We tend to not know about musical and dance cultures outside of our own,” said Genne, who is also a teacher of world dance. “But Gamelan is striking and beautiful and rich and in many ways is equally as complicated as western music or dance.”