By Kate Rix
About 20 people filter into a large upstairs room in Morrison Hall. The room was once the music library, but today it houses an ensemble of Indonesian gongs, drums and xylophones known collectively as a gamelan.
This is the 35th year students at Berkeley have had access to this beautiful set of Javanese instruments. Before taking their seats behind the instruments the students leave their shoes by the door.
“Going into a house in Java, one removes ones shoes,” says faculty member Ben Brinner. “It’s a sign of respect. We also don’t step over the instruments.”
The word gamelan comes from the Javanese word for “to strike or hammer.” Indeed, the music is percussive and has a shimmering quality, sometimes muted and soothing but often thundering. At a recent rehearsal Brinner, who is chair of the Music Department and co-directs the Javanese gamelan program, played a xylophone-like gendèr with a pair of cloth-covered mallets. Nearby, instructor and co-director Midiyanto, who is from Java, keeps tempo for the group and guides changes in volume with hand drumming.
Only enrolled students can play in the Department Ensemble. A separate course is held in the evening for Gamelan Sari Raras, a performing ensemble that includes students and former Berkeley students as well as professional musicians and ethnomusicologists. The group has performed throughout Northern California and will accompany a Javanese shadow puppet play on April 23 in Hertz Hall.
Gamelan is one of the Music Department’s most popular courses, consistently attracting more than one hundred students for about 60 spots. Students are tested for ability to match pitch and rhythm, but otherwise don’t need a music background.
Jennifer Wang, a graduate student in Berkeley’s Math, Science and Engineering Education program, started playing in the gamelan as an undergraduate. While traveling in Bali, she fell in love with Indonesian music.
“The non-western music scale made the music so much more interesting and intriguing,” she says. Back at school, she enrolled in a class and has been playing in either the student ensemble or Sari Raras for the past four years.
“It’s a chance for me to get away from academics and work,” she says, adding that she has had a chance to play several of the instruments in the ensemble. The experience has been an education in music. Wang enjoys observing how Javanese music differs from the western music she played growing up.
“In Java, the music constantly changes at the discretion of the drummer or the dhalang (puppeteer), as opposed to western classical music which always follows a score,” she says. In a gamelan there is a pattern within a framework of music, Wang says, and the tempo can move around. But musicians in Java are skilled enough to pick up the subtle nuances and adjust accordingly.
“In Sari Raras, I always just thought that Midiyanto was doing whatever he felt like doing, but now I know that that’s actually how they do things in Java!,” she says. “Playing in this less formal format has really opened me up as a musician.”
Students at all levels can benefit from such careful listening, says Brinner. “Gamelan students learn to play many of the parts by ear,” he says. “Even highly proficient musicians, such as music majors, find this a satisfying challenge.”
Such is the case for Nathan Salman, in his second semester playing gamelan. Salman, a music major interested in composition and ethnomusicology, started out playing in Midiyanto’s Javanese gamelan class and has since switched to Balinese.
“Balinese particularly interested me because it is based heavily on interlocking patterns, a feature I always enjoyed in certain Javanese pieces,” he says. “Balinese Gamelan has given me a different kind of musical sense — something that feels more intuitive to me than certain Western practices.”
Most of the instruments in Berkeley’s gamelan are about a hundred years old. Since receiving them in 1976 as a gift from Sam and Louise Scripps, several have been added to accommodate student demand for courses. The set — which has been named Kyahi Udan Mas (Venerable Golden Rain) — includes several gendèr, large and small gongs, stringed rebab and sets of kenong, which resemble bells but are struck at the top instead of the bottom.
Javanese music has two tuning systems, so instruments for the two systems are positioned at right angles to one another so musicians can simply shift their bodies to move between the two tunings.
In 2000, Berkeley’s Center for Southeast Asia Studies purchased a Balinese gamelan for use in the Department of Music. Its instruments are constructed similarly to the Javanese gamelan, but are played in a flashier style, with a louder, brighter sound.
On May 4 at 12:15, students in both the Javanese and Balinese gamelan courses will perform in Hertz Hall.