When Gamelan meets Western art music




I SAID NEON is a concert comprised of brand new compositions inspired by the music of Indonesia. They’ll include a mixture of Gamelan instruments, western instruments and voice, and come from a diverse group of Melbourne based composers, some of whom are scholars and lifelong devotees to Gamelan music. A performance from Guest International Artist Pande ‘Yande’ Mardiana will also feature in the concert. Although only spanning a day, it is a festival of sorts that is opening up a conversation between the music of Bali and the music of Melbourne, and embracing tradition alongside innovation – a concept at the core of Gamelan, an ancient artform that is continually evolving.

Gamelan refers to the traditional pitched percussion ensemble music of Indonesia. There are many variations across Indonesia, all containing different instruments and producing different styles of music. There is so much to say about Gamelan, although what speaks to me the most is the extreme oscillating resonance, or “ombak”, of Gamelan music. It is unlike anything you would hear from western instruments – in Indonesian music, the foundational concepts of pitch are very different: the traditional pitch sets of these instruments are outside that of western modes. Pitches of slightly differing frequencies are played simultaneously to create oscillation known as acoustic beating, part of the ombak sound. Gamelan is very much a team effort in this way, as the specifically tuned instruments often exist only in pairs or groups of four.

I am new to Indonesian music, but I had the privilege of attending feedback sessions for some of the compositions involved in the project – they took place at the headquarters of Gamelan DanAnda, the community Gamelan orchestra based in Thornbury and the supplier of the beautiful instruments involved in the concert.

The compositions are all extremely varied in their orchestration and style, thanks to the wonderfully diverse musical backgrounds of all the composers. I have already fallen in love with the sound of Gamelan, and the idea of hearing the pieces in their venue, the huge resonant space of the Meat Market in North Melbourne, is really exciting.

I SAID NEON will feature a whole range of Balinese pitched percussion comprised from the Gamelan DanAnda core Gong Kebyar orchestra. The collection includes bronze metallophones known as Ugal, small sets of gongs called Reyong and enormous gongs that pack incredible resonance. Traditional Gamelan instruments are typically ornately decorated and this concert will be as much a visual spectacle as a musical one. The concert will use these instruments in different configurations, as well as host workshop sessions to allow the public to play the instruments themselves in a large ensemble.

Jeremy Dullard, the Musical Director of Gamelan DanAnda, co-creator of I SAID NEON and one of the featured composers, discusses the concert with us.

How long has I SAID NEON been in the works, and how did you get it off the ground?

Earlier this year Graeme Croft, a performer/composer and member of our community orchestra Gamelan DanAnda, had the idea to create some Gamelan-inspired works and put on a performance. Asking around, we discovered that the idea appealed to others, too, and so with many composers involved the scale of the event suddenly expanded. I agreed to assist in the role of Artistic Director, advising on Gamelan related matters, and Bianca Gannon came on as Event Manager, doing everything else!

Through Bianca’s hard work a whole bunch of pieces seem to have fallen into place: We received sponsorship from the Helen Soemardjo Arts Fund to invite our guest artist Pande Mardiana to visit; Multicultural Arts Victoria invited us to be part of their Mapping Melbourne festival; City of Melbourne helped us out with the Meat Market as a venue; and we stumbled across a great name. I SAID NEON is literally an open-ended call for composers to simply create something, anything new…however, being also an anagram of INDONESIA, there is an underlying intention that the new creation in some way rearrange the elements of a strong and recognisable tradition.

What differences can you see between those composers with a background in Balinese music and those without?

This inaugural event includes a real mix of inspirations and intentions from a range of composers. I personally expected to hear obvious references to traditional elements in everyone’s work but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover how subtle everyone’s take on the material has been. I can certainly hear differences between the works of those who are informed by Balinese music – our focus at Gamelan DanAnda – and those who have studied or travelled to other parts of Indonesia and explored those styles. This year there is a lot of specifically Balinese influence but that’s largely due to my collection of instruments being used. I hope we can expand the boundaries each time an event like this is held.

Overall I’d say that in Melbourne we’re all still students of the Gamelan art form, whether recent converts or decade-long devotees. It will be very interesting to work in the future with composers who come from an Indonesian musical upbringing.

Throughout this process, have you discovered anything about the relationship between Western art music and Gamelan?

Gamelan has a tradition of inspiring Western art music composers, from Debussy to Lou Harrison to Steve Reich. I think both traditions have a lot to lend each other – Western art music offers a lot in terms of harmony and variety in orchestration, while Gamelan gives us different ways of approaching tuning and timbre, as well as using rhythmic systems with restricted pitch sets. You’ll hear a lot of these comparisons, combinations and inspirations in the concert!

In this era, I don’t think we can ignore the influence of electronic music, whether ambient in nature or beat-driven dance music. This essentially minimalist realm has always been said to draw inspiration from those composers who worked with intentionally limited options, including the above mentioned to various degrees. Now it feels like the circle is complete as aspects of electronic music have influence on composers of Western art music as well as creators of new works for Gamelan.

What impact do you hope I SAID NEON will have on its audience and on Melbourne’s musical culture?

The main goal of this project is to get a conversation started about the ways Indonesian music can be appreciated and drawn upon for inspiration and innovation. And of course that everyone enjoys the concert experience, although this doesn’t necessarily mean hearing only the kind of music you expect. I think there will be challenges for every listener in this concert, as the attitudes, concepts, and products of these composers are quite diverse.

In my opinion, there are numerous logistical reasons why Indonesian music and Gamelan instruments haven’t already blended their way into Western popular art. Opportunities for exploration and discussion such as this Composition Forum will hopefully allow composers, performers, and listeners to get a sense of how the traditional sounds and concepts can be integrated and enjoyed. 

In terms of integration into Western music practice, might the traditional lack of notation in Indonesian music be one of the logistical limitations? Tell us more about that and how you adapted in this process.

It has been interesting to see different approaches the composers have taken to communicating their pieces. Gamelan music is traditionally transmitted through demonstration and repetition, directly from a teacher or composer to their student. So if we write a part for a Gamelan instrument, and assume the musician has some familiarity and facility with that instrument, it’s likely the player’s experience has been this showing, copying, memorising process, which doesn’t lend itself to the written page! Some styles of Gamelan have made use of a system of numbers to indicate which keys of an instrument are to be played, although this normally gives only a structural reminder, like chord symbols or a bass line. Others assign sung or spoken names to the various pitches and articulations, which would also take longer to write and read than demonstrate.

The piece I created for I SAID NEON would take pages and pages to score, and is horrible to read, but was very quickly absorbed and memorised by my players with just one demonstration of the melody shapes and a quick discussion about the structural form. Some of them made a quick video reminder of their parts, which took a minute to do.

I guess it comes back to the question of how, why, and when is musical notation an advantage? Sometimes it’s not.

Will we be seeing more from I SAID NEON in the future?

Absolutely. It really feels like the tip of an iceberg this year. So many composers expressed interest, that we simply couldn’t include everyone, especially the proposals which were a bit too ambitious to stage in this inaugural event. I think everyone presenting a work in this year’s concert is itching to try out new ideas in the next, and the presentation of these pieces is bound to inspire even more creative types to take part.

The I SAID NEON requirement of making something new, inspired by Indonesian tradition, but allowing the creativity to take any form means that there is virtually endless scope for future developments. This could include works for existing Melbourne ensembles (from any genre) and will certainly involve collaboration with acts visiting from Indonesia.

Tell us about the workshops that are taking place beforehand.

As a way of engaging the larger Melbourne community, we are holding three participatory workshops at the Meat Market on the afternoon of Dec 3, before the Composition Forum that night. Aimed simultaneously at all ages, musicians, or not-so-experienced, these workshops are as much about the process of teamwork as they are about the sounds being created.

First of all is a real crowd-pleaser and sometimes-hilarious group activity, as our visiting guest artist Pande Mardiana leads the famous Balinese vocal percussion style known as Kecak. The chattering rhythmic chorus has its origins in trance-rituals, but these days it stands alone as a musical style and fun activity for all ages.

With so many of our wonderful Gamelan instruments being moved to the venue for the concert, it only seems fair to let other people play them too. So after the Kecak session, Pande will also be running an introduction to Balinese Gamelan. This style of music evolved to include everyone in the village, so there are easy and hard parts all working together in each tune – i.e., no experience necessary, but there are certainly challenges available for everyone.

Thirdly, the incredible Melbourne musician and composer Adam Simmons is facilitating a workshop in CONDUCTION – a Butch Morris style of ensemble improvisation using hand gestures to conduct a large group creation. It’s an amazing process, which demonstrates how music can be inclusive of all experience levels and still create a very real and artistic outcome. Definitely one for both curious amateurs and creative composers.


I SAID NEON takes place at the Meat Market in North Melbourne on 3 December. You can find more information and tickets to the composition forum and public workshops online.


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