Seekers of the strange and beautiful who sojourn long enough on the outer fringes of music inevitably arrive at gamelan. Native to Indonesia—specifically the islands of Java and Bali—gamelan is an elegant, hypnotic style of ensemble percussion music that follows its own rules of tuning, timing, composition and performance. Gamelan rains a gentle torrent of chimes and gongs produced mostly by several metal xylophones (aka metallophones) and hand drums, plus occasional flute, strings and voice, ebbing and flowing with languid melodies, braiding into complex rhythmic interplay. It’s mesmerizing stuff, intricate but dreamy, distinct from anything in the Western idiom.
Though it’s rooted in centuries of tradition, in the last 50 years gamelan’s sound and structure have enchanted minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Lou Harrison, not to mention of-the-moment pop artists like Erik Blood and Ravenna Woods’ Chris Cunningham, leading to its constant evolution through modern interpretation. Right now is a good time to get to know gamelan: Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica, one of the most renowned ensembles outside Java, has released a new album and the group, 17 members at full power, performs in October in Tacoma.
“Like any young musician, I’d pore through the record bins to find weird things to listen to,” says Jarrad Powell, the professor of composition at Cornish College of the Arts who founded Gamelan Pacifica in 1980. “When I heard gamelan it struck a chord. For a young kid from Montana, it’s as far away as you could get, and maybe that’s what I was looking for.” What Powell figured would be a brief dip into ethnomusicology became a lifelong pursuit to understand gamelan’s social context and present it to the world. His goal became “bringing this metaphysical alternative to Western culture rather than borrowing ideas from it.”
At its core, Powell says, gamelan is an ensemble endeavor different from symphonic or jazz forms: there’s a sense of community in the music’s multivalence. “Everyone contributes to the whole. It’s a complex music but one which is not like a band and soloist. It’s a group process.” That goes for how it’s made as well: Keeping a large ensemble going for 30-some years requires commitment. “The only way to have a good ensemble is to rehearse regularly,” he says, and though players have come and gone over the decades, he’s the glue that keeps the group together.
Gamelan has interested American academics since the first Javanese group performed at the Chicago Exhibition in 1893. In the middle of the 20th century, composers like John Cage—who attended Cornish in the 1940s—Terry Riley and Steve Reich incorporated its innovative theories of time into their work. Harry Partch, famous for developing his own tunings and inventing a menagerie of unconventional instruments, particularly spurred interest in gamelan. Powell fashioned some of Gamelan Pacifica’s earliest gongs, still used by the ensemble today, from castoff Boeing aluminum.
On their 2015 album Nourishment, released by Blind Stone Records, Gamelan Pacifica performs traditional pieces as well as ones composed by Powell, Glass and Seattle vocalist Jessika Kenney, most running upwards of six minutes. Trumpet player Samantha Boshnack makes a guest appearance, as does a trio of overtone throat singers in one of the album’s most dizzying, mind-melting moments. The album demonstrates that as meticulous as gamelan is in its execution, its spirit ranges into the farthest wilds.
Rasmussen Rotunda, University of Puget Sound