Richard North, leader of the UCSB Gamelan Ensemble, who performs its quarterly concert in the UCSB Music Department Bowl next Wednesday, March 1, remembers the first time he ever heard the entrancing Indonesian music at a music festival in 1971. “I immediately fell in love with its rich textures and complex multilayered rhythms — not to mention the visual beauty of the carved and painted instruments,” he said. “The feeling of being surrounded by the vibrations from the pulsing gongs, flutes, and xylophones is simply incomparable.”
For those who have never felt this indeed incomparable vibration, a holy chorus of chiming, twinkling, and deep droning sounds from metallic percussive instruments, it is the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali, a music that has taken root in UCSB since its founding around 1986 by Donn Howell. North took on the usually 15-member ensemble in the spring of 2015 after Howell’s retirement and has focused on the music from the ancient kingdom of Cirebon, “known for its liveliness, energy, and village atmosphere. It’s pretty fun stuff!”
Unlike Western classical music, with its emphasis on virtuosic individuality, there is less specialization in gamelan music. “Indonesian gamelan music is fundamentally, deeply communal. Each musician is expected to not only know her/his musical part but to understand (and hopefully be able to play) their fellow musicians’ parts, as well,” North said. “Musicians are constantly responding to subtle cues from each other. Playing your instrument is less than half the job of a Gamelan musician. Our main focus is on listening.”
Others are listening beyond UCSB. In August 2016, six members of the group traveled to Cirebon, Indonesia, where they were invited to perform in both regal palaces and villages throughout the region. The cross-culturalism continues, and the March 1 performance will also feature a lively traditional masked dance learned by one of the ensemble’s members on that trip.
For those who can’t attend but are interested in hearing more, or even possibly playing, the community gamelan ensemble Sinar Surya (which means “the Rays of the Sun “), also led by North, meets twice weekly and will be performing in a joint concert with the UCSB Gamelan Ensemble in June.