The Eastman Gamelan is exactly the kind of endeavor that Rochester should be crowing about. It's an example of true multiculturalism: people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds coming together to enjoy the beauty of a little-known culture. It's cooperative, not about competition or big egos. Though the Eastman Gamelan is affiliated with an academic institution, it has no ivory-tower stuffiness. It draws participants from age 8 to 65. And it produces some of the most delightful music you'll ever hear.
Hidden deep in the bowels of the Eastman Theater is the gamelan room. Approaching it through the labyrinth of little-used chambers and hallways, I heard the strange incessant metallic pulse of rehearsal. And finding the gamelan room, I was reminded of an overheated section of Santa's workshop. Almost everybody had a hammer. And almost everybody was hunched over, banging away to add their part to the harmonious din.
A gamelan is an Indonesian metallophone orchestra. A few dozen players sit or squat before small banks of instruments that look like elegantly simple xylophones. Generally, all the musicians are playing at once. The overall effect of the group in full swing can be both charming and rather overwhelming. The various metallophones are slightly detuned to produce the distinctive throbbing, shimmering sound. And combined with the intricate interlocking patterns, it produces an almost hypnotic effect. Individual players have only a few pitches at their command. The entire ensemble is tuned to a mode similar to the standard western pentatonic scale (all black keys on the piano). It's a great example of simplicity and virtuosity brought together.
Gamelan Lila Muni ("orchestra of heavenly sound") should serve as a parade example of academic and community cooperation. Many members of the group are musicians outside the Eastman sphere of influence. Some are artists. And a surprising number of scientists also play with the group. This may have something to do with the mathematical intricacies of gamelan music. There is no room for improvisation. Still, this is definitely not a cold and sterile tradition.
Director Clay Greenberg compares the two main streams of gamelan music this way. "The Balinese form is more lively, kinetic, energized" than that from Java. The ensembles he directs here in Rochester are of the Balinese variety. Greenberg is a conducting student at the Eastman and hopes some day to open a world music school in some major city. For the time being, he spends much of his creative energy bringing the richness of Balinese musical culture to Rochester.
On Monday, April 21, concertgoers will get a chance to hear what that means. All three gamelan groups affiliated with the Eastman School of Music will perform in a free concert. The performance will also showcase guest Indonesian dancer Ni Luh Kadek Kusuma Dewi and visiting associate Professor of Gamelan I Nyoman Suadin. There will probably be no better chance to immerse yourself in the full spectrum of gamelan music than this concert. Four dances will be included, featuring two Balinese dancers and students who've studied with them here.
Also on the bill: the Eastman Youth Gamelan, which includes a good number of homeschoolers, as well as some kids from the Eastman Pathways Program. Imagine if all over Rochester, kids were trekking out on weeknights to bang gongs with other kids. Imagine the highways full of gamelan moms rather than soccer moms. Imagine kids fascinated with shimmering, pulsing wild Asian sounds and not the brainless hump and thump of most pop.
All right, it's a bit much to ask. But I'm convinced that many children would be fascinated to see and hear the upcoming concert. To make the event even more accessible, Greenberg always programs a demonstration song. "We take the song apart piece by piece so that the audience can hear the individual instruments."
Exotic but not bizarre. Heavily rhythmic and intricately nuanced. Full of spectacle and soul. Rich in tradition and friendly to new listeners. This is exactly the kind of concert that deserves a packed house.
Gamelan Lila Muni, Monday, April 21, 8 p.m., Kilbourn Hall, 274-1052. Free.