UCSB Gamelan Ensemble Woos with Traditional Indonesian Music

Photo by Richard Smith

Richard Smith
Staff Writer

In the most recent performance of the World Music Series, the UCSB Gamelan Ensemble impressed listeners in the Music Bowl on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. Led by Richard North, the ensemble was joined by its original founder, Don Howell, as a special treat. Gamelan is a style of music from Indonesia, more specifically Cirebon in the island of Java.

All members of the ensemble played bell-like percussion instruments, save for one flute, mostly played by Howell. Most of the instruments were large apparatuses made from carved teakwood that held bronze “bells” of different sizes playing different tones, with variations of this making up the majority of the orchestra. The instruments had a wonderfully sparkling ringing tone, all in harmony with each other, making a mysterious sound when all combined.

The audience was diverse and included students, elderly, and children. North was especially happy that children were present, as he voiced that in Indonesia, gamelan performances often have several children present, sometimes playing near the musicians. Before playing, he stated that the pieces would be in pelog tuning, which has no Western equivalent. Gamelan music is commonly heard in Indonesia during royal palace ceremonies, village harvest celebrations, and other similar events.

The first piece, “Semerangan,” was a slow and meditative piece involving all of the percussion, flute, and even some chanting vocals from all of the performers. Immediately following this piece was “Semerangan Besar,” which was identical to the first except for a shift in tonal range and adjusted rhythm. 

North described the piece as “romantic and complex,” while the first was more “bright and sharp.” He also stated that this second piece was the favorite of the sultan in Indonesia, giving him a chance to mention that palace officials and Indonesian gamelan musicians have given praise to the UCSB Gamelan Ensemble for their outstanding musical talent and performance skills.

The ensemble continued to play slow and elegant pieces that were structured to alternate between strictly composed segments and improvised segments. Both of these styles of playing are no mean task: the composed parts are strict, must be memorized (no sheet music), and complex while the improvised portion still requires the ensemble to remain in sync. 

The ensemble was even skilled enough to react to specific drum beats by North to change tempo on cue — an exhibition of their passion and love for their music. Likewise, performers often switched instruments between songs, demonstrating their wide range of musical knowledge of various instruments. 

Later in the show, they played “Cina Nanagi,” which changed the pace from contemplative to festive, allowing for the veteran members of the ensemble to show off some serious skill. Surprisingly, according to North, these faster pieces are the much more ancient compositions, while the slower ones are fairly contemporary. In fact, despite each instrument being thousands of years old, the gamelan orchestra was only developed in the 1700s.

The final piece was “Batangan,” which is traditionally played for the sultan whenever he would arrive or leave the setting. Ensembles are traditionally expected to stop whatever they’re playing in order to play this if the sultan should decide to come or go.

This musical event, part of a series held by the MultiCultural Center every Wednesday, was once again a stunning and virtuosic performance put on by the UCSB MultiCultural Center. 

Future performances of the World Music Series are showcased on Wednesdays at 12 p.m. in the Music Bowl.