The students in UW's Javanese Gamelan Ensemble learn notation that seems almost impenetrable compared to straightforward Western concepts such as sheet music and chords. This traditional Indonesian music challenges them to focus and adjust, and it asks the same of the audience.
As they rehearse with professor R. Anderson Sutton on a set of bronze-forged gamelan instruments, their music sounds like rambling, plaintive stuff. It does at first, anyhow. The pieces consist of many high notes that interlock with a base of low-end percussion and gongs, forming the musical equivalent of a pointillist painting.
Yet this isn't an indiscriminate blur of meditative sound. There are definite points at which Sutton and his dozen or so students speed up or slow down their playing in unison. Sometimes the music becomes more intricate as the ensemble adds rhythmic handclaps or vocal chants.
Sutton plays a set of hand drums at the center of the room. Retired UW professor Lois Anderson and a fellow player often sound like they're playing a single instrument when they strike the ensemble's two bonang, whose pieces resemble bronze pots. While there's a lot to sort out, it's clear that the bonang takes something of a lead role in the melody, layered over basic patterns set on flat-plated instruments like the saron. At this rehearsal, nobody is playing the fiddle or zither, though they will be included in the group's April 20 concert.
In his autobiography, Miles Davis writes about using a Fender Rhodes piano to "cushion" the sounds of his trumpet on albums like In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. In a similar fashion, the ensemble cushions the bonang. The music feels spacious when taken as a whole, but that space seems to fill up as you listen down through all the different registers.
UW's gamelan set was purchased in 1975 and, like all gamelan sets, has to be kept together. "The actual scale, the actual intervals, are a little bit different from one ensemble to the next," Sutton says. "You can't take an instrument from one ensemble and put it in another without having to retune, which is a time-consuming process when the material is bronze metal keys or bronze metal gongs."
Perhaps that's why Anderson warns me not to step over the instruments as I make my way through the crowded rehearsal room in the Humanities Building, trying to see what each player is doing. "It's like stepping over a body," she says.
Whereas moving one fret on a stringed instrument or one key on a piano raises the pitch a half-step, gamelan sets are often tuned to five-note scales with different intervals. And the typical rhythmic emphasis is what Sutton calls "end-weighted."
"The heavy beat is counted as the last beat of the group: one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-EIGHT," he says.
Gamelan challenges not only your rhythmic sense but also how you define "gong." The kempul, gong ageng and gong suwukan are heavy, hanging things tuned to distinct pitches. They sound not with a crash but with a gradually rising rumble, like a baritone sax played very gently.
The upcoming performance will feature not just music but also a traditional Javanese dance duet, depicting a fight between a Chinese princess and a Javanese princess. And though Sutton's goal is to replicate the traditions gamelan musicians have passed down through the centuries, he notes that there's some variance built into the music.
"Every 'traditional' piece is always fresh," he says. "There are notes and rhythms that are going to come out that wouldn't have previously."