I was lucky enough to hear gamelan music for the first time in college, when I purchased an old scratchy LP of Music from the Morning of the World. I’ve been a huge fan of both Balinese and Javanese gamelan ever since, collecting a large number of CDs and catching live performances whenever I can. The San Francisco Bay Area is a great place for gamelan — UC Santa Cruz has a strong gamelan program, and composer Lou Harrison taught at Cabrillo College and San Jose State. Balinese gamelan ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya is based just North of Berkeley — they perform frequently, and also offer music and dance classes.
Last Saturday I went to a performance by UC Berkeley’s Javanese gamelan ensemble Gamelan Sari Raras. Berkeley has currently has 80 students in gamelan classes, who are lucky enough to study with ethnomusicologist Ben Brinner, who I found out has a book called Knowing Music, Making Music. The other amazing fellow who teaches at Berkeley is Midiyanto, who was the dhalang or puppet master for this performance.
In Java, shadow play performances are an all night event, often going for 6-8 hours without stopping. Saturday’s performance at Cal was 2.5 hours of hypnotizing gongs, beautiful singing, and stories told with shadow puppets. Midiyanto sat behind a projection screen with about 40 different puppets. As puppet master he sings, cues the drummer/bandleader with percussion, and tells the story by giving a distinct voice to each of the shadow puppets he moves behind the screen. Puppet master Larry Reed also helped with the narration.
One of the great things about many of the gamelan performances I’ve seen in the Bay Area is the audience is often invited to get on or behind the stage to see the puppets from behind the screen. This gives you a chance to both watch the masterful dhalang in action, and also to see the amazing instruments up close. Gamelan Sari Raras has a noon time performance on November 29th at UC Berkeley. If you need something to listen to in the mean time, Java: Court Gamelan recorded in Java in 1971 is one of my favorite CD’s of gamelan music.