It’s spring. The dorm windows are finally flung open, and a certain section of Bard’s campus is filled with sounds that make it just a little bit hard to study. From a distance, tapping, ringing reverberations somewhat akin to an oversized music box persist. Up close and personal, it’s louder, more compelling. These are the sounds of Hudson Valley Gamelans at Bard College, two Balinese orchestras known as Gamelan Giri Mekar and Gamelan Chandra Kanchana, just days away from performing their annual spring concert with Balinese guest artists Dr. I Made Bandem and Dr. N.L.N. Suasthi Widjaja Bandem this Saturday, April 27 at 8 p.m. at Bard’s Bertelsmann Campus Center.
The intensity of the ensembles at work, under the direction of master musician, I Nyoman Suadin, is hard to ignore. When rehearsals really start to rev up, the music becomes insistent, demanding, cycling round and round until everyone in the group knows his or her part or at least is making progress. Cymbals of varying sizes layer into the fabric of the music; a plaintive suling (flute) melody soars overhead. After numerous repetitions, the song under consideration finally settles with a deep resounding gong. Students who live in the vicinity have adjusted.
“If you live in the quiet dorm across the courtyard from the gamelan rehearsals, you’d better go to the library if you want to study,” describes Elizabeth, an aspiring Psychology major. Does she mind? Not really. “I’ve gotten used to it,” she says.
A gamelan orchestra is often described as one instrument, played by many. Gamelan Chandra Kanchana, composed of mostly Bard students, and Giri Mekar, whose combined members have at times numbered as many as 40 players, come from the greater Hudson Valley community. They practice together, along with Bard faculty, staff and students, on an authentic collection of Balinese instruments that is currently on loan to Bard College. Originally crafted in Blabatuh, Bali, the instruments were purchased by Gamelan Giri Mekar founder, Woodstock Percussion CEO, performer and educator Garry Kvistad in 1988.
Sometimes life takes us to unexpected places, meeting people, changing our lives in ways we don’t anticipate. “Hey Sue, I bought a gamelan, want to play?” Kvistad asked me that summer, now almost 25 years ago. I did, and have been playing ever since.
Basically, anyone with some musical talent and an investment of time, patience and determination can learn to play a part in a gamelan orchestra. There’s a wide range of instruments to choose from, some requiring more effort than others. Metallophones called gangsa, consisting of bronze or metal keys that are strung above bamboo resonators in elaborately carved wooden cases, are played with wooden hammer-shaped mallets called pangguls. Gongs are either suspended or rest in rows, over stretched cords on wooden frames. The biggest gongs are struck with padded mallets, the middle range with mallets made of wood, adding complex rhythmic punctuation to musical compositions. Then there are the kendang or drums, whose lead player serves as the conductor for the ensemble, giving cues for tempo or section changes and dynamics. Non-percussive instruments sometimes included in a gamelan are sulings or flutes, stringed and bowed rebabs and even vocal accompaniments.