Going with the flow
Campus will be awash in a stream of music from the gamelan, a Javanese musical instrument.
By KIRK ROSS, Staff Writer
CHAPEL HILL -- Last Tuesday, Gamelan Nyai Saraswati was on the move.
That's when members of Chapel Hill's nascent Javanese music movement loaded the 20-year-old gamelan into cars and pickup trucks to move the musical instrument from a temporary home in the Chapel Hill Museum to Hill Hall in preparation for a campus debut on Friday.
As she watched the gongs, drums, ornate wooden scrollwork and banks of xylophone-like metallophones that make up the gamelan being carried out to the parking lot, Sarah Weiss, an assistant UNC music professor and the group's leader, took it in stride.
"The back seat of sedans are good for gongs and banongs," Weiss told group members.
Going with the flow, Weiss explained, is key for gamelan performers.
"The Javanese word for it is 'ngawur'," she said. "Ngawur" is a Javanese verb that describes "the way leaves and flowers float on water."
The music, full of rhythm and waves of bell-like tones played in overlapping cycles, can be good for meditation as well as creativity.
"People have a range of reactions," she said. "Some people love it. Some people don't like it, and they just fall asleep. Some people who do like it fall asleep, and some people get really exhilarated by it."
"It's booming," Weiss' 3-year-old son Sam, who has been sitting in with the group during rehearsals, said of the drum his mother plays.
"It's enchanting," Jim Peacock, a UNC anthropologist and director of the University Center for International Studies, said of the music. "It's very complicated and very rich in melodies and harmonies."
Peacock and his wife, Florence, were first entranced by gamelan music 30 years ago during research work on the Indonesian island of Java.
Florence Peacock, who has joined the new ensemble, said listening to the music is an experience.
"The quality of the instrument and the mood the music sets is completely different from western music," she said recently. "When you listen to it, you feel a calmness in your spirit."
This particular gamelan, she said, "is the most beautiful I've ever heard -- here or in Java."
On Friday, the ensemble will perform its first show on campus at Hill Hall. Tickets are $12 for adults, $5 for students. The group's Hill Hall rehearsals on Jan. 15 and 17 are open to the public. The rehearsals begin at 7 p.m.
Long Journey to Hill Hall
The trip through downtown Chapel Hill last week was nothing compared to the three-month sea journey the gamelan took in late 2000 from Java.
Jim Peacock credits Weiss' arrival at the music school in 1999 with helping to inspire the search for a gamelan.
"She's an expert on Indonesian music and gamelan in particular," he said. "Her coming here was an opportunity to develop that."
Weiss, who studied in central Java and has taught and played gamelan music in Australia, helped locate a gamelan in a small village in central Java. The project drew the interest of David Pardue, a member of the UNC board of trustees and a musician. Pardue and his wife, Becky, agreed to help fund the idea and, along with additional support from the College of Arts and Sciences and the University Center for International Studies, Gamelan Nyai Saraswati was purchased for $15,000, crated up and shipped to Chapel Hill.
The crates arrived a little more than a year ago, and Weiss and a group of graduate students and volunteers began returning the shine to 70 separate brass pieces blackened from the salt air.
Gamelan Nyai Saraswati -- the instrument and the ensemble share the same name -- is an exceptional find, Weiss said. The bronze, forged two decades ago, has stopped shifting and the tuning has settled, Weiss said, giving it a particularly sweet -- the Javanese word is "manis" -- sound.
This is also a female gamelan.
"Not all gamelans are females. Some are males," Weiss said. "But she's a she."
Since the instrument was readied for play, a growing group of students and interested locals have been working under Weiss' direction to form the core of Chapel Hill's first gamelan ensemble.
Weiss said she didn't do a lot of active recruiting, but as word got out that a gamelan ensemble was forming, she got a steady flow of inquiries.
"At some point, I just said, 'Stop, we've got enough people'," Weiss said. The group now has 23 members -- from graduate students in fields like anthropology and statistics to a biology professor, a lawyer and other local professionals.
"It's quite a mix of people," Erica Rothman, a Chapel Hill psychotherapist who plays some of the large gongs, said.
Gamelan Nyai Saraswati's public debut was in early December before a audience of roughly 100 people at the Chapel Hill Museum.
At Friday's concert the group will be joined by seven professionals, including Sumarsam, I.M. Harjito and Srideni Harjito from Wesleyan University in Middletown Connecticut and Midiyanto S. Putra from Lewis and Clark College in Portland Oregon.
At a rehearsal Thursday night the ensemble worked through a series of gendhings -- large-scale musical pieces.
During one gendhing, Weiss, leading the group from her place behind a large drum, paced the other players as they struck and dampened an assortment of racked gongs and deep-toned metallophones with ornate, red-tipped mallets. An ensemble of four singers sitting in front alternated between long soaring notes and intricate hand clapping.
Ann-Elise Stidham said she never envisioned that she would be playing in a gamelan ensemble in Chapel Hill. Stidham, who minored in music in college and has traveled in Indonesia, contacted Weiss after hearing about the instrument's arrival from a friend who is a composer.
"I've always thought it would be great to play in an ensemble," she said. "It's been interesting to hear how the individual parts go together."
Syam Gadde, who plays a set of rack gongs called bonang, said he's starting to get the hang of the instrument.
"I've a little bit of experience with it, but this music is different than anything else I've played," said Gadde, a Duke computer science graduate student.
"It's definitely something that sparks my curiosity."
Kirk Ross can be reached at 932-2005 or firstname.lastname@example.org