Published: Friday, January 18, 2002 4:13 a.m. EST

A sweet sound from Java


She was born about 20 years ago in Surakarta on the Indonesian island of Java. According to tradition, she was not named immediately, but when the time came, she was given a weighty name: Nyai Saraswati, after the Hindu goddess of music, science and art.

In a special naming ceremony, a rice cone offering was presented, the rice cooked in coconut milk with tumeric. The top of the cone was sliced off and wrapped in white cloth and hidden in one of her resonators. It became her soul. Now Gamelan Nyai Saraswati has come to live with us, and tonight in Chapel Hill, she will present herself to the public.

Comprising more than 40 instruments, Nyai Saraswati seems like an orchestra in herself, but she is really one instrument. It takes 28 people to play her, and some of
them never touch her but blend their voices with the tones that others elicit from her.

Those who come to hear her in Hill Hall at the University of North Carolina will see the entire 40-foot-by-20-foot stage taken up with ornate wooden frames elaborately painted black, red and gold. From cotton cords on those frames there will be sets of polished bowl-shaped brass gongs ranging in diameter from 8 inches to 3 feet.

There will also be metallophones, xylophonelike instruments, and it's underneath one of these that her rice-cone soul resides. There will be double-headed skin drums, played with the hands. Sitting in front will be the people who will chant.

The music will take the form of cycles of sounds elicited from her by 14 people who will sit with tabuhs (mallets made of wood or buffalo horn) and strike the bells or gongs according to a kind of cipher notation in which each pitch has a number. There are two scales, one of five notes and the other of seven.

The pieces were written in Java; some are as much as 200 years old, and some are recent. If you are the kind of person who is fine with the unfamiliar, the music can be transporting. But to describe what Nyai Saraswati sounds like is even harder than describing her physical appearance. One drummer sets the rhythm, and each piece is measured in beats laid down by the large gong. A short piece may last for 16 beats, and a very long one would be more than 200. The first piece in Nyai Saraswati's program is 128 beats long, or about 20 minutes.

Her tone has been described as "manis," a sweet sound.

Gamelan Nyai Saraswati came to Chapel Hill thanks to Sarah Weiss, an assistant professor of music at UNC who became fascinated with gamelan music 18 years ago. Shortly afterward she met Midiyanto S. Putra, a young Javanese puppeteer and musician and Nyai Saraswati's owner. In the years since, Weiss has taught and played in New York and Sydney, Australia, and she kept bumping into and playing with Midiyantyo in those cities and in Java. She came to UNC in 1999 and started working to bring a gamelan to Chapel Hill.

She put out an inquiry to a gamelan e-mail group. One of the responses, much to her surprise, came from Midiyanto.

"He said, 'I want you to have my gamelan,' " Weiss recalls. He offered to sell it to her for what he had paid for it in the early 1980s, about $15,000 -- an amazing
opportunity; Weiss estimates it's worth at least $40,000. Now all she needed to do was find the money and have it shipped.

Luckily, it was about this time that, through the efforts of Indonesian music lovers Jim Peacock (a professor of anthropology) and his wife, Florence, Weiss ran into David and Becky Pardue of Burlington. David, a member of the university board of trustees, is a passionate music lover. The Pardues donated two-thirds of the money to buy Nyai Saraswati; the university found the other third. And the University Center for International Studies paid for shipping.

In July 2000, Midiyanto repainted and packed her, and she arrived five months later.

Along with her husband, Tony Day, an author and scholar in Southeast Asian studies, and various graduate students, Weiss spent most of January polishing her and
assembling her. Then they began searching for a home for her.

Weiss persuaded Morgan Kenney, director of the Chapel Hill Museum, to give her a temporary home; that is where she lived until last week, when she was moved to the Hill Hall stage. Next week she will move to her temporary home in the Person Hall choral room. She still needs a permanent home.

Western musicians have been fascinated by gamelan music for more than a century. French impressionist composer Claude Debussy first heard gamelan at the 1889
World's Fair in Paris. He camped out at the Dutch East Indies Pavilion, listening and trying to understand. You can hear the influence in his piano prelude "Les Pagodes."

So Weiss is one in a long series of converts. She will join a group of students and Chapel Hill locals, along with professional Indonesian and Western musicians tonight -- including Midiyanto, who will play his instrument again for her first public performance since he sent her to her new home.

The local musicians are volunteers who have met regularly over the past year and worked with Weiss to learn a new musical language.

Not all gamelans are female, by the way. "The last gamelan I had in Sydney was a guy," Weiss says. His name was Kyai Kebo Giro (Honorable Gamboling Water Buffalo).

How do you tell whether a gamelan is male or female? "I have absolutely no idea," Weiss admits. "The person who's naming it just knows somehow."

Staff writer Susanna Rodell can be reached at 829-4710 or

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