OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS: Indonesian gamelan music with Dr. Peter Moran

The National Concert Hall Gamelan Orchestra was established by Dr. Peter Moran in 2014 when Ireland received a specially-built gamelan as a gift from His Royal Highness Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Yogyakarta. For Hotter than July 2020, techniques of binaural recording will bring you from the tranquil setting of The Space Between yoga studio into an immersive 3D musical experience  from the NCH Gamelan Orhestra performing the ancient traditional music of Indonesia. 

The musicians of the ensemble initially came from the ethnomusicology programme in the UCD School of Music. The ensemble's first official concert as the NCH Gamelan Orchestra was to perform alongside the Royal Palace Gamelan Musicians of Yogyakarta, who came to Ireland to perform before the sultan and members of the Yogyanese royal family, and diplomatic delegates from around the world, for the gamelan's formal “naming ceremony”. 

Dr. Peter Moran is an international prize-winning Irish composer who has been playing Javanese gamelan for over 15 years. His PhD research included seven new compositions for gamelan and a minor thesis on the subject of notating contemporary music for gamelan. His gamelan compositions have been performed in England, Ireland and Indonesia. 

Ahead of their performance at Hotter than July, Peter gave us a background on the traditional Indonesian music played by the ensemble. 

Hear the NCH Gamelan Ensemble at Hotter than July on Sunday 19th and Thursday 23rd July, 7pm on our Facebook or Youtube

Q. Could you tell us a bit about gamelan music and NCH Gamelan Ensemble’s style of playing?

The historical origins of gamelan music are fascinating. Across South-East Asia there is a living tradition of building bronze percussion instruments which has remained unbroken since the Bronze Age right up until today. There are still gongs in Indonesia today which can be dated back thousands of years.

Even the building methods seem to have changed very little. I filmed the process when I stayed with a gamelan builder in his home, and it is amazing to watch him melt the copper and tin just over an open fire in his back garden, and then hammer it all into into shape with wooden mallets.

Gamelan music today is still a continually evolving tradition, with new music being written all the time, new instruments being added to the ensemble, and old ones fall out of use.

We are particularly blessed with our gamelan here in Dublin, because these instruments were built at the behest of His Royal Highness Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X specifically for the National Concert Hall. This was a huge honour, and it has allowed many hundreds of people here in Dublin to learn how to play this beautiful music, while many thousands more have experienced the instruments first hand through our concerts and workshops.

There are many different styles of gamelan which vary hugely from region to region, but the styles played in the royal palaces are held in highest esteem. And because our instruments came from the Palace of Yogyakarta in Central Java, that is the style we play in. The palace style is generally a calm and mellow sound, often simply described as "courtly". However we do also enjoy playing some of the livelier folk songs as well as our own original compositions.

Q. How did you get into gamelan music? What about it appealed to you?

I first heard gamelan music while studying ethnomusicology in UCD. It was completely unlike anything I had ever heard before, and the way the Javanese think about their music really blew me away. The meanings I had attached as a western musician to fundamental concepts, such as pitch and melody and harmony, were completely up-ended. It was mind-expanding.

After that, I did my Masters and PhD in the University of York in England, where the gamelan is directed by Neil Sorrell, who is renowned for establishing the first gamelan orchestras in the UK (where there are over 120 gamelan orchestras today). Over the next eight years I learned to play the traditional repertoire, and I also composed a lot of music for the gamelan, which really helped me to understand the instruments, the tunings, the notation system, and so on.

When I eventually returned to Ireland, I had the support of the Indonesian Embassy, the Palace of Yogyakarta, and the UCD School of Music to establish the first gamelan groups in Dublin.

Q. NCH Gamelan Ensembles have been very successful as an inclusive way for people to get involved in making music. How do players learn to play gamelan? How does it differ from other cultures and approaches of learning?

Gamelan has a couple of features which makes it remarkably inclusive. First of all, it can accommodate more than 20 people at a time, so all sorts of groups can come together to share the experience. Secondly, it is equally unfamiliar to all newcomers, so no one feels self conscious about it. Thirdly, the notes are simply numbered from 1-7 and the main instruments are played with a mallet, so once you are given a few numbers, everyone can start playing their first tune together. And finally, as soon as you start playing, you sound pretty good, because there's no risk of slipping out of tune or anything like that, so you get a big confidence boost in your first class!

Once you've learned the basics, then you start to dig a little deeper into the music theory, and that's when I love to watch people's faces as they go through that same experience I went through, stretching their brains to make sense of a whole new way of thinking about music. From there, you can begin to study the more advanced techniques, and that's when the real journey begins, because there is just so much to know, it can take many many years to truly understand it all. I've been playing for over 15 years and I'm still learning!

Q. How are you finding making music during the covid-19 restrictions? What do you think of the differences between streaming concerts and performing live?

There is one particularly important difference between listening to gamelan music live and online, which is that phones and laptops simply cannot play the low frequencies of the big gongs! The gongs are the structural backbone of the music, and they can be inaudible on small devices (so be sure to listen with good headphones or speakers!). But from a broader perspective, if such a huge musical feature as a gong can be lost in an online performance, just think of all the more subtle details our ears are missing out on which make our musical experiences in life so special. Streaming music has obviously been a great support to those who have been isolated during the lockdown, although we must also make every effort to ensure that live music events continue to survive.

Q. Could you suggest any recordings of gamelan music that you think are essential listening?

The word "gamelan" actually covers a huge range of musical genres.

The Central Javanese style is dominated by the two palaces, Yogyakarta and Surakarta. These are the refined, "courtly" styles. As I mentioned, the NCH Gamelan Orchestra plays in the Yogyakarta style, although most groups in the UK, where I studied, actually play in the Surakarta style. One of my favourite examples of this style is the classical dance piece "Gambyong Pareanom" performed by the London group Siswa Sukra. 

Outside of the royal palaces, you can hear the wild and joyful village styles, such as this amazing performance which I filmed at a recording session in national radio station.

In the Sunda region in Western Java, you will hear the mellow sounds of gamelan degung. 

And eastwards, on the neighbouring island of Bali, you will hear the incredibly intricate and virtuosic sounds of gamelan gong kebyar.

Each of these gamelan genres use different kinds of instruments and play completely different repertoire, and all that is to say nothing of the various fusion and cross-over genres, the experimental and avant-garde ensembles, and the all-night shadow puppet plays!

There is a multi-volume CD series called Gamelan of Central Java (released on various labels since 2004) which covers a huge range of repertoire and many regional styles.

Thanks Peter!

Remember to tune in to hear NCH Gamelan Ensemble at Hotter than July on Sunday 19th and Thursday 23rd July, 7pm.

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