A few years ago, you would have been hard pushed to find a Dubliner who knew what gamelan was. Today, the ancient music of Indonesia has found a home in Ireland – there’s something of a scene.
Yesterday evening in the National Concert Hall, one group were learning new techniques and theory.
Occasionally practicing their instruments separately, the noise was overwhelming. But as they came together, the gentle tinkle of the metallophone’s hard keys and the clang of the percussion resounded together.
The seemingly chaotic movements of the ensemble – hitting metal gongs and drums – create a controlled tune. Without any sheet music, the group slow down and speed up, listening intently to each other for their cues.
They are mostly UCD students, and director Peter Moran is guiding them through.
On Saturday, Moran will be directing another of his gamelan ensembles for their first gig of the year, at Arthur’s pub on Thomas Street. Perhaps some of today’s musicians will be there too.
Moran expects it to be a relatively quiet affair compared with recent performances at Electric Picnic, the Bray Jazz Festival and the National Concert Hall.
There are five ensembles learning to play gamelan in Dublin under Moran. They learn at either the National Concert Hall or UCD, each of which has a set of the necessary musical instruments.
Altogether, there are five sets in Ireland. The others are in Cork, Belfast and Galway.
Well, there’s actually a sixth set. But it’s from Bali, and Irish gamelan players are only familiar with the ones from Java, so nobody knows how to play it.
Cork has two ensembles, and Galway has one. Belfast sort of has a group together, but without a permanent space it is difficult for them to hold regular rehearsals.
“That’s why Dublin was such a success for the gamelan,” says Moran. “Because we had UCD and the National Concert Hall both providing a room that the instruments could live in permanently, and all I have to do is show up and teach.”
“There’s so many benefits to gamelan,” says Moran. “One of them is that you have to learn all of the instruments . . . You have to know what to do based on an aural cue.” Rather than conducting, he guides his groups by changing his drumming.
Traditionally, Javanese gamelan is learnt through osmosis. Though it has been around for almost a millennium, no one invented notation for it until about 150 years ago. That allowed it finally to spread to the Western world.
Back in the day, “you’d have to spend your entire life learning how to play it through osmosis, which isn’t so handy for a lot of Western lifestyles,” says Moran.
Having it written down, though, mightn’t be all for the good. Moran warns that the use of notation can wear away at the tradition of interpreting the music in different ways.
It was Moran who brought gamelan to Dublin. He encountered the music while studying composition at the University of York.
A PhD, two gamelan groups and almost eight years later, he returned to Ireland and looked for somewhere to practice.
At first, a weekend commute to Galway seemed to be the only option. But that soon changed.
A Royal Gift
With the backing of the National Concert Hall, Moran set out to source the instruments.
By chance, at a concert back in York, Indonesian ambassador Hamzah Thayeb threw out a suggestion: why not get in touch with a generous Javanese sultan who occasionally donated gamelans to national institutions? (Gamelan is the set of instruments used, as well as a genre.)
After some back and forth, Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Yogyakarta agreed to commission a gamelan especially for Dublin. Moran laughs at my reaction and spells the name out for me.
Moran spent some time in Java organising the instruments arrival in Dublin. The royal family play an important role in preserving Indonesia’s ancient arts, he says. The princesses are classically trained dancers and the prince is a skilled gamelan player; Moran was impressed by him.
“He’s really a part of the community. I was going to as many gigs as I could and the prince would just show up at one in the morning,” he says. “He knows everyone by name and he’s an active part of the music scene there.”
Once the first gamelan was under construction across the world in Java, Moran discovered a second in the basement of the UCD arts block. The owner allowed him to use it for teaching.
By the time the sultan’s gifted gamelan arrived off the boat in January 2014, Moran’s first group was experienced, and a second group was already composing gamelan pieces.
That was just as well, because that September the sultan took it upon himself to come to town with his personal entourage. Over a week, the palace musicians – including the prince – rehearsed and gigged with the Dublin ensembles.
“We learned a lot,” says Moran excitedly. “The whole group was sounding awesome.”
That year, UCD’s music department added gamelan as a module creating a third ensemble. And a fourth group was set up from members of the public, in the National Concert Hall.
Last September, a fifth group was set up, because the fourth had overflowed. Now, there are about 100 gamelan players around Dublin.
“So that’s how we went from zero to five gamelan orchestras in three years,” says Moran. “It’s all unfolding faster than I can keep track of.”
Gamelan Is Good For You
As well as the regular gamelan players, hundreds of other people have taken part in workshops and programmes for schools and hospitals.
Gamelan is used in healthcare and prison reform, says Moran. It can help the elderly, children and those with special needs.
“At its most basic, you’ve got these metal bars and gongs that you hit with a mallet, your most basic motor skill,” says Moran. “They’re getting this immediate feedback . . . They don’t even know what bad gamelan sounds like, so they’re not inhibited.”
Classes usually pick up their first piece in a swift 40 minutes, which is an immediate booster for self-confidence and communication, he says. “It doesn’t sound half bad once you’ve got a decent sense of rhythm.”
Arthur’s will be the first gig of the year, but Moran hopes to get funding for a national tour.
Gamelan is most often played to accompany the wayang kulit, a shadow puppet play that lasts through the night. Moran’s ultimate goal is to host an eight-hour wayang kulit here in Ireland, in the next couple of years.
Mixing Cultures at Arthur’s
Gamelan can be traditional, folksy or modern, but most notably it is informal, says Moran. While people often sit quietly in rows for a classical music concert, gamelan is more social.
“Would you believe there’s eating, drinking, talking, smoking, coming and going,” laughs Moran. “Increasingly, my concerts involve talking to the audience. And not wearing shoes.”
Saturday’s 30-minute performance at Arthur’s aims to be informal, which is why it’s in a bar.
But it’ll also mix styles, because everyone listens to more than one genre of music, says Moran. So there will be a piano duet, a poet and a singer songwriter as well.
The National Concert Hall Gamelan Ensemble performs at Arthur’s this Saturday. Tickets are €10. Those interested in learning to play gamelan should get in touch with the National Concert Hall. Beginners are always welcome and classes cost €65 for an eight-week term.