Gamelan music teaches cooperation, listening

by Sarah Rubenstein | 11/24/97 6:00am

Imagine learning your A-B-Cs all over again.

That is essentially the challenge students in Jody Diamond's Javanese gamelan class face, musically speaking. Diamond teaches Javenese gamelan music through lessons to College students and people from the area.

Students cannot rely on any knowledge of western music upon sitting down at one of the bronze Indonesian instruments. As Diamond said, "You have to be a complete beginner and figure out how it works."

After a term of weekly classes, the students have figured it out, with Diamond's help.

When playing gamelan music, performers sit in a circle at the instruments, which have been built and tuned together as a set.

Every piece has a fixed melodic and metric structure. The instrumentalists work to fit their parts into the puzzle, playing established patterns and elaborating on them with improvisation.

Diamond described the result as "a cross between classical orchestral music and jazz."

While the instrumentalists' task seems fairly typical, there is a catch-- they do not read any written music.

Gamelan class member Amy Tindell '00 said, "Everything is oral, and you have to listen to the other players' parts and make sure it works."

Tindell said Diamond teaches players individual parts, but they have to listen to each other to know when to come in.

The resulting sound has an effect that few westerners often hear. The repetive patterns combined with periodic changes in melodies and tempos gives the music a dreamlike quality.

While learning to play gamelan music forces students to open their minds musically, it also introduces them to foreign culture. "You have to take your shoes off before you walk into the room, and you can't step over any of the instruments, because it might offend the gods," Tindell said. "As a westerner, you may not have experienced these things."

Diamond said gamelan music, which dates back to the fourteenth century, plays a strong role in the culture of Java and other countries such as Japan and New Zealand.

It is performed individually in concert settings, used as background music for social events and accompanies other performing arts such as dance and theater.

The group effort in gamelan music reflects the Javanese emphasis on community. Diamond said, "A lot of problems are solved through communal effort. The group is considered much more important than the individual in Java."

Diamond began studying gamelan in 1970 at the California Institute of the Arts. She has been composing her own music for the past 15 years, along with working through the American Gamelan Institute to distribute information about the art form.

The Asian Studies Department invited her to start a gamelan group at the College. Members meet once per week, and the group performs periodically.

While Diamond enjoys the challenge of teaching music which is completely foreign to her students, she said the group also has the difficult task of educating its audience.

"You need an audience to stick with you and learn what you're doing," Diamond said. "We have to create not just the music, but a community as well that will listen and make it a part of their lives."

She hopes that the College will be one of those communities.

The gamelan rehearsals are finished for this term, partly due to lack of space. Diamond is currently looking for a new location for the instruments, so the group can continue next term.