In all of the U.S., there are only a few dozen sets of instruments that qualify as gamelan ensembles – the collections of gongs and other tuned percussion instruments needed to play this form of music indigenous to Indonesia.
One such gamelan resides at the University of Pittsburgh, whose University Gamelan group marks its 20th anniversary this week with a pair of concerts. Guest performers include composer Ismet Ruchimat, vocalist Masyuning, and musician Idra Ridwan.
While gamelan is little known in the U.S., this 1,000-year-old form remains a popular music in Indonesia, in both its traditional and contemporary incarnations, says University Gamelan co-director Andrew Weintraub.
“It's something that people would play when they're having festive celebrations or weddings, or also in contemporary music,” said Weintraub, a music professor at Pitt. “There have been a lot of new compositions that blend gamelan with other kinds of music as well, like Western music.”
Weintraub defined gamelan as “a kind of percussion ensemble” from Indonesia, though he stresses that there is more than one variety.
“The kind that we play at University of Pittsburgh is from West Java,” he said.
A “gamelan” is technically not the musical genre, but rather refers to the particular set of instruments themselves, which can vary in number of pieces from 10 to 75, each set with its own tuning; Pitt’s gamelan is particular to the school, Weintraub said. The instruments, he said, include “both hanging gongs as well as gongs that are sitting on racks, and metal keyed instruments, and they're all tuned together.”
The keyed instruments are like larger versions of the metal marimbas sold in the U.S. as kids’ toys, he said. Gamelan can also incorporate vocals.
This week’s concerts will include both more the traditional gamelan music that University Gamelan specializes in and contemporary versions. Traditional gamelan is often described with words like “flowing” and soothing. Contemporary gamelan, said Weintraub, is typically louder, with more dynamic rhythms.
University Gamelan musicians include Weintraub himself, as well as Pitt students and other community members. The concerts Friday and Saturday will feature those performers plus the guests, playing what Weintraub called “a range of instrumental and vocal traditions from the region of West Java.”