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Good vibrations: York's Javanese gamelan offers music for all

Posted on Friday 24 May 2013

It’s got its own room, a name and a birthday celebrated every year with music, fruit and flowers. It seems the University of York's much-loved Javanese gamelan is more than a musical instrument...

Music student Navya Myneni on York's Gamelan Sekar Petak. Image: John Houlihan

The Gamelan “Sekar Petak” meaning white flower, named after Yorkshire’s white rose emblem, arrived on campus in 1982 welcomed by national media, students and staff all fascinated by the eclectic collection of bronze and wooden percussion instruments that make up the University’s gamelan ensemble.

Over three decades later, the first complete purpose-built Javanese gamelan in a British teaching institution has become one of the most widely travelled gamelans in the country including performances in Italy, the Southbank Centre in London and the Cheltenham International Festival of Music as well as numerous performances on campus.

A gamelan group doesn’t operate in the same way as a traditional orchestra or ensemble. There’s no conductor – the players have to listen for cues from the other musicians

Dr Neil Sorrell

It has accompanied celebrated percussionist Evelyn Glennie and brought new life to the soundtrack for a fairytale film produced by Opera North. The gamelan was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and has featured in educational and entertainment programmes for children on BBC TV and ITV.

“The great thing about the gamelan is that anyone can play it,” said Dr Neil Sorrell, Director of the Gamelan Sekar Petak in the University’s Department of Music and the man responsible for commissioning and bringing the instrument from Java to Yorkshire. “Many musical instruments require a great deal of practice before the player sounds proficient, but with the gamelan, anyone can play, and it’s not too long before they can take a role in a group which sounds melodic.”

Here on campus, the gamelan has been played by hundreds of undergraduate and postgraduate students with many of today’s top British performers enjoying their introduction to Indonesian music at York. A thriving group of around 20 gamelan performers in the York area, mostly Music students and ex-students meet regularly to play new compositions and traditional music.

Dr Sorrell explained:

“A gamelan group doesn’t operate in the same way as a traditional orchestra or ensemble. There’s no conductor – the players have to listen for cues from the other musicians. They sit on the ground to play the instruments and a lot of people like that because it feels more relaxed. Many think it offers a more egalitarian approach to music.”

Musical personality

A gamelan is an ensemble of tuned bronze percussion and other instruments including bamboo flutes and bowed and plucked strings found principally on the islands of Java and Bali. Gamelans are made up of combinations of instruments and each one is tuned differently, giving each set a unique musical personality.

The set housed at York was made in a specialist workshop in Central Java by a team of expert craftsmen who took nearly three months to hand make the bronze gongs, metallophones, xylophones and flutes that make up the Gamelan Sekar Petak. York’s ensemble is made up of over 30 musical components, many set in ornate hand-carved teak. It fills a room in the music department and requires around 14 people to play it. Gamelan Sekar Petak was first assembled and played in Java on 22 November 1981, a birthday marked by the department every year with a ceremonial offering of fruit and white flowers.

Carpets and cushions

Given the size of the gamelan and the weight of its bronze chimes and gongs, moving it around campus and further afield often involves complex logistics, lots of carpet and cushions and a trusty white van, usually with Dr Sorrell at the wheel. In the last three decades, it has travelled thousands of miles all over the UK surviving largely unscathed and with all the components in tune – despite, some years ago, one of the bronze gongs having to be retrieved from shallow water at the edge of the University lake where it fell while en route to a performance on the Exhibition Centre stage.

Primary school children love it because they can just walk in and start playing

Dr Neil Sorrell

Transporting it to York from Indonesia proved the most testing logistical challenge – solved by Dr Sorrell with the help of contacts in the Indonesian government who shipped it over as one of their more unusual items of diplomatic baggage.

Dr Sorrell, the guardian of York’s gamelan, specialised in North Indian music before studying the instrument at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He was the first ethnomusicologist to be appointed to a British university music department when he joined York in 1973 and he co-founded the English Gamelan Orchestra, the first group of British musicians dedicated to the study, composition and performance of Javanese gamelan music. He has written, broadcast and lectured on Indian and Javanese music in Britain, the US, Europe, India and Indonesia.

Good vibrations

Hundreds of York school children and adults have played the gamelan at workshops on campus and its distinctive sounds have also rung out in women’s prisons as part of a project called Good Vibrations, a charity helping prisoners to develop communication and team work by playing the gamelan.

“Primary school children love it because they can just walk in and start playing,” said Dr Sorrell. “We’ve invited groups of deaf children in – they play it by feeling the vibrations. It’s a different way of making music and it’s accessible even for people who have been told they are not musical. PIayers can improvise and make their own compositions. People often say they find it calming and therapeutic.”

Related links

  • Department of Music
    The Department of Music at York is one of the liveliest in the country with a busy schedule of performance activities and a wide range of study, performance and composition both within taught courses and at research level
  • York Concerts
    Find out more about the University concert series, a vibrant and varied programme of choral and orchestral events 

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