By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura
Northwest Asian Weekly
From outside Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall, it may seem like just another drizzly, gray day. However, inside room 103, Cornish’s ensemble-in-residence, Gamelan Pacifica, is conjuring the Southeast Asia sun with its Monday rehearsal.
“Gamelan music evokes the atmosphere it comes from (Indonesia’s Bali and Java islands),” says ensemble director Jarrad Powell, amid the delicate plunking of wooden mallets on bronze metallophones and the reverberations of a gong. “Some say it’s meditative or tranquil, but people move more slowly in the heat.”
The group is gearing up for a performance of traditional and contemporary gamelan music at Cornish’s PONCHO Concert Hall, with guest artist Ki Midiyanto. A renowned musician and dhalang, a shadow puppet master, Midiyanto, from Java, is considered one of the most gifted gamelan musicians of his generation, Powell says.
The former piano and guitar player fell in love with gamelan as a college student.
Clad in socks, the members of Powell’s ensemble sit cross-legged, surrounded by ornate instruments. Iron gongs, the size of monster truck tires, hang from a stand with dragons carved out of wood, their scaly skins portrayed in detailed craftsmanship.
As the ensemble plays, musicians with metallophones, called sarons, provide the skeleton of the song. From this, the ‘elaborating instruments’ like the small kettles, a bowed stringed rebab, percussion, flutes, and singing add to the rich musical texture.
This ancient tradition predates Indonesia’s Hindu-Buddhist culture, but it has been used throughout the years in both performing art and ritual. Whether it’s the connection felt between fellow musicians or a connection to something spiritual, playing in a gamelan ensemble is a powerful experience.
“There’s a pleasant loss of individuality,” Powell says. “The fabric of the music becomes complex enough that all independent voices are lost, contributing to a texture without an emphasis on one instrument,” said Jesse Snyder, a longtime member who specializes in the rebab.
The same goes for the group’s one female vocalist, Jessika Kenney. Her voice is just another part of the overall tapestry of sound.
“There is some kind of timbral bonding between the voice and the instruments in the immediate moment, which can be thrilling, and on the other side, connecting to the longer temporal cycles is very calming and expanding,” says Kenney, who originally moved to Java three years after joining Gamelan Pacifica in 1994.
Kenney, looking more like a Buddhist monk than a musician, sits cross-legged with the rest of the ensemble. With her eyes closed, the wispy strands of her hair wrapped up into two loose Thumbelina buns, she sings in Kawi — an arcane form of Javanese mixed with Sanskrit –– and her voice swells with longing. The gamelan instruments, Kenney says, have been like a teacher, schooling her in timbre and resonance and providing a more enlightened path.
“I am passionate about listening deeply and connecting with forms of wisdom and heart-knowledge that I have been fortunate to experience through music in many ways,” said Kenney.
The music continues to reveal itself in different ways for the musicians involved.
“There were mysteries in it I needed to explore,” said Powell.
He has been exploring ever since. In addition to establishing and leading the now 30-year-old group, Powell has made his own instruments. He has opened up cultural exchange by bringing in players from Java.
Gamelan Pacifica will perform Saturday, May 12, at 8 p.m. with 11th-generation dhalang, Ki Midiyanto, at PONCHO Concert Hall, 710 East Roy St., Seattle. (end)
For more information, visit gamelanpacifica.org/gamelan.
Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura can be reached at email@example.com.