Visiting UI professor to teach Balinese art of group percussion
On the Indonesian island of Bali, every village has at least two or three gamelans – sets of primarily bronze percussive instruments which are kept at an open-air community center.
When the instruments are not in storage, children can play on them, as I Ketut Gede Asnawa did "wildly" when he was a boy.
And nearly every villager is involved in the art form, either playing in the gamelan, carrying the instruments or preparing for the festival occasions where the music will be featured.
As a player, Asnawa went on to immerse himself in gamelan at the High School of Performing Arts in Indonesia and later taught at that school and the National College of the Arts.
He's now a composer, performer and scholar who is well-known in gamelan circles and is a cultural figure among the 3.1 million residents of Bali, home to the vast majority of the nation's Hindu minority.
For the past two years, Asnawa has been a visiting professor at the University of Illinois School of Music and its Robert E. Brown Center for World Music, where he teaches gamelan to students.
Now he will teach a community gamelan, which will be open to anyone, even people with no training in music. An organizational meeting will take place Jan. 12 for those who are interested. (Please see sidebar.)
Asnawa will teach classical Balinese gamelan pieces as well as his own compositions. He described the Balinese gamelan as more festive than the Javanese gamelan, which he said is more solemn and contemplative.
"We try to teach the community gamelan through the oral tradition, teaching through the mallet," he said. "The teacher sits in front of the instrument, and you just follow, step by step. That's what you do in Bali."
In a gamelan, the drummer, or kendang player, leads or conducts via hand signals and by establishing the rhythms. Asnawa is a master on the kendang.
In addition to the kendang, the Balinese gamelan consists of a ugal, a larger metallophone that is the chief melody maker, and smaller male-female pairs of metallophones, gongs, chime gongs, cymbals and a flute. The music is made in interlocking notes in a cycle, or in musical terms, an ostinato.
The term gamelan refers to both the set of instruments and the ensemble, or orchestra. Each gamelan is different and is tuned differently. (The UI School of Music owns seven Balinese gamelans and one Javanese gamelan.)
Philip Yampolsky, director of the Brown Center for World Music and an expert on the music of Indonesia,, said one major difference between the gamelan and a Western orchestra is that the gamelan instruments are made together and owned by a community. In a Western orchestra, the instruments are made separately and are owned by the musicians.
Yampolsky called gamelan a wonderful community activity.
"That's one of the reasons the gamelan has become so important in universities as well as outside of universities because it gives people something to do, and the upshot is the beautiful, coordinated precision of the music," he said.
Yampolsky said that although the music is complicated, even Americans with no prior musical training can learn.
"You just have to work at it," he said. "You learn without the intervention of a score, or the piece of paper, and without the mystique of training we get in this country."
Asnawa said the community gamelan he taught while he was a visiting professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City excelled and even surpassed the student ensemble there.
"We learned a lot of pieces," he said. "We performed a lot."
Asnawa said his goal has always been to teach gamelan; he has done so over the past two decades to university, private and community groups in Indonesia, Europe and North America.
"I don't want to be a manager. I just want to manage the music," he said. "In Bali, if you have that skill, you have to offer yourself. It's like a religious duty."
In a "vertical sense," making gamelan music is considered an offering to the Hindu gods.
In the "horizontal" sense, Asnawa said, the gamelan is about making friends.
Asnawa started playing gamelan instruments when he was 7, starting on the trompong – gong chimes in a single row. After his uncles noticed him experimenting with a trompong, one of the more difficult instruments in the gamelan, they began teaching him the others.
Recently, Grove Music Online recognized Asnawa as a cutting-edge composer and innovator in Balinese music. He has had his compositions performed at major Indonesian events, among them the Festival of Young Composers in Jakarta and the annual Bali Arts Festival.
He has toured Europe, Asia and the United States. Among the many places he has taught gamelan is the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, where he received a master's degree in ethnomusicology.
If you're interested
What: The Robert E. Brown Center for World Music at the University of Illinois School of Music will offer a community Balinese gamelan course.
For whom: Anyone who is interested; no prior musical training required.
Who teaches: I Ketut Gede Asnawa, a master kendang (drum) player and gamelan leader, teacher and composer from the Indonesian island of Bali.
When: An organizational meeting, 6 p.m. Jan. 12, Center for World Music. Participants will agree then upon a weekly rehearsal time. The rehearsals will last from 90 minutes to two hours.
Where: Fourth floor, Levis Faculty Center, 919 W. Illinois St., U.
Fee: $100 a semester, which might cover summer sessions as well.