No musical training? No sight-reading skills? No worries! The Indonesian gamelan is the orchestra where the only entry requirement is a love of rhythm.
It’s one of the most common regrets people can name: ‘I never learned to play a musical instrument.’ But for those looking to get into music-making, joining a gamelan group is a participatory and sociable way to do so. Gamelan is seeing increased popularity in Europe, with over eighty groups in existence across the UK. Unlike the Western orchestra in which percussion instruments often play a supportive role, the Balinese gamelan orchestra consists almost entirely of tuned bronze gongs and metallaphones (musical instruments in which the sound is produced by striking metal bars of varying pitches). These produce a fast and dynamic music characterised by intricate interlocking melodic and rhythmic patterns punctuated by sonorous gongs.
Gamelan is an ancient art form that predates recorded history. Ensembles traditionally perform outdoors at village temple ceremonies, weddings and funerals, or accompany performances of dance, drama and puppet theatre. The name gamelan can be traced back to a type of mallet used to strike instruments, or may refer to the act of striking with a mallet.
The LSO’s Community Gamelan Group was formed in 2003 as part of the grand opening of LSO St Luke’s. Key to the LSO’s vision for the new venue was an education programme, designed to bring the local community together through music. Gamelan was chosen for its accessibility to anyone regardless of age or experience. No musical training is required to start playing – you do not need to be able to read sheet music and pieces are performed in repeated sequences, so players only need to learn short phrases.
There are no soloists within a group and everyone learns to play all the instruments, from the simplest gong to the more intricate rhythms. Basic instructions like when to start, stop, speed up, slow down etc. are given by musical cues from the group leader. Each gamelan set is unique in terms of tuning and appearance and is created as a matching ensemble, and so the LSO St Luke’s gamelan instruments were specially commissioned and created for the group.
The LSO Community Gamelan Group is led by its director Andy Channing, Senior Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Andy has taught gamelan throughout the UK and Europe since 1991 and has been leading the LSO’s group for over 16 years. The group is made up of people from all ages and backgrounds and many of the members who joined in the group’s inaugural year still take part today.
One such member is the LSO’s archivist Libby Rice. ‘Every concert is a highlight,’ she says. ‘We love performing, especially alongside the LSO players. One particular highlight was when Pak Susila, a gamelan master from Bali visited and taught the group pieces that he wrote especially for the occasion. We have also performed many times with Balinese dance group Lila Bhawa, who dance in beautiful traditional costumes [pictured below].’
On Friday 13 March 2020, the LSO’s Community Gamelan Group combine the rhythms of gamelan with the vibrant energy of Indonesian dance in the Jerwood Hall. They'll reunite with the UK's premiere Balinese gamelan group, Lila Cita and dance group Lila Bhawa, their first engagement together since their sold-out LSO St Luke's performance in March 2019.