UNSW Balinese Gamelan Prepare for Annual Bali Arts Festival

6 Jul 2015

The percussive tones of Gamelan music resonate through the streets of Bali. An ancient Indonesian orchestra of drums, gongs and metallophones; the rhythmic melodies emanate from temples, schools and community spaces. Students from the UNSW Balinese Gamelan are in residence at the Sanggar Bona Alit, the home of musician and artist Agung Alit Adi Putra. In the village of Bona, this is the site of Bali’s first major intercultural creation, kecak, with German artist Walter Spies and Alit’s grandfather. Here musicians, dancers and artists gather to practice and share their skills. UNSW staff and students have joined this collective for two weeks over the mid-year break for a collaboration across cultures.

Surrounded by fields of rice, buildings in this Sanggar include an open-air pergola under which the students train and rehearse, another roof under which they share meals, and Alit’s residence. The rehearsal pergola is surrounded on three sides by walls covered in traditional carvings, artworks and hand-crafted music instruments, created by Alit Adi Putra, and the fourth side opens to a serene garden. A fish pond to the side surrounds statues of Hindu figures from the Ramayana, a reminder of the spiritual heart of this place.

Every morning the students join Alit Adi Putra and UNSW Music lecturer Manolete Mora to begin daily rehearsals. It’s a ritual. The gong sounds three times; the students take their place at their instruments; the music spreads out across the rice fields. Each day the music becomes crisper as each player comes to know their rhythms more intimately. The combined sound grows more rich and complex. When each performer hits their mark, the interlocking rhythms form an intricate wash of sound that swirls around you and resonates through you. Yet listen closely and the individual instruments can be heard as each musician skillfully plays their part, combining to create a full sound that is at once calming and energising.

With each day, this environment and the people here advance the students understanding of the music and its spiritual source. While learning in the tradition of Balinese musical methods, they also share new Australian compositions with musical forms not typical to the Gamelan. Musicians from both cultures open themselves to new rhythms and techniques in a collaboration that’s beautiful to watch. A rehearsal is a performance in itself. Words are rarely needed, the shared language of hands clapping and conducting, or a rhythmic ‘ba ba ba di di da ba’ communicates clearly enough. At times a Balinese musician will share the instrument with a student, each playing from opposite sides in perfect synchronicity (eventually). It’s exciting to watch artists passing on knowledge through a genuine shared experience.

By the end of their time here, the UNSW Balinese Gamelan will perform at two key events. Firstly at the Australian Consul General’s residence for a special reception to celebrate cultural collaborations between Indonesia and Australia; with the trip culminating at the annual Bali Arts Festival at the invitation of the Governor of Bali. The events and the process leading up to them are part of a continuing relationship between musicians from Indonesia and UNSW Australia. Having been blessed as Suwitra Jaya, or Noble Friendship, the UNSW Balinese Gamelan is certainly living up to its name.

You can follow the students’ experience via the School of the Arts and Media Facebook page.