With the gamelan, Pomona carries on a musical tradition more than 1,000 years old.
To the unprepared ear, the Balinese gamelan might sound at first like a cacophonous and boisterous celebration. In fact, the intricate music of the gamelan and the dance associated with it are part of a tradition dating back more than 1,000 years. For ears that have learned to hear, this percussion-based music is actually very detailed, stable and full of learned rhythms and elegant patterns, with an ethereal central melody and a rather formal sense of design.
Gamelan refers to an orchestra, or more specifically, to the instruments themselves, which exist as an inseparable set. An orchestra comprises drums, flutes and keyed metal instruments (metallophones) generally made of bamboo and bronze.
There are 25 such instruments in the gamelan commissioned by Pomona College in 1995, with exotic names that include gong, trompong, pemade, calung, kendang, reyong and cengceng.
"It's pretty special that Pomona has its own gamelan ensemble," says Hagedorn. Very few small liberal arts colleges have their own set of instruments and players. "Having the ensemble and the performances adds a depth and a richness to the Music Department and to the College. It shows that we're committed to diversity in the arts."
Gamelan styles are as varied as the island people who created them. While Javanese gamelan is meditative and contemplative, stately and slow, Balinese gamelan is fiery and exciting, swift and virtuosic. Pomona's ensemble, named Giri Kusuma, or "Flower Mountain," plays a particular Balinese style known as Gong Kebyar that appeared in the early part of the 20th century. Gong refers to the large hanging bronze gong that initiates the beginnings of the musical cycles and is considered the heart of the ensemble. Kebyar refers to the name of this particular Balinese style and also to the rhythmically inventive and technically demanding music that it normally plays.
In 1999, master gamelan teacher Nyoman Wenten, originally from Bali, joined the teaching faculty at Pomona to lead the gamelan ensemble. Today, as the ensemble's conductor and teacher, Wenten serves as the main Balinese connection in Southern California. He currently holds teaching positions at California Institute of the Arts, UCLA and Pomona College. His wife, Nanik Wenten, also on faculty at Cal Arts, is well known for her mastery of Balinese dance. Dance is central to the gamelan--wedded to it in both spirit and structure. The music and dance reflect each other, each taking subtle cues from one another in a performance.
Each semester the ensemble recruits eight to 10 students who may use the experience to gain cumulative credit towards a music performance course. Although student players may rotate through the concerts, there are six or seven constant members who do not "graduate" from the gamelan. Currently, Pomona's ensemble includes professors from several nearby universities and colleges and even local townspeople. To round out the diverse orchestra during concerts, the group recruits two to three students from Cal Arts each semester.
Gamelan is a difficult musical style to learn--from mastering the rhythms to striking the keys with the mallet just the right way, says Hagedorn. "But what's great is seeing people hear the gamelan for the first time. They are so astounded at how beautiful it is."
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