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The Kyai Rengga Manis Everist Gamelan

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National Music Museum
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“Gamelan”— a Midwest accent cannot do justice to the resonance of this Javanese word. “Gamelan”: Not one musical instrument, but many. Hanging gongs, cradled gongs, gong-chimes, kettles, drums, bronze pots, xylophone-like instruments, mallets, zithers, and flutes. Gamelan. Mysterious and mesmerizing to the uninitiated ear.

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Credit National Music Museum
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The Kyai Rengga Manis Everist Gamelan in the Beede Gallery of the National Music Museum

 Commissioned from one of the master gamelan makers of Central Java by late Museum Trustee Margaret Ann Everist in 1999,. The National Music Museum’s gamelan is named "Kyai Rengga Manis Everist Gamelan": an honorific that signifies how esteemed and beautiful the ensemble is. It is also arguably the finest and largest set of such instruments outside of palaces in Java, Indonesia. Its frames are adorned with nagas -- gilded carved dragons – Asian icons of power and royalty.

The largest gong (of many gongs) in a Javanese gamelan is the deep turned-back gong ageng. Hearkening back to ancient Javanese mythology, this gong is deemed the most sacred – an infinitely-echoing soul of sorts, often beginning and ending a gamelan composition. 

From Surakarta, Java, to Vermillion, South Dakota -- more than 80 custom-forged gamelan instruments crossed 9,500 miles by ship and rail, to their home at the National Music Museum in 2000.

A selection of those instruments -- many supported on teakwood platforms – now dominate the floor space of the National Music Museum’s Beede Gallery.

Not easy to describe, the music of the gamelan is mainly percussion: you feel it as much as you hear it. 

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Credit National Music Museum
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The gong ageng is played by hitting the node of the instrument with the soft end of the mallet.

  Watching it played (and by as many as 30 people) can be like observing some golden workshop where the metalsmiths at their respective workbenches strike intricate melodic blows in rhythmically interlocking sounds. Or, if all the windchimes in your neighborhood danced to some a skeletal melody, you might hear the essence of gamelan.

It’s an experience to have in person.

Some accounts hold that the gamelan originates in ancient Javanese mythology, created by a god who ruled all Java from his palace on the mountain. Seeking a way to call out to and unite the other gods, he forges a great gong. As he requires to summons more gods, he creates further gongs. And so on… The intricate sounds of the gamelan arise from this complex composition and community -- a coming together through music. And the gamelan itself is such a critical element in Javanese rituals of all sorts that there is a saying, "It is not official until the gong is hung."

Though mainly found in Indonesian contexts, playing traditional compositions – the gamelan is evolving beyond. It has caught the ear of experimental western composers and musicians: Debussy was one of the one of the first to engage the ancient sounds, and, not so surprisingly, contemporary experimental composers like Steven Reich and Philip Glass have played with the power of the gamelan’s metallic, hypnotic repetitions.

A new gamelan composition will be debuted at this weekend’s Sioux City Symphony Orchestra -- written expressly for the event by Joko Sutrisno and performed by his professional guild of gamelan musicians Sumunar, based in Minnesota. Audiences will experience this orchestra within an orchestra, the NMM’s sumptuous gamelan.

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