The Scarlet & Black

The Independent Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Gamelan brings percussive bells to the masses

By Christopher Squier

The seven members of Gamelan, an Indonesian Music Ensemble directed by Professor Roger Vetter, Music, quietly tap away each week in the World Music Room on a series of Javanese drums, gongs and xylophones to produce the transcendent sounds of Southeast Asia.

A typical gamelan ensemble consists of instruments such as the demung, the kempel, the bonang and the gong suwuk, a few names in a lexicon of drums, hammered gongs and xylophones. Vetter is responsible for procuring the collection at Grinnell College, which was created during his dissertation in Java.

“This set of instruments comes from the city called Yogyakarta, which is a cultural center on the island of Java. They’re part of the Southeast Asian subdivision of musical instruments,” Vetter said.

“Since very few places in the United States at the time of my dissertation had this kind of ensemble, I thought it was a strategic move to commission the making of an ensemble and bring it back with me, so that when I went to interview for a job, I could have on my card, ‘Have Gamelan, Will Travel,’” Vetter said.

When Vetter came to Grinnell, he brought the gamelan with him—however, he later gifted the instruments to Grinnell College, in the memory of a former student. They are now part of the extensive instrument collection in The World Music Room.

Situated in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, this room is probably one of the most unique rooms on campus, with walls covered from floor to ceiling with musical instruments from around the world. In 2002, this collection included over 325 instruments, and has continued to grow ever since.

The gamelan ensemble, available to Grinnellians regardless of musical experience, is designed to quickly integrate new students into the ensemble. “There’s a core of instrument that can be mastered technically in a short period of time, while you’re learning how to listen to the music and hear yourself in the whole,” said Vetter.

“There’s always room to grow beyond that, with musical and technical challenges,” added Vetter. “There are other instruments in the ensemble that I won’t even consider starting to teach you until you’re third or fourth semester, when you have a foundation of how the music is organized and you have time outside of rehearsal to come in for weekly lessons on instruments.”

Sunanda Vaidheesh ’12 is participating in Gamelan for her seventh semester this year. “A lot of times, with pieces that I remember playing my first year, there will be snippets and pieces that will show up two years later, and I’ll remember this little section,” she said.

Vaidheesh grew up in Indonesia, and is familiar with gamelan. “In the third grade, we played our mini version of the gamelan, which was nowhere near to as complicated as the big pieces we play here,” Vaidheesh said. At Grinnell, she started learning again from scratch. “It’s been wonderful,” she said, “This is like the break in my day, in a busy week.”

Tucker Bush ’12, on the other hand, is a fourth year student just starting out in the group. For now, he’s just learning the rudiments of the gamelan ensemble, but he has already come to appreciate the musical style: “It’s interesting that this makes a lot more sense to me than the theories I’m learning in Musicianship” he said.
“Playing music is really the only time that you can feel like you’re doing what you’re thinking and you’re thinking what you’re doing and it’s all the same, and there’s something very relaxing about that,” Bush said.

The Gamelan ensemble is still accepting members for the year, and would enthusiastically welcome anyone interested in the music of Indonesia.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *