The University of Pittsburgh's gamelan orchestra crosses cultures


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The Three Rivers is a nice description of Pittsburgh, but it's a bit literal.

Try this name on for size: Venerable Rivers of Gold. The name doesn't refer to this area, but it does represent a confluence -- a cultural one. It's the name of one of the most remarkable of all music ensembles, a gamelan.

The University of Pittsburgh is one of the few American colleges to have this Indonesian orchestra composed of percussive instruments of brass and iron. Gamelans are usually given a name, and in the case of the 40 instruments that Pitt received in 1994, "Kyai Tirta Rukmi" -- Venerable Rivers of Gold -- also had black and gold colors and carvings of the Pitt Panthers logo.

Gamelan tradition alive and well at Pitt

The gamelan is a centuries-old music tradition of Indonesia. The University of Pittsburgh is one of the few American colleges to have an orchestra composed of these percussive instruments of brass and iron. (Video by Nate Guidry; 4/10/2013)

"The gamelan program internationalizes Pitt in creative and unique ways, especially in Asia," says music professor Andrew Weintraub.

Pitt has one of the most active Indonesian music study programs in the nation. "Indonesians know about Pitt because of the dialogues we're creating between people through the arts. It's soft-power diplomacy, if you will."

A little back story is needed. The gamelan is a centuries-old music tradition especially prominent on Java and Bali. With multiple ethnic cultures in the 13,000 islands of the country, there's some variation in the instruments, but the ensembles usually include gongs, chimes, metal-keyed instruments, drums, flutes, cymbals and singers.

Pitt Gamelan Concert

Where: Bellefield Hall Auditorium, 315 S. Bellefield Ave., Oakland.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Tickets: $8.50-$15; Pitt students free. 412-624-7529.

There's no Western comparison, but a gamelan could be described as a mix between the complexity of a symphony orchestra and folk music, especially multi-instrument folk music like a bluegrass band.

But you'd have to include theater and dance, too. The gamelan often backs up all manner of drama (and even martial arts) in Indonesia.

"Gamelan is comparable to only two things, moonlight and flowing water -- mysterious like moonlight and always changing like flowing water," the eminent ethnomusicologist Jaap Kunst once wrote.

The instruments -- tuned to themselves so that one instrument cannot easily be taken to another gamelan -- are both percussive and melodic. The Western analogues to many of its instruments are the marimba and xylophone. Performers sit on the ground and strike the instruments with mallets, usually all on the main beat. The result is a flowing yet punctuated sound that envelops the listener in layers of bright harmony.

Fewer than 100 gamelans exist in the United States and Pitt actually has two variations of the orchestra, from different regions of Java, This weekend, one will be performed by Pitt students, CMU students, faculty and community members joined by two visiting musicians from Sunda in West Java: vocalist Rika Rafika and drummer Suherlan.

"Students are also encouraged to learn and play more than one instrument and to learn the relationships among them," according to Mr. Weintraub. "In our concerts, the musicians move from one position to another."

It is not easy music to learn for Westerners, even with the help of an experienced instructor, Indra Ridwan, a faculty member at a conservatory in West Java and, since 2008, a graduate student at Pitt.

"Playing together as a group is highly valued and difficult for some," says Mr. Weintraub. "Listening to the other parts is essential as we try to learn the music orally [without notation], and the ensemble is conducted by the drummer using sound cues to start the piece and change the tempo and transition to a new section. There are certain patterns that are more difficult."

He has found student performers from all walks get it and get hooked.

"We've had students from pretty much every major at Pitt," he says during a rehearsal last week, joking that, "Neuroscience students seem to like us. Most are not music majors, but that doesn't mean they are not musicians. They may have played music as kids, or enjoy playing outside the context of school. They enjoy performing."

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Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings. First Published April 10, 2013 4:00 AM


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