For many years, I’ve prided myself on being a musician — someone who knew the notes, rhythms, and techniques of music well enough to find a deeper love for the art form. I knew music, I told myself; I could easily pick up on any of it! Yet, it only took two hour-long lessons in the chaotically beautiful symphony of Javanese Gamelan music to completely flip my worldview on its head.
When I walked into choir rehearsal about two weeks ago, I was greeted with three things: an authentic Gamelan instrument, the smiling, eager face of Professor [Lydia] Hamessley, and sheet music I couldn’t read. Our choir director told us that on Oct. 20 we were going to be performing with Hamessley’s instrumental Gamelan class along with Joko Sutrisno, an Indonesian musician and expert on the same style. While I was excited at the prospect of learning a new style of music, the completely new notation made me feel like a human-sized question mark.
My confusion only skyrocketed when I attempted to write the notes down as we were singing them. Contrary to my Western-music brain, there wasn’t a standard tuning of the instrument; in effect, each one could sound slightly different depending upon when and where it had been tuned. So, I sat there in my chair, scribbling down and crossing out the notes as they changed, oblivious to the uniqueness and creativity happening all around me.
It wasn’t until our next lesson, when Joko came in to teach us, that I realized my big mistake. Seeing the choir’s apparent struggle with the music, a smile peeked through his lips. “It’s about the music of the heart,” he said. “You have to listen and feel it.” I remember staring down at what was supposed to be my crowning example of understanding the music and thinking how much of a mess it was. I hadn’t been listening as Joko asked of us; instead, I had been trying to fit a systematic approach on an art form that was emotional and spontaneous more than anything.
When the performance came, I resolved to experience the music rather than fit it perfectly into what I could understand. And as the music melded together in waves of little dings and drum beats, I finally heard it. Gamelan music is a collective; it cannot exist on its own like Western music, but rather through the combined artistry of every member of the ensemble. Together, we changed keys through a journey of alternating fast and slow tempo. The structure of the piece was altered too, even as we were performing it, to fit the ways we were feeling.
Music at Hamilton
Hamilton’s music concentration is very flexible and the music community vibrant, with abundant opportunities for students to create and perform.
So, when I was called up to speak, I delivered my first sentence with pride. “As someone who’s been a musician for many years, I thought I knew every inch of it. That is why learning Gamelan music has been such a fun and rewarding experience for me; turns out, I have so much left to learn.”