The gamelan and its music had always intrigued me as a musician. I’ve always found the Indonesian ensemble of metallophones, xylophones, gongs, and various other instruments wonderful to listen to, but I had little idea as to how the hell they made that enchanting noise.
Was there a score that the gamelan orchestra followed, I wondered. Were there different instruments and different numbers of instruments in different gamelan groups? How were they tuned?
All was to be revealed during gamelan lessons at Arma, a museum and cultural centre in Ubud, a town that is one of the main centres of the gamelan in Bali.
When I signed up for a gamelan workshop I was promised that I’d learn about the history of the gamelan, the role of the gamelan in the village context, see a demonstration by master musicians, as well as learn to play something.
Gamelan Lessons in Bali — Getting Giddy with the Gamelan in Ubud
The teacher, benevolently blessing me with a fine example of Bali ‘rubber time’, turns up late, shakes my hand, explains that he doesn’t speak English by saying “Sorry, I don’t speak English”, moves a couple of chairs around, reads the headlines of the newspaper, and checks his text messages, before handing me a little wooden hammer and gesturing for me to sit down at one of the metallophones opposite him.
I guess there’ll be no formal introduction or music theory, then. That’s ok. I like to learn to play by ear.
My gamelan teacher starts by playing a little scale. It’s pretty easy to follow and this is how children learn to play in the villages of Bali, where a gamelan ensemble is as common as a warung, the ubiquitous small grocery shops found all over Bali. Watch the teacher and repeat. Subtlety and complexity comes later. Just learn the notes for now.
I’m following him pretty well — it’s only four bars of music — but then he shows me what I have to do next, just as I’m striking the next note. With the thumb and forefinger of my left hand, I follow one note behind and mute the last note hit to stop it ringing, as the metallophone has a beautiful, long, ringing sound.
Once again, subtlety comes later as I figure that I need to be a little more nuanced about stopping the good vibrations coming from each note. It’s a musical cross between juggling and spinning plates.
Soon my teacher appears bored and starts checking his text messages again while he keeps beat while I practice, so I ask him for more musical pieces to learn. He plays me a small motif of two parts that’s not that hard, but the last bar of the music is halved as you start the next ‘loop’ of the piece.
The root note that is the first note and the last note played in the piece is not repeated as the loop starts again. It freaks out my Western-trained sense of musical order. But as I start to ‘get’ the piece, he takes a little more interest — he knows he has a pupil as willing and eager as a young student, except this one is starting to perspire awkwardly in his sarong. Yes, I’m wearing a sarong. It wasn’t my idea. It’s the house rules that Lara insists I follow.
I’m getting the hang of it when my teacher plays the piece again, except now he’s hitting every note twice. While my left hand knew what the right hand was doing, now I’m flummoxed. I start muting the key I’m hitting or losing track of the melody. I start reverting to classic 4/4 time and ruin the last bar of the piece.
What’s not helping is the fact that I think my teacher has turned to the ‘help wanted’ pages of the newspaper. When I do have his attention, someone else who works with him comes up, picks up the newspaper, and starts reading it.
I ask for a break and take a walk to adjust my sweaty sarong. I know that if I nail this piece — I’ve been hammering like a carpenter for an hour now — he’ll play the counter melody, the thing that I love about this music.
I start practicing really slowly and quietly, almost half-speed (a technique often used to learn a complex piece, although this one is really not), and eventually get it together, crossing hands almost without thinking, and at last bring a little more subtlety to my playing.
My teacher returns and joins in. He starts playing the counter melody and I’m immediately lost. He resists the temptation to check his phone and runs through it with me again. Instead of enjoying his wonderful playing, I concentrate on my piece. It’s like those ‘row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream’ sing-a-longs I remember as a kid.
My teacher now starts with more dynamics — we go soft for a few sequences of the melody, and then loud. The two melodies sound wonderful together, particularly when it’s played quietly, and I manage to go through one whole piece with him slowing down at the end as we both hit the last note in time.
Wonderful! He seems very pleased with my ability to do something a Balinese ten-year-old can do in his sleep.
Later, when I watch the videos back (see the one below), I can see that while I’m concentrating like a chess player on a one-minute timer, he’s playing his melody while not even looking at the damn metallophone. He was probably mentally ordering his lunch.
We shake hands and say goodbye, my teacher happy to return to more productive things like reading the obituaries, and me to wonder how I can fake my way into an ensemble to be part of this chaotic, beautiful, mesmeric noise.
I’ll even wear a sarong if I have to.
Arma Museum, Ubud