Gamelan Batel Wayang (photograph by Linda Dembo)
Early this afternoon the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival presented a 90-minute performance by Gamelan Sekar Jaya (GSJ). This group is a 60-member company of musicians and dancers based in the Bay Area, which specializes in the performing arts of Bali. It is basically a collective that supports three groups, each presenting a different approach to performance. In their order of appearance this afternoon, the groups are:
- Gamelan Gong Kebyar: an orchestra consisting primarily of metallophones tuned to the slendro pentatonic scale, joined by a few flutes and hand drums
- Gamelan Batel Wayang: a smaller ensemble of the same instruments used to accompany dramatizations of stories from the Ramayana
- Gamelan Jegog: a relatively small ensemble consisting almost entirely of giant bamboo marimbas
Each of the two instrumental groups presented a few relatively short selections, while Batel Wayang presented an extended Ramayana excerpt featuring many of the key characters and structured around a major battle scene. I have been fortunate enough to have been exposed to a fair amount of performance of Balinese music and dance (some of which I experienced during a visit to Bali); but I certainly do not count myself as an expert. Nevertheless, I was familiar enough with Ramayana to follow much of the narrative behind the Batel Wayang portion of the program. I was also struck by the extent to which I could enjoy some sense of familiarity with the Gong Kebyar portion of the program, not just from the way in which the group presented the music but also to the extent that I could detect key properties of that music that Colin McPhee had appropriated for his orchestral suite of Balinese impressions, which he entitled Tabuh-Tabuhan: Toccata for Orchestra.
The Jegog marimbas, on the other hand, made for a decidedly “first contact” experience. I knew I was in for a treat when I saw that the performers in the back row were sitting on platforms that facilitated their reach across the largest of the instruments. I was also amused by the madcap rapidity of the treble line, played on shorter pieces of bamboo. The players approached their selections with so much energy that it was hard not to think of a soundtrack for a Warner Brothers cartoon.
Taken as a whole, the 90-minute offering was as memorable as it was engaging; and, since GSJ is a local group, it was enough to encourage me to seek out subsequent opportunities to follow their work.