Gamelan, featuring the intricate orchestral ambiance of bronze gongs, drums and other instruments, performed with dance, song, and shadow and rod puppetry, will take center stage for “A Gathering of Gamelans” at Cowell Theater in San Francisco’s Fort Mas on Center this weekend.
The four-day event will bring together eight separate traditions from Indonesia, Southeast Asia and the Philippines from Thursday to Sunday.
Produced by San Francisco’s ShadowLight Productions, “A Gathering of Gamelans,” will fea ture Bay Area-based metal orchestras (three of them from the Berkeley area), but also bring music, dance and spectacle from Bali, Sunda (West Java), Central Java, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines.
The following weekend, Oct. 20-23, ShadowLight will team up with El Cerrito’s renowned gamelan Sekar Jaya to perform the world premiere of A (Balinese) Tempest, ShadowLight founder Larry Reed’s innovative adaptation of Shakespeare’s final, island-based play of magic and redemption, entwined with Balinese mythic lore and Reed’s own style of shadowplay on an enormous screen, also at Cowell.
The opening two nights of the festival will feature the 10th-century Hindu tale, “The Arjuna-Wiwaha Trilogy” from The Mahabharata, performed in three different regional Indonesian styles. The trilogy tells the story of a warrior, undergoing trials and tempted by nymphs, who must help the gods save the world from demons.
On Thursday, ShadowLight will play “Arjuna’s Meditation,” with guest Balinese dalang, or puppetmaster, I Nyoman Sumandhi manipulating and giving voice (in English and Balinese) to a score of carved leather puppets casting shadows, while conducting the small gamelan ensemble behind the screen.
The second episode of the trilogy will follow, performed by rod puppet dalang Kathy Foley (in English) and the University of California-Santa Cruz Wayang Ensemble with Sundanese gamelan led by master drummer Undang Sumarna.
The trilogy will be concluded in Central Javanese style on Friday night by gamelan Sari R aras (from Berkeley) accompanying shadow puppet dalang Midiyanto’s two- to three-hour English condensation of the usually all-night “Arjuna’s Wedding.”
Former Royal Cambodian Dancer Charya Burt (of Santa Rosa) will present her choreographed tribute to Kh mer dance, “Forever My Ancestors,” accompanied by drummer Ho Chan and his classical ensemble of five players from Long Beach on Saturday. That will be followed by Pusaka Sunda, a West Javanese orchestra based in San Jose, led by virtuoso bamboo flautist B urhan Sukarma and featuring drummer Undang Sumarna, as well as a traditional masked dance.
“A Gathering of Gamelans” concludes with a Sunday matinee. The Thai Cultural Center of the Bay Area (based in Berkeley) will present two gamelans of wind and percu ssion instruments with dances ranging from folk to classical, from Laos through Thailand into Malaysia, and dating to the Kingdom of Siam in the mid-seventh century. Sekar Jaya will present a concert on giant bamboo marimbas (gamelan jegog) from West Bali, led by North Balinese composer I Made Terip. The Palabuniyan Kulintang Ensemble (based in San Francisco), led by Danongan Kalanduyan, originally of Mindanao in the Philippines, will feature traditional dances to an orchestra centered around the kulintan g instrument of eight tuned, suspended bronze gongs.
Gamelan orchestras and music flourished in their diverse forms after the Javanese Kingdom of Majapahit defeated a Mongol invasion during the 13th century, becoming an empire that influenced other cultu res throughout Southeast Asia with the courtly traditions that favored gamelan. The mythic stories enacted by shadow and rod puppets and masked dancers are originally older by at least a millennium.
The influence of gamelan on modern music traces back to Debussy.
“He heard gamelan at the 1900 International Exposition in Paris. It’s easy to see how he incorporated the sense of its impact, especially transparent in ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,’” said Paul Humphreys, head of the music department at Loyola Marymount University. “And Debussy is the most influential modern composer in that more lines come from him.”
Humphreys said that Henry Cowell, a San Francisco native, was influenced by gamelan, as were his students, Lou Harrison and John Cage.
“Cage’s prepared piano is, in a way, an attempt to imitate gamelan on one instrument,” he said. “And the minimalists, from Terry Riley and Steve Reich, were profoundly influenced, as New Zealand composer Jack Body, who has done field work in Indonesia, ha s been.”
The tide has now reversed, Humphreys said, with composers in Bali incorporating other music, especially with African musical ideas, into their gamelan compositions.
Humphreys said, “It’s like what Lou Harrison said, and Lou was one of the most important champions of gamelan innovation outside Indonesia, ‘don’t knock the hybrids; that’s all there are.'"
Contributed photo: The Berkeley-based Thai Cultural Center of the Bay Area will present two gamelans at the festival..
Shadowlight Productions presents “A Gathering of Gamelans” and A (Balinese) Tempest, Oct. 13–23 at the Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. For tickets call (415) 345-7575. $75; seniors, $20; students, $15. For more information see www.shadowlight.org or call (415) 648-4461.