In Gamelan, a Group Effort

The Friends of the Gamelan (FROG) held their annual spring concert last Saturday afternoon at Hyde Park Union Church. A few musicians scampered outside to sit on the grass and play their instruments in the breeze as people filed into the church, with UofC undergraduates and faculty, general music students, and families all filling the sanctuary. Warm late-afternoon light crept through the stained glass windows along the arches as the audience waited excitedly for the concert to begin, talking quietly.

“Gamelan” refers to the type of music as well as the instruments, which at Saturday’s concert included huge suspended gongs, kettle gongs, stringed instruments, flutes, drums, and metallophones of various kinds, all covering carpets at the front of the sanctuary. As a sign of respect, musicians take off their shoes and carefully walk around the instruments, instead of stepping over them. This style of music originated in royal courts of Southeast Asia.

The twenty-two member ensemble played seven pieces, beginning with a calm ladrang titled “Sumirat,” followed by “Talu,” an exciting overture that typically precedes a shadow-puppet play. Rather than watching a conductor standing in the center, gamelan musicians listen carefully to the gongs and drums for changes in tempo or volume that signal transitions from one cycle to the next. At times it seemed like the sonic equivalent of watching a flock of birds turn midair and dissolve into the sky.

FROG was officially founded in 1980, but it began in the 1970s as a group of musicians who met at the Field Museum to play a gamelan brought to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair. The organization has ties to the UofC’s Department of Music, as well as to the Chicago Consulate of Indonesia, which enable them to collaborate with visiting artists.

“In gamelan music, there is no ‘soloist.’ It is a group effort,” said longtime FROG member Alex Yoffe. “There are no sweeping glares from ensemble members if you make a mistake. In fact, many gamelan musicians will acknowledge a mistake by imitating it on their own instrument during a performance in a comical manner.”

“All of the members are incredibly responsive and interactive, which is key to playing gamelan music,” Yoffe noted. Perhaps their relaxed camaraderie is why they all looked so remarkably calm and happy, despite the challenge of coordinating two-dozen performers playing percussion instruments without the help of eye contact.