New music ensemble, course offer opportunities to learn Javanese gamelan
At the open house celebrating St. Olaf College’s new Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion, a group of students assembled on Buntrock Plaza, seated in front of a set of Indonesian percussion instruments that, collectively, form a gamelan — this one from the island of Java.
The musicians, members of the new Javanese Gamelan Ensemble led by Assistant Professor of Music Rehanna Kheshgi, filled the air with interconnected melodic and rhythmic layers of sound.
A gamelan consists of a large number of bronze gongs and metallophones of different sizes, plus drums, a zither, and flute. Each set receives its individual name — the St. Olaf set, first commissioned by Mary Shamrock ’58, is Gamelan Kyai Kumbul, with “kumbul” meaning “growth.” The ensemble represents deeply rooted beliefs related to Javanese society and spirituality.
“Javanese gamelan performance embodies a vision for society where each member has a unique role to play,” Kheshgi says. “Even the most accomplished performer recognizes that there is always room to learn more.”
Shamrock initially obtained the gamelan to expand world music offerings at California State University, Northridge, where she was a music faculty member for 25 years. She brought it with her to the Twin Cities upon her retirement and shared it with the nonprofit Sumunar Gamelan Ensemble in St. Paul in which she has been actively involved for 15 years.
By giving it to St. Olaf, students and faculty now have steady access to the gamelan, allowing Kheshgi to collaborate with musicians from Sumunar to support performance and the development of coursework.
“Really it has been an ideal situation,” says Shamrock. “It’s been gratifying to broaden students’ exposure to non-Western music and see the joy they have in joining together. There is a whole spectrum of difficulty and skill in gamelan playing that allows for learning and progression otherwise not possible in a Western ensemble. It’s an internationally-based experience you couldn’t do without the gamelan.”
It’s been gratifying to broaden students’ exposure to non-Western music and see the joy they have in joining together.Mary Shamrock ’58
This spring, Kheshgi led a new course that introduced students to the cultural, theoretical, and aesthetic discourses of the gamelan tradition. Joko Sutrisno, an internationally renowned musician from Indonesia and director of Sumunar, joined the class several times throughout the semester as students learned to play three pieces through hands-on studio performance sessions.
In addition to learning to play, students studied the historical and contemporary contexts for gamelan performance, shadow puppet theatre, and dance, and their relationship to religious practice, gender roles, and social and political life in Java and beyond.
“I think that learning from a diverse range of cultures is paramount to learning music,” says Julian Malaby ’21, a music major in the course. “Music is far too complex and multifaceted to be taught with one style of education using one regional genre, and incorporating musical traditions from around the world serves to teach a more comprehensive view of music.”
Music is far too complex and multifaceted to be taught with one style of education using one regional genre, and incorporating musical traditions from around the world serves to teach a more comprehensive view of music.Julian Malaby ’21
The music that the Javanese gamelan can make was part of the appeal of bringing the Gamelan Kyai Kumbul to St. Olaf — but what students can learn from the history and culture of gamelan tradition is just as important, which is why hiring a professor with a background in ethnomusicology to teach the course was critical. With Kheshgi’s background as an ethnomusicologist, she can provide important perspective on musical traditions.
“Ethnomusicology is a field that’s situated between music studies and social sciences,” Kheshgi says. “It is basically people who have an interest in studying music from a cultural or historical perspective.”
This combination of the study of music and how society interacts with that music is crucially valuable to the liberal arts music education.
“The role that I fill here is not only to diversify the curriculum in regards to what kinds of music can be taught in the department, but also think about broadening the scope of a music degree,” Kheshgi says. “There are other paths to learning about music than the traditional western music tradition. The idea is to broaden what has historically been available here, and the Javanese gamelan is a great way to facilitate that.”
Like many music ensembles, the Javanese gamelan is completely dependent on every musician in the group.
“With the gamelan you can’t play anything at all unless you have other people around you because they have these musical structural positions that depend on each other. If one person is sick for a day, it’s really hard to play the piece,” Kheshgi says. “So this idea of musical interdependency and the relationship between human beings comes out in this experience.”
Malaby notes that no one instrument in the gamelan can stand alone.
“It’s only when all these different instruments are put together that a performance finally feels fleshed out and complete,” he says.
Rachael Bentley ’19, a mathematics major also in the gamelan course, says the instrument has provided lessons far beyond music.
“Learning music from a diverse range of cultures broadens your understanding of the world by giving you new ways to approach things,” she says. “It allows you to engage with people across cultures that you might otherwise have a very difficult time relating to.”