IWU Balinese musical instruments bring sounds of cultural diversity

By admin Dec 23, 2014

Amelia Smith


If you were on campus during Homecoming, you may have heard the strains of unfamiliar music drifting across campus. The source of the music was from Illinois Wesleyan University’s Gamelan Ensemble. The acquisition of the instruments for the university was an important achievement for the School of Music.

Assistant professor of Music Adriana Ponce first applied for grants to fund the purchase of the instrument ensemble in Fall 2010. The curriculum in the school of music at Wesleyan offered few opportunities for the exposure to non-western music.

Gamelan ensembles are one of the most popular non-western instruments on college campuses. Professor Ponce explained that they are relatively accessible—Gamelan doesn’t require that the performer know how to read music. The instrument is learned through imitation.

“These are instruments that are very accessible for people without musical knowledge,” Professor Ponce said. “They are a lot of fun to play and offer a window into Balinese culture and their values.”

The Gamelan is a sacred instrument in Bali, where it is used in religious ceremonies, often paired with dance and shadow puppet shows. The Gamelan is made by a master who has religious training. Professor IketutGede Asnawa of the school of music, an expert in the Gamelan, was with IWU’s Gamelan when it was blessed and played for the first time before it was transported to America.

Each instrument in the Gamelan comes in a pair that represent a female and male. The female has the lower voice, as women are regarded as connected with the earth in Balinese culture. The higher voice is the male voice, as it is viewed as connected with the heavens. The two instruments are slightly out of tune which causes what Professor Ponce calls a “shimmering” effect from the clash.

The Gamelan is used in several different courses at IWU. “Having a gamelan ensemble is essential for providing the experiential component of learning about world music,” said Chair of Sociology and Anthropology Rebecca Gearhart, who teaches two courses that feature a workshop with the Gamelan. “Typically, even for trained musicians, learning to produce music according to the aesthetic criteria of the society under study is an entirely different level of education, and one that adds to one’s overall appreciation for the music, the dance that it accompanies and the rituals of which the music and the dance are a part.”

Professor Ponce also expressed how valuable playing an instrument from a different society is for students. “The same way that a picture is worth a thousand words, one hour with music can present new challenges and new ways of understanding,” she said.

The ability to play the Gamelan without reading music gives it the advantage that all students can play it. The variety of instruments also means that students who want more difficult parts in the harmony can be challenged.

Sophomore Ryan Donlin experienced the Gamelan with Professor Ponce’s World Musics class. “The combination of the rich metallic overtones of the whole ensemble is gorgeous, and it was a pleasure to try each instrument,” Donlin said. “It was like stepping into an unfamiliar world, especially as a non-percussionist. Playing each instrument was like being a small part of a large, beautiful machine pounding out complex interlocking patterns and cycles as one whole.”

Though the Gamelan has increased the breadth of music offered at IWU, Professor Ponce expressed her dream scenario for the school. “I would love if it was possible to secure funding for Wesleyan to bring resident artists from a culture for a year to live in residency,” she said. “They would give talks, perform in concerts and teach classes.”



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