UCC's unique Javanese gamelan – a single musical instrument that sounds like a full orchestra – makes its spring appearance tonight, writes DENYSE WOODS
EVERY SPRING, a cultural event unlike any other in Ireland takes place in Cork: the UCC Javanese gamelan concert. It goes largely unadvertised, is always packed to the rafters – and it packs its own considerable punch.
The gamelan is the Javanese equivalent of a western orchestra, and the UCC gamelan is made up of 66 bronze gongs (kenongs and bonangs), metallophones, drum, flute, zither and a two-stringed, two-eared, spiked fiddle. These combine to create an exhilarating sound, and tonight’s concert at the Aula Maxima, which will carry the audience into another culture and musical tradition, should be quite an experience.
Mel Mercier, head of music at UCC, is responsible for bringing the gamelan to Cork. A traditional music percussionist, he first came across the Javanese gamelan as a Fulbright Scholar at the California Institute of the Arts.
“I studied with the senior Javanese musician, KRT Wasitodiningrat,” he explains, “who inspired me to think that it was possible to play traditional music but also write new music for the gamelan.”
In 1994, on behalf of UCC, he went to Java to commission the leading gongsmith, Pak Tentrem Sarwanto, to make a full Javanese gamelan.
In 1995, the instruments were first played by leading musicians as part of a traditional naming ceremony. Not every gamelan is named, although each is unique, but this one was considered significant because it was taking Javanese gamelan to Ireland. Its sound was deemed to have a female character, so it was named Nyai Sekar Madu Sari, or Venerable Flower of Honey Essence. Then the instruments were blessed “in the yard outside the forge”, says Mercier, “but it was the most auspicious event I’ve ever attended, and I felt a strong sense of responsibility for these instruments”.
Shipped to Ireland wrapped in Javanese newspapers, the gamelan arrived in Cork in 1996, was unloaded by its first students and set up in a deconsecrated church. This orchestra of new bronze had quite an aura.
“We stood back and thought, ‘God, how magnificent’,” Mercier says. It has been an intrinsic part of music studies at UCC since.
The Javanese gamelan is democratic, with no conductor and no soloists. It makes for truly ensemble music, which appeals to students, who quickly acquire Javanese customs, such as leaving their shoes outside the seomra gamelan and never stepping over the instruments. Every year the ensemble presents a public performance of traditional Javanese music and new compositions.
Tonight’s concert will feature singer Caitríona O’Leary and cellist Kate Ellis, while Colin Dunne will be the first contemporary Irish dancer to dance with Javanese gamelan. One of the pieces performed will be Fleischmann in Java, written by Mercier for composer Aloys Fleischmann’s centenary. But the students are the real stars.
“They bring extraordinary energy to it,” says Mercier. “I work them hard, but the pay-off far exceeds their expectations.‘
Many get hooked. Since the gamelan came to UCC, it has sent its students far and wide. Many go to Java or do postgraduate gamelan studies elsewhere. Whenever they can, graduates return to play with the UCC ensemble.
Mercier is as motivated as ever. “The thing I like to do most is sit on the floor in the gamelan room with my students and make music,” he says. “I love it.”
- To see and hear some of UCC's 2009 gamelan concert, search for "UCC" and "gamelan" in YouTube
The Telephones and Gongs Concert takes place at 8pm tonight in Aula Maxima, UCC, but is likely to be sold out. Denyse Woods is a novelist and is artistic director of this year’s West Cork Literary Festival