Music that goes beyond entertainment
With origins more than 9,000 miles away, gamelan is resonating in the Rocky Mountains.
Ashley Stitt remembers the day she was walking by the 9th Street Historic Park and saw a collection of student musicians sitting in the grass, practicing as part of Gamelan Manik Kusuma, Metropolitan State University of Denver’s ensemble dedicated to the musical form known as gamelan.
“There were these wonderful metallic instruments, and the way they were communicating through music was beautiful,” said the double major in Piano and Composition. “It was the coolest thing, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”
Originating in Indonesia, gamelan features a variety of instruments including drums, gongs and metallophones, which are collections of metal bars struck with a mallet. Performances often include vocals and elements of dance.
Its contemporary practice is accessible to anyone and a way to honor native peoples, said I Putu Tangkas Adi Hiranmayena, a Department of Music faculty member and leader of the University’s gamelan ensemble, who goes by Putu.
He described the form as an “expression of ideas beyond entertainment” that incorporates anthropological, environmental, political and familial components.
“Ideas of tradition and experimentation happen simultaneously,” Putu said. “We’re exploring the role of sound, cosmologies and the way of giving people meaning throughout their lives.”
These interdisciplinary conversations will be on display Thursday through April 24 as MSU Denver hosts the Rocky Mountain Balinese Gamelan Festival, the first U.S.-based event of its kind to also feature visual artists, dancers and musicians from across the country and around the world. The conference theme of “Moving Mountains: Sustainability and Balinese Arts” is fitting, Putu said, as sustainability has been part of these arts since their inception.
How does a centuries-old traditional Indonesian art form end up with a sizable footprint in the Rocky Mountains? In short, it’s a family affair.
Putu came to the United States from Indonesia with his family when he was 9 months old. His father, I Made Lasmawan, helped establish gamelan workshops and ensembles at MSU Denver, the University of Colorado Boulder, CU Colorado Springs and Colorado College. He is the artistic director of the Colorado College Balinese orchestra and the director of Gamelan Tunas Mekar, a community orchestra based in Denver.
Elizabeth Macy, Ph.D., took a workshop led by Lasmawan, and the experience set her on a path that led to study-abroad experiences, living in the family’s home village in Indonesia for a month and eventually graduate studies in ethnomusicology.
“This cultural exchange has been a central and intentional component of the Indonesian government’s ‘gamelan diplomacy,’” said Macy, now an assistant professor of Ethnomusicology at MSU Denver. “If there’s a consulate or embassy in your region, you’re probably going to find gamelan there.”
This approach has led to groups popping up in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston, all with performers and participants slated to attend the Rocky Mountain Festival.
Putu, who took over the MSU Denver ensemble from his father several years ago, sees contemporary exchange with Western culture as “almost fair” but still in the shadow of an exploitative colonial history.
“When you think of a place like Bali, it’s about getting people to go beyond what they see on Instagram,” he said.
“With arts that aren’t yours, it’s critical to recognize the histories, privileges and access that come with communities,” Putu said. “Voice and representation matter. Through our own engagement, we can actually help shape the future form of where we go from here.”
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For Stitt, a classically trained pianist of more than a dozen years, discovering the ensemble at MSU Denver rewrote some of her assumptions about music. In gamelan, hand drums, instead of being considered auxiliary percussion, act as a kind of “sonic conductor,” along with gongs, keeping time. Other elements provide a cyclical melodic structure and ornamentation. Another distinction is practice, which is often done collectively.
“There are these complex interlocking parts, and you’re constantly making eye contact with the other players, ensuring you’re all on the same wavelength,” Stitt said. “You’re just a little piece of the pie and need to be open-minded on how your role fits into the collective.”
And today, when the ensemble takes its practices outside, she notices others stopping to take in the sights and sound of gamelan.
“I think, ‘I was you not that long ago,’” Stitt said. “It’s really changed the way I look at what music can be.”
Putu echoed this interplay.
“Gamelan is for the people,” Putu said. “It’s meant to be played together in a duty to build trust. We’re doing this because we’re all part of a community, and it’s a joyful activity we can all partake in, devoid of prejudices. This sensibility helps us through the difficult conversations in the rest of our lives.”