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The Gathering Of The Gamelans, University of York, April 28
INTRODUCING: Wayang Lokananta – The Gamelan Of The Gods, the all-night shadow puppet play and music marathon at the University of York.
FIRST it was going to be 100 musicians. Then 130, and now, as the long night of gamelan music fast approaches in York, the final total will be 150.
They are all assembling at the Universty of York, where 30 years of teaching gamelan, “one of the most striking instrumental ensembles in the world of music”, is being marked by an international symposium, The Gathering Of The Gamelans.
Supported by the Arts Council, the four-day gathering at the university’s Roger Kirk Centre began yesterday and coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Gamelan Sekar Petak being established at the university.
“York was the first university in the UK to have a Javanese gamelan, and many of today’s top British performers had their first experience of playing Indonesian music here,” says Ginevra House, one of the organisers.
“To celebrate this anniversary, we wanted to bring the British – and indeed the international – gamelan community together, to share ideas and best practice, to learn together and, especially, to perform together.”
Gamelan performers, composers, academics, teachers and the wider community of ethnomusicologists are attending an event that will climax in tomorrow’s premiere of Wayang Lokananta – The Gamelan Of The Gods.
This all-night shadow puppet play will run through the night from 7pm to 3am, with Professor Matthew Isaac Cohen on puppeteer duty throughout the eight-hour performance with only one break.
He will be accompanied by traditional and new music performed by the aforementioned 150 musicians, drawn from 17 ensembles from England, Scotland and Wales, while solo and chorus singers and Indonesian dancer Ni Made Pujawati will be integral to the performance too.
Also participating, much to the delight of Matthew Cohen and musical director John Pawson, will be guest of honour Bapak Aloysius Suwardi, a composer, performer, instrument maker and academic from the Indonesian Institute for the Arts in Surakarta, who was prominent in the rise of the Indonesian avant-garde movement in the 1980s.
“Mr Suwardi has been a teacher for many of us involved in the UK gamelan scene,” says Matthew.
“He’s one of the most highly regarded classical musicians in Java today. We’re very privileged to have him participate as a musician in the wayang and he will be in a sense representing all our Indonesian teachers, who have offered so much to performing artists in this country over the years.”
Wayang Lokananta has been commissioned for this week’s event, with libretto and puppetry Connecticut-born Matthew and music by assorted British gamelan composers.
Matthew, professor of international theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, has woven together myth, legend and folk tales about music from the island of Java with the modern story of gamelan in Britain.
The performance will offer a rare opportunity to experience wayang as it is performed in Indonesia: free to the public, finishing shortly before dawn, held in a relaxed, informal atmosphere with food and drink available throughout – and you don’t have to stay from start to finish.
Matthew and John met when studying puppetry and music respectively in Solo, in central Java, where John attended Matthew’s first public performance in 1989. Their paths have crossed since on such occasions as the launch of the gamelan at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchster, where John performed with the Southbank Gamelan Players.
Bringing together Wayang Lokananta has required a marathon effeort from both of them, Matthew not only putting together the story, but like John, working diligently with the gamelan ensembles. John has visited 12 of the 17 ensembles, which are being divided into seven regional ensembles for tomorrow’s all-nighter.
His preparations have taken him to London, Bristol, Cardiff, Oxford, Glasgow, Durham and now York, where this weekend will bring back memories of his conversion to gamelan in his student days at the University of York from 1983 to 1986.
“I was introduced to the gamelan by Neil Sorrell,” he recalls. “I arrived at the university as a trombonist and went from brass to bronze – I quite like the idea of it being an upgrade,” he says.
“It was seen as my way of getting out of, first, the trombone and then the piano to become a first-study gamelan player, but it wasn’t a cop-out. Gamelan was where my passion and interest was.”
As for Matthew – who fell in love with Asian theatre forms duruing his undergraduate days studying psychology at Harvard – he has an “extremely long night” ahead of him.
“I’m working with a set of puppets from the Royal Northern College of Music; the whole set is about 200 puppets in all and I might use half of them, with the other half as scenic decoration,” he says. “It’s a lot of puppets for one night!”