Arts & Culture


4 min read

Stepping carefully in their stocking feet, the musicians thread their way among the array of low-lying gongs, drums, and metallophones and lower themselves cross-legged onto the floor. Lifting their padded mallets, they begin to play. The ringing sound of the metal bars, punctuated by the dry slap of the drum and the gong’s shimmering resonance, come together in a gentle, unhurried rhythm, a flowing narrative that seems to capture the miraculous within the pulse of the everyday.

This is gamelan, a word that refers to the extensive ensemble of percussion instruments now filling this room in Hilles. Originating in the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali, gamelan has been spreading internationally. There are many gamelan groups in the United States, playing both traditional and contemporary Indonesian music and pieces by local composers. This year, gamelan is making its debut at Harvard.

“Gamelan in Performance and Composition” is a proseminar taught by Music Professor Richard Wolf, an ethnomusicologist who specializes in the musical traditions of South Asia. The fact that the course exists at all and that Wolf’s students are actually learning to play the gamelan as well as studying it is due to a serendipitous series of events that began in 1939 with a visit by a young American composer to the Golden Gate International Exposition on San Francisco’s Treasure Island.

The composer was Lou Harrison (1917–2003), whose operas, ballets, orchestral music, and film scores were to earn him an honored place in the history of 20th century music. It was at the exposition that Harrison heard his first live gamelan performance. The sound of the instruments stuck with him, and those early impressions were reinforced when he visited East Asia in the early 1960s. After returning to his home in Aptos, Calif., Harrison and his partner, William Colvig, an electrician and amateur musician, designed and built percussion instruments inspired by those sounds, including a set they called an “American gamelan.” Eventually, they built a full Javanese-style gamelan, using non-traditional materials such as plywood and aircraft aluminum, and tuning the instruments with the aid of an oscilloscope.

When Harrison was invited by the Javanese master K.P.H. Notoprojo to compose for Javanese instruments, he consulted Jody Diamond, a composer, performer, writer, and educator who had spent several years studying gamelan. Founder of the American Gamelan Institute and editor of its journal, Balungan, Diamond is considered one of the foremost experts on this musical form. She and Harrison collaborated over many years, and when Harrison died, he left Diamond his own personal gamelan, named Si Betty for Betty Freeman, a legendary patron of the arts and supporter of many contemporary classical composers. Si is a Javanese honorific.

Because there was no place available to house and play this unique set of instruments, Diamond, now a senior lecturer in Dartmouth’s Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program, sought a home for them where they could be fully utilized and appreciated.

“I was looking for a home for Si Betty because I believe that, in general, instruments should be played, especially instruments as unique and significant as these, and that Lou had entrusted Si Betty to me because I had the knowledge and experience to keep the gamelan playing in important and creative ways,” Diamond said.

Her search coincided with a quest by Harvard scholars for just such an ensemble. An agreement was made, and the gamelan came to Harvard. With it came Diamond herself, with an appointment as artist in residence and the job of creating an ensemble for contemporary gamelan music, and also serving as a resource for students and professors across disciplines and departments.

One of her first contributions has been to supplement Wolf’s class by teaching a weekly workshop in gamelan performance. Wolf hopes that eventually students trained by Diamond will go on to form a self-sustaining gamelan club, attracting interested newcomers and putting on gamelan concerts.

The chances for such a development seem good. Because gamelan music consists of many different parts of widely varying difficulty and complexity, it is both accessible to beginning performers while offering ample opportunity for the aspiring virtuoso.

“It can be a very high art, but also a very open invitation to music making,” Diamond said.