New Balinese gamelan for the Conservatorium

21 February 2006

The Sydney Conservatorium of Music has imported a specially commissioned Balinese gamelan that will greatly enhance the study of Indonesian music. 

The semaradana gamelan, which has seven notes per octave, is the first gamelan owned by the Conservatorium whose students previously had to attend gamelan classes on the Australian Museum’s five-note kebyar gamelan, housed at the Old Darlington School on the University’s Camperdown campus.

“Semaradana gamelans are a relatively recent type of gamelan which has gained popularity amongst Balinese musicians over the past three decades, because it extends the choice of repertoire,” said the Conservatorium’s Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, Associate Professor Peter Dunbar-Hall, who has published extensively on Balinese music and culture and made several tips to Bali to negotiate the purchase, design and tuning of the new gamelan.

Associate Professor Peter Dunbar-Hall trying out some of the instruments of the Conservatorium's new Balinese gamelan. Photo Peter Loxton.
Associate Professor Peter Dunbar-Hall trying out some of the instruments of the Conservatorium's new Balinese gamelan. Photo Peter Loxton.

The seven notes per octave allow performance of kebyar, for instance, a style dating from the early 20th century, and semar pegulingan which is court music from 19th century Bali. The music played for funeral rites in Bali – angklung – will also be possible on the new gamelan which was made at the renowned Sidha Karya foundry in the southern Balinese village of Blahbatuh.

The gamelan’s immediate use is for classes in non-Western music in the Conservatorium’s Music Education program.

“We feel it’s essential that students have experience of music from sources other than western cultures,” Professor Dunbar-Hall said.

“It’s important that they understand that there are many ways to teach and learn music, that the ways people think about music differ around the world, and that different types of music require different types of performing skills. Having Balinese gamelan as a mandatory part of our Music Education program allows all of these objectives to be fulfilled.

“Also, having a Balinese gamelan that can be seen and heard by everyone in the building hopefully will engender interest in music that most students would not have heard or thought about.”

To teach Balinese gamelan, the Conservatorium employs a Balinese gamelan specialist, Gary Watson, who has studied extensively in Bali and is a graduate of the University’s former Music Department.

There were several spinoffs to the Conservatorium owning the 35-instrument gamelan, Professor Dunbar-Hall said. The gamelan would facilitate teaching about Balinese tuning systems, which differed from those found in western music. It would enable investigation of music composed for mixtures of Balinese and western instruments, and composers at the Conservatorium could think of using the instruments in their own works.

“And once the gamelan is in regular use, the possibility of bringing musicians from Bali to the Conservatorium as visiting artists was an exciting prospect”, he said.

A Sesqui-Centenary Teaching Equipment Grant assisted with the purchase of the $12,500 Balinese gamelan, whose plain design Professor Dunbar-Hall chose in order to fit with the Conservatorium’s contemporary-style building and to contrast with the Australian Museum’s highly carved and gilded gamelan.

The new gamelan will have its first public performance in the Conservatorium’s front foyer at 5.30pm on 7 March, heralding the annual Dean’s Gala Concert which follows at 6pm. Under the leadership of Gary Watson, it will be played by members of Sekaa Gong Tirta Sinar.

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