Traditional Javanese gamelan donated to Portland State School of Music

As old issues of the Vanguard are scattered underneath a tremendously elaborate instrumental ensemble called a Javanese gamelan (pronounced gam-UGH-lahn), several faculty members in the Portland State School of Music begin the meticulous process of cleaning and restoring the authentic handcrafted instrument, recently donated to the university.

A gamelan is a traditional instrument ensemble from Indonesia, typically composed of several bronze percussion instruments including metallophones, xylophones, kendang (drums), gongs, bamboo flutes and bowed and plucked strings. A gamelan in itself is a production, as each instrument is built and tuned to the same pitch. Nevertheless, no two gamelan ensembles are the same.

“Javanese gamelan uses wood and leather beaters, so the sound is soft and warm. You can tell exactly what region it comes from, from the pitches and the scales that they use and the way the beaters work,” said Bryan Johanson, the Director of the School of Music at PSU.

This particular ensemble originated in Yogyakarta, a small village in Java, Indonesia.

The School of Music recently unwrapped the genuinely unique gift, valued at $68,000. Portland is now the home of two unique Javanese gamelans. Lewis and Clark College houses the first, called the Venerable Showers of Beauty.

The gamelan was donated to the university by Baltimore-based composer and musician Robert Macht. Macht no longer had a need for the gamelan with his current compositions and was interested in donating it to a nonprofit or a similar organization. Bonnie Miksch, professor of music composition at PSU, teamed up with Macht to bring the instruments to the university. The proposal was made for donation to Johanson last April.

“The gift of the gamelan is a conduit to the expansion of the far reaches of world music and culture within the College of Arts, the School of Music and the community in general around PSU. A collaborative instrument that people can experience,” Johanson said.

“Once the decision was made for us to accept the gift, for me the major concern was, where are we going to put it?” Johanson said.

The gamelan left Baltimore in May but it was an exhaustive process of shipping.

“The gamelan is a delicate instrument made of teak, a very heavy wood. It needs to be wrapped up and covered with blankets in order to be properly shipped,” Johanson said.

The much-anticipated gamelan finally arrived in late September. The perfect place to store the massive ensemble was found in the basement of Lincoln Hall. There, efforts are currently being made to ensure the inauguration of the instrument for spring.

Director of Venerable Showers of Beauty at Lewis and Clark College Mindy Johnston will be the lead instructor in the beginning gamelan course, the first of its kind at PSU.

Johnston studied the ensemble before embarking in an overseas program, living and studying in Indonesia for four years. Returning to Portland, she has directed the instrument’s teaching at Lewis and Clark since 2007. Johnston is excited that she will be teaching her first course at PSU, which non-music majors and auditing community members are invited to take.

“You don’t need a music background to learn gamelan, that’s what I love about it. It’s sort of a blank slate where most people are going to have no previous background with it and it doesn’t matter, you will be able to learn gamelan,” Johnston said.

The School of Music is hoping to have a performance ensemble featuring the new instrument at the end of each term. “Perhaps an integrated world music concert in conjunction with gamelan and Taiko,” Johnston said.

Gamelans are an intricate part of the ethnomusicology program, the comparative study of music of different cultures.  PSU does not have an ethnomusicology department yet, but Wynn Kiyama, assistant professor of musicology, is hopeful that the addition could help lead to inclusion of ethnomusicology as a possible track.

“We are hoping to get students involved in the degree in ethnomusicology at the undergraduate level. It helps tremendously, and we are really thrilled to have the gamelan here,” Kiyama said.

The gamelan unveiling is happening on Feb. 28 at 6:00 p.m. in Lincoln Hall, room 37. The event is free and open to the public.