Sunday, January 11, 2015

Saturday Gamelan in Queens

My friend Stu and I were planning to meet up this week, and we ended up going to a gamelan workshop on Saturday afternoon. See, at Queens College, about 40 minutes east of me by public transit, there is a gamelan—an Indonesian percussion ensemble consisting of about 15 metallophones and gongs—and a community ensemble uses the instruments. (Most of the ensemble members are Brooklyn thirtysomethings.) One of my B&H ex-coworkers is in this ensemble, and she'd posted something about the workshop on Facebook.

So this is how I'm using social media this week: I signed up for a gamelan workshop because of Facebook, and now I'm blogging about it!

To play in a gamelan, you sit cross-legged on a cushion in front of a metallophone with a little wooden hammer in your hand. The music isn't notated, and it moves in cycles: you learn a particular note pattern, which interlocks into the musical texture, and you play it over and over again.

The hard part is that you have to damp every key after you strike it with the hammer, or else it rings for a long time. To damp the key, you just pinch the end of it with your non-hammer hand. So, imagine that on each beat you strike a metallophone key with your little wooden hammer, and then on the following beat you damp that same key with your other hand, while at the same time you're striking another key with the hammer. Basically, your non-hammer hand follows your hammer hand around the metallophone, always one beat behind. The gamelan's director said that, after a few hours, this becomes so natural you don't have to think about it. In the 90 minutes we had, I experienced a couple of fleeting minutes of this, but usually I was pretty hapless about it.

Aside from that kinesthetic caveat, it's a fun, absorbing thing to do, and I recommend it if you ever have a chance. Gamelans are remarkable, and there's not much else in the world that sounds like them.


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