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Gamelan ensemble to perform during 3-day residence

Gamelan Sekar Jaya

In residence at MIT next Tuesday through Thursday.

By Ann Ames
Arts Editor

As part of a burgeoning world music program, MIT will play host next week to the San Francisco Bay area's Gamelan Sekar Jaya. During its three-day residence on campus, the group will hold two lecture demonstrations and an open rehearsal in "The Cube" in the Media Lab, as well as performing an outdoor concert in front of the Student Center with MIT's own gamelan orchestra, Galak Tika. This series of events marks one stop on Sekar Jaya's 15th anniversary tour, which includes concerts in New Haven, New York, Boston, Middletown (at Wesleyan University), and Providence (at Rhode Island School of Design).

The gamelan is a Balinese ensemble of instruments composed of gongs, drums, flutes, and marimba-like instruments called metallophones. The orchestra has a total melodic range of four octaves, and each different type of instrument functions in a specific role, combining to form intricate melodic and harmonic patterns. In addition, this 30-member group includes dancers and a singer who will accompany the instrumentalists in performances of traditional dances and masked drama.

Sekar Jaya (translated as "Flowering Success") got its start in Oakland, California in 1979 as an informal music club. Founded by master Balinese musician I Wayan Suweca along with Americans Michael Tenzer and Rachel Cooper, it was the first community-based Gamelan orchestra anywhere outside of Indonesia. Since its founding, it has earned respect from artists and patrons both in the United States and abroad. The California Arts Council consistently ranks Sekar Jaya among the best arts organizations in the state, citing "a very high level of performance stemming from the group's intense commitment to the music." And the Indonesian press has hailed Sekar Jaya as "clearly the finest Balinese gamelan outside of Indonesia."

The Balinese governor was fascinated by the group's achievements, and in 1985 invited the orchestra to appear at Bali's annual Festival of the Arts, which he did again in 1992. These concerts were incorporated into tours of the whole country of Indonesia. For the first tour, Sekar Jaya performed a collection of traditional Balinese works, but for the second, having proven themselves to be players on a par with any competent Balinese troupe, they planned a more ambitious program. In addition to works from the standard repertoire, they included several new pieces written specifically for the group.

Some of the finest musicians in Bali have worked with this group, including founding teacher Suweca and I Nyoman Windha, the foremost composer of his generation. In addition, many of the Americans involved in the program boast impressive credentials. Tenzer studied in Bali for a time under a Fulbright scholarship, as did MIT Professor Evan Ziporyn, who first became acquainted with the ensemble in 1980. Ziporyn later became one of the group's music directors, along with Carla Fabrizio, also a Fulbright scholar.

Although the group has twice toured Indonesia, this is its first trip to the East Coast of the United States. According to Ziporyn, this is primarily due to the expense of transporting the number of people and large instruments involved in a gamelan orchestra. Also, many people on the East Coast have not even heard of gamelan music. This is changing, however, with orchestras existing in a variety of eastern cities from Montreal to Washington, D.C.

It was mainly MIT's involvement that made this tour possible, Ziporyn said, partly because of the Institute's support for the upcoming residency. Also, since there is a gamelan orchestra already in place at MIT, Sekar Jaya is able to use the MIT instruments for its entire East Coast tour. In return, Sekar Jaya's MIT residency will provide the community with an opportunity to see and hear a professional gamelan troupe with soloists from the forefront of the Balinese art. They will perform traditional music, as well as new pieces by Windha, Tenzer, and Ziporyn.

Ziporyn describes his piece, Tire Fire, as "a statement about crossing borders." Scored for full gamelan and incorporating two electric guitars, an electric bass, and an electric mandolin, the piece reflects the relationship between industrial nations and the Third World. At times a celebration of cultural exchange, this metaphorical work also contains elements of confrontation between the two very different societal structures. "There is a connection, if only in my mind," Ziporyn said. "I've got to see what I can do."

During next week's lecture demonstrations, primarily in "An Introduction to Balinese Music" on Tuesday, the artists will allow the audience to participate. As Ziporyn said, "The whole idea is to give people a chance to bang away." As with any cross-cultural venture, the hope is that people will be enlightened as well as entertained -- not too tough a task for this fascinating group.

For more information about Sekar Jaya's residency, look under the music heading in this week's "Campus Arts" listings, or call the Office of the Arts at 253-4003.