Group dynamics

The gamelan gathering of Galak Tika and I Made Bandem
By SUSANNA BOLLE  |  December 5, 2007

I Made Bandem
For more than a century, the shimmering sounds of Indonesian gamelan, with its unusual tunings, complex rhythmic patterns, and scintillating overtones, have fascinated Western musicians from Claude Debussy and Steve Reich to Mickey Hart and the Sun City Girls. Composed of xylophone-like instruments called metallophones, hand drums, tuned metal bowls, gongs, bamboo flutes, and a variety of cymbals, the gamelan is an intricately constructed percussion orchestra. Of the various styles that have evolved across the Indonesian archipelago, Balinese gamelan — with its lightning-fast rhythms, its dramatic shifts in both dynamics and tempo, its exceptionally bright sound, and an openness to innovation and experimentation — has been of particular interest.

Boston has its own homegrown Balinese-style gamelan orchestra: MIT’s Gamelan Galak Tika. Founded in 1993 by both American and Balinese-born musicians, Galak Tika (the name means “intense togetherness”) has some 25 members and is led by composer Evan Ziporyn. When I spoke with Ziporyn on the phone as he was navigating the complexities of Logan Airport, he explained that what makes Balinese gamelan unique is not its serpentine rhythms or its sparkling tonal qualities but its fundamental organizational dynamic. “The Balinese will never do something alone if they can do it in a group, and they’ve figured out a very sophisticated musical system to make that necessary. The instruments on a literal level don’t sound right if they’re played alone, because of the way they’re designed, and the rhythms aren’t meant to be played in isolation — they’re all composite, interlocking rhythms, every part is dependent on every other part. The music is like this big, beautiful Swiss clock. It makes sense only if all the parts are working together.”

This Sunday, Galak Tika will kick off its 15th season with an afternoon of traditional Balinese music and dance. It’s a somewhat unusual program for the ensemble, which often as not uses gamelan as a basis for experimentation, combining classical Balinese forms with avant-garde composition and mixing gamelan with Western instruments. Ziporyn refers to this concert as a return to Galak Tika’s roots. What’s more, it’ll feature I Made Bandem, who’s one of Bali’s most celebrated dancers, as well as one of the foremost experts on the history of Balinese music and dance. Bandem will perform the Baris, which is a warrior’s dance, the Oleg Tamulilingan, which is a sensual, mid-20th-century dance that depicts the courtship behavior of a pair of bumblebees, and the Legong Kraton, which is perhaps the most famous of Bali’s classical female dances. Although male dancers are all trained in Legong (and in the past some of the most famous Legong performers were men), it is unusual to see a male dancer perform it now, simply because it requires such a variety of refined, delicate movements.

“It’s a basic dance for women,” Bandem explains over the phone from the very un-Bali-like Worcester, where he’s a visiting professor at Holy Cross. “When girls first learn Balinese dancing, they do this Legong dance, because it has the complete vocabulary of movements: standing movements, walking movements, and very energetic, expressive eye and hand movements, which are very elegant and beautiful, and the choreography in this case will be very intricate.”

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