“Made in the USA”

Gamelan Son of Lion and American Experimental Music

By Jay Arms

The stage hosted an eclectic assortment of instruments for this concert in New York City in 1991. A grand piano, trombone, tam tam, violin, and Chinese erhu formed an archipelago within a sea of American-built gamelan instruments, modeled on the gong and metallophone ensembles of Indonesia. The varied instrumentation was indicative of the music to be presented, as well as the spirit in which that music was composed. Although Indonesian gamelan instruments were no strangers to New York City by this time, the concert presented this evening was a first of its in kind. The program featured the composers’ collective Gamelan Son of Lion performing new works by Indonesian composers Rahayu Supanggah and I Wayan Sadra, who wrote new pieces in collaboration with the American musicians, themselves composers with nearly twenty years of experience playing gamelan. The goal of the concert, according to its organizer, Jody Diamond, was part of a year-long process to challenge the problematic perception in the United States that Indonesian artists “maintain the tradition” while American composers “push the boundaries” through experimentation.[1] American composers had certainly developed a rich body of experimental pieces for gamelan in latter part of the twentieth century, but Indonesian composers had their own sprawling tradition of musical experimentation that managed to evade the attention of American listeners up until this point. What developments led to this occasion?

Gamelan seem to be everywhere in the United States. Since the 1970s these Indonesian percussion ensembles have rapidly proliferated at first by finding niche roles in college and university ethnomusicology programs where they continue to be used to teach Indonesian music and culture. Students were drawn in by gamelan’s cyclic forms, large, bronze metallophones and gongs, and the unfamiliar tuning and timbres of the instruments. Many became enamored with the instruments and Indonesian culture and sought out more knowledge and more music, integrating gamelan into their creative lives. The academic context for gamelan remains important to this day in the United States, but not long after the first generation of students became acquainted with the music of Java, Bali, Sunda, and other regions of Indonesia, gamelan began to take root beyond the walls of the academy. Community ensembles began to coalesce as former students wished to continue playing and studying gamelan music after graduation. Composers and instrument builders were especially keen to establish such groups. Having a gamelan not owned by an institution opens doors for a different kind of creativity. Composers could experiment with the ensemble and create new instruments with unusual features to serve their compositional visions. Many even strove to develop idiosyncratic tuning systems based on their engagement with Indonesian instruments and culture. The phenomenon quickly developed across the nation with ensembles popping up in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast by the end of the 1970s. The number of gamelan groups in the United States continues to grow in the present, and it’s worth noting that the phenomenon is not unique to that place. Vibrant gamelan subcultures exist all over the world, with significant communities in Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico,Russia, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, and the United Kingdom, to name just a few.[2]

The trend of Americans building new gamelan instruments and composing new music for them is particularly remarkable in part for its early development in the 1970s, but even more so for its persistence and continuity. Some composers, like Daniel Schmidt who began studying gamelan in the early 1970s, are still designing and building new gamelan instruments, composing new works, and publishing recordings a half century later.[3] In that time, younger generations have followed in those footsteps and broadened the palette of “American gamelan” sounds and styles. Composing for gamelan and building gamelan instruments has become more than a mere novelty, but something of a tradition in and of itself.  One of the longest active gamelan groups in the United States is Gamelan Son of Lion, based in New York City. This group continues to perform new music for gamelan by its composer-members and is noteworthy for its connections to ethnomusicology, American experimental music, and strong connections with Indonesian composers.

Gamelan Son of Lion emerged from a university music program in the early 1970s. Composer/ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary (1946–2019) accepted a faculty position at Rutgers University in New Jersey after completing her Ph.D in ethnomusicology in 1973.[4] To jumpstart the curriculum, she built a set of Central Javanese-style gamelan instruments in order to teach Javanese music and culture to undergraduate students. Gamelan are expensive and difficult to transport, so when Benary offered to build a gamelan out of readily available materials rather than commission a new build from Java the Rutger’s department jumped at the opportunity to expand the curriculum. Notably, she used the basic designs of another ethnomusicologist, Dennis Murphy, who built a similar gamelan in 1967 in Vermont.[5]

Whereas the most esteemed gamelan of Central Java are typically made out of heavy forged bronze keys and gongs mounted on ornately carved wooden cases and stands, Benary cut her keys from sheets of hot rolled steel. She tuned them not by grinding away at the metal to raise and lower the pitch, but by creasing the thin keys down the middle lengthwise in a vise. To mount her keys Benary constructed unassuming cases made of plywood and used repurposed soup cans as resonators to help amplify the sound of lower-pitched instruments. She dubbed the ensemble “Gamelan Son of Lion” as a nod to her Hebrew last name (בן אריה). Despite the unconventional materials, Benary was able to construct a fully functional Central Javanese gamelan suitable for teaching traditional music to beginners. By 1976 Gamelan Son of Lion began to make the radical shift from functioning primarily as a student group to operating as a gigging ensemble in New York’s experimental music scene. Collaborating with her Rutgers colleagues Philip Corner and Daniel Goode, both composers on the faculty, Benary established Gamelan Son of Lion as an egalitarian composers’ collective that played music of its composer-members. The instruments moved to Corner’s loft in downtown Manhattan and the group started a regime of composing and premiering new, experimental compositions for Benary’s homemade gamelan ensemble.

Instruments of Gamelan Son of Lion © Lyra Silverstein

The music of Gamelan Son of Lion has its own flavor within the “American gamelan” milieu. Especially in the 1970s and 1980s composers in the group tended to focus on process composition and minimalism, as well as indeterminate and improvisatory structures. The music reflected contemporaneous developments in New York’s “Downtown” scene generally and can be understood within the post-Cagean wave of American experimental artists. The 1979 LP record “Gamelan in the New World” features music by five composers and exemplifies these aesthetics.[6] Benary’s composition Braid (1974), for instance, simply orders the tones of seven-tone pelog scale (one of the two common Javanese scales) to create a fourteen-note “braid” row. Three players on identical instruments play alternating pairs of notes from this row in a slow, interlocking fashion. Imagine one player playing on beats 1 and 4, the second player on 2 and 5, and the third on 3 and 6. That’s essentially how the player’s relate to each other rhythmically in Braid. Each musician begins with the first two notes of the row and alternates between them until a balanced groove is achieved. The players then independently start moving through the row by substituting the third note for the first, then the fourth for the second, and so on through all fourteen tones. The “go at your own pace” method for the piece calls to mind Terry Riley’s In C and other minimalist compositions of the era, and the indeterminate harmonic combinations that emerge through this process help centralize the act of listening for both performers and listeners.

Goode’s Circular Thoughts (1976) has become a standard repertory piece for Gamelan Son of Lion for similar reasons. The pitch material consists of the seven-tone pelog scale played in ascending order over and over again on one instrument for the more than fourteen-minute duration of the recording. The interesting part comes with the use accents supplied by the other instruments of the gamelan. Goode devised a series of what I like to call “accent patterns” that shift accents to different tones across the repeating scale and create the illusion of a polyphonic texture. The first such pattern accents the note that occurs every eight beats, starting Pelog 1. Eight beats later the instruments accent Pelog 2, then after another eight beats accent Pelog 3, and so on. This process essentially superimposes a slower ascending scale on top of the faster one that makes up the core of the piece. After several minutes the pattern shifts to accent every six beats, which creates a superimposed descending scale at a slightly faster rate starting at Pelog 7, then Pelog 6, Pelog 5, and so on. The piece really gets going when multiple accent patterns are enacted simultaneously between different sections of the ensemble, such as one group accenting every three beats while another accents every four, all while maintaining that underlying ascending seven-tone sequence.

Benarys braid row © Barbara Benary

One of the interesting aspects of gamelan in the United States is the movement took off with relatively little interaction with Indonesian participants. Aside from those master musicians like Pa Undang Sumarna, I Nyoman Wenten, and Ki Wasitodipurowho came to teach gamelan in colleges and universities, a relatively small number of Indonesians immigrated to the United States during this period. Because of this, groups like Gamelan Son of Lion developed idiosyncratic practices that integrated gamelan instruments and tunings into their creative work. Some composers wrote dozens or even hundreds of compositions for gamelan without having visited Indonesian, studied with an Indonesian teacher, or even learning the basics of classical gamelan compositional methods.[7] As a result the music created by Gamelan Son of Lion composers bears little to no resemblance to the traditional Central Javanese gamelan music the instruments were built to perform. Although problematic from a perspective of cultural representation, Gamelan Son of Lion composers embraced their avant garde approach and established their own niche within both experimental music circles in new York City and the growing “American gamelan” scene.

Everything changed in the late 1980s and Gamelan Son of Lion began to engage with Indonesian artists to a greater and more significant degree. The 1986 International Gamelan Festival and Symposium in Vancouver, British Columbia (known as EXPO’86) brought together gamelan groups the world over to celebrate their shared love for Indonesian arts and culture. Groups that performed traditional music and avant garde music alike were invited to attend and present concerts, including Gamelan Son of Lion.[8] Over the course of the festival, each evening’s performance ended with a set by musicians of the Indonesian group assembled by famed choreographer Sardono Kusumo. The artists Kusumo selected were among the most radical and experimental of Indonesia’s music and dance cultures. Composers like I Wayan Sadra of Bali and Rahayu Supanggah of Java were experimenting with new sounds, structures, and methods of composing that aurally, and sometimes visually, signified experimentalism. Whereas many from the American and European groups anticipated fantastic performances of the esteemed traditional repertoire known as karawitan, what was presented was the latest developments of the Indonesian avant garde. For groups like Gamelan Son of Lion it was a watershed moment. Suddenly their own avant garde work with gamelan instruments had abroader context, and a deeper connection with Indonesian music. After EXPO ’86 ended, the work began to narrow the gap between these international composers and establish a global network. To this end composer and long-time Gamelan Son of Lion affiliate Jody Diamond (b. 1953) went to Indonesia in 1989 to conduct Fulbright research on Indonesian composers and how they think about their work.[9] After returning to the United States she worked to bring American and Indonesian composers together to share their work and collaborate with each other.

A major event Diamond helped organized was the 1991 Festival of Indonesia at Rutgers University. Part of the festival presented the compositions of Indonesian and American composers’ side-by-side. All of the composers were presented as equals, rather as a kind of masterclass. The Indonesian composers included Joko Purwanto, I Wayan Sadra, Pande Made Sukerta, Rahayu Supanggah, and A.L. Suwardi, among others. The American composers included the co-founders of Gamelan Son of Lion, Benary, Corner, and Goode, plus Diamond who also served as emcee and translator for the event. Some composers presented works they had completed prior to the event, and others composed new works during the event. Pande Made Sukerta, for example, created his composition Gelas 1091 (1991) during the festival, drawing on the people and instruments available at thatmoment.[10] This piece consists of two groups, the first includes an array of musicians singing, speaking, playing gamelan instruments, and a pianist, who is instructed to "use any technique" and interact with the other sounds.[11] The piece has a dramatic element culminating with the second group, which consists of ten people with plastic cups that are struck against the floor as the performers "duck walk" across the stage to create a kind of trotting sound. The details of the piece's content are left open to the performers, but progresses from a generally sparse texture to a denser one, as more instruments are added and all performers increase their activity overtime. In explaining his ideas behind Gelas 1091 to the audience at FOI, Sukerta said:

I thought of this [piece] while I was eating earlier. I was very familiar with the kinds of tone colors [of these instruments]; it's something that I've used many times before in other pieces. I was really interested in using the bells, because while we were on the [UC] Berkeley campus [a few weeks ago], there were all of these bells ringing. And also, because of Philip [Corner], when he was playing in Sadra's piece, he was playing really far out and crazy, and I wanted to see him do it again.[12]

The kinds of fleeting moments exhibited by Sukerta's playful comments illustrate the shared affinity for experimental approaches to music making between the Indonesian and American composers at this event. The collaborations continued after the festival as some of the Indonesian composers took up multi-week residencies with American gamelan groups.

Following the festival, composer Rahayu Supanggah went to New York to work with Gamelan Son of Lion for a five-week residency. During his residency, Supanggah regularly rehearsed with composer-members of the group, participated in collective composition projects, and recorded a one-hour free improvisation with Corner.[13] After getting acquainted with Gamelan Son of Lion’s post-Cagean approach to playing and composing for gamelan, Supanggah composed Paragraph (1991), which blends some traditional techniques of Central Javanese karawitan with some of the minimalist techniques typical of Gamelan Son of Lion compositions.[14] Supanggah incorporated additive processes, free improvisation, and the specific qualities of Benary’s homemade gamelan (such as the vibrating properties of thin keys) into the composition, while bringing in some depth of karawitan that pushed the ensemble in different directions. While in New York, Supanggah performed two major concerts with Gamelan Son of Lion and I Wayan Sadra, who had a similar residency at Dartmouth College.[15]

The Gamelan X Ensemble, which performs annually at the Burning Man Festival © Gamelan X

Gamelan in the United States continues to grow and expand. Following these meetings with Indonesian composers, Gamelan Son of Lion toured Indonesia in 1996, centered around a major performance at the renown Yogyakarta Gamelan Festival. While sharing their “downtown” approach to gamelan composition, members of American ensemble became more acquainted with the latest developments of the Indonesian avant garde. By this time the tradition had spilled out of the conservatories and gamelan was mixing with rock bands, jazz, orchestral instrumentation, and myriad musics from around the world. Gamelan Son of Lion later toured in New Zealand and Estonia before settling back into a routine of more local performances in the New York Area. As active and notable as Gamelan Son of Lion is, they are but one of many interesting gamelan groups active in the United States today. The band Gamelan X mixes Balinese beleganjur music with a steam punk aesthetic and is known for performing at the popular Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, and Gamelan Anak Tika in Cambridge Massachusetts is an ensemble dedicated to teaching traditional Balinese music to children. Happily, today’s groups in the US are able to collaborate to much greater degree with Indonesian artists while creating idiosyncratic communities centered around gamelan. No two groups are quite alike, but all share a curious fascination with Indonesian culture that continues to inspire a world of musicians to pick up a mallet and strike the keys of a gamelan instrument.  

Cover photo: Gamelan Son of Lion in concert © Robert Schaffer

[1]                       Jody Diamond, “Gamelan Son of Lion at Washington Square Church, May 1, 1991.” Tape recording in the Archives of the American Gamelan Institute, Medford, MA

[2]                       The American Gamelan Institute began keeping track of gamelan and gamelan ensembles in a 1983 issue of EAR Magazine dedicated to gamelan in the America. The catalogue has since grown to include gamelan elsewhere outside of Indonesia. See “International Gamelan Directories,” American Gamelan Institute, 2013. Accessed June 13, 2021: http://www.gamelan.org/directories/index.shtml  

[3]                       Schmidt’s latest record releases In My Arms Many Flowers and Abies Firma came out in 2016 and 2019 and are available from Recital Records. A planned third record is also in progress.

[4]                       For more information about Gamelan Son of Lion, see Barbara Benary, “Gamelan Son of Lion,” Accessed June 14, 2021: http://www.gamelan.org/sonoflion/

[5]                       Murphy’s design appears in his dissertation. See Dennis Allen Murphy, “The Autochthonous American Gamelan,” Ph.D. diss., Wesleyan University, 1975

[6]                       Gamelan Son of Lion, “Gamelan in the New World,” Smithsonian Folkways Records, 1979, FTS 31313

[7]                       Corner, for example, has composed over four hundred compositions for gamelan. His gamelan scores are all available from FrogPeak Music. See “Artist Page: Philip Corner,” FrogPeak Music (aComposers’ Collective). Accessed June 14, 2021: http://frogpeak.org/fpartists/fpcorner.html

[8]                       See John H. Chalmers, Jr., “First International Gamelan Festival and Symposium,” Balungan 2, No. 3 (1986): 3–16

[9]                       See Jody Diamond, et al., Karya=Create: Portraits of Contemporary Indonesian Composers (Medford, MA: American Gamelan Institute, 1990).

[10]                     For the score for this piece, see, Pande Made Sukerta, Gelas 1091, in Balungan 5, No. 1 (Winter/Spring, 1991): 29

[11]                     Sukerta's monograph about his approach to contemporary composition was recently translated into English and published, including several photographs of the composer’s explorations and performances. See Pande Made Sukerta, "Alternative Methods in Composition of New Karawitan," trans. Janet Purwanto, ed. Jody Diamond and Jay Arms, Balungan 12 (Summer 2017): 3–16

[12]                     Pande Made Sukerta, trans. Jody Diamond, Festival of Indonesia, Rutgers 1991, DAT video in the archives of the American Gamelan Institute

[13]                     Rahayu Supanggah and Philip Corner, “Together in New York,” Setola Di Maiale (2015): SM2760

[14]                     For a more detailed discussion of Paragraph, see Jay M. Arms, “Rahayu Supanggah’s Paragraph and the Problems of Intercultural Collaboration”, Global Musical Modernisms, December 24, 2020

[15]                     For scores and recordings of the music that resulted from these residencies, see Jody Diamond, “Interaction: New Music for Gamelan,” Leonardo Music Journal 2, No. 1 (1992): 97–98.

Jay Arms
Jay Arms is a lecturer in ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. Since 2017, he has served as co-editor of Balungan, the journal of the American Gamelan Institute.