This past Sunday evening the Emory Gamelan Ensemble presented a performance of an Indonesian wayang kulit, or shadow puppet show, Hanoman the Messenger, to a capacity crowd at Emory University’s 260-seat Performing Arts Studio, a former church sanctuary that the university converted to a small lecture and performance hall in 1997.
In the same year, Emory Gamelan was formed at the university under the direction of Steve Everett, who is currently dean of the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts at University of Illinois at Chicago. That original group was composed of both Emory students and nonstudent community members. The model changed in 2006 when, under the new leadership of Tong-Soon Lee, it became a student-only ensemble.
Then in 2013, Elizabeth Clendinning was hired for a one-year faculty position that included responsibility for the gamelan. Clendinning reinstated the original student-community hybrid model before moving on to become an assistant professor of music at Wake Forest University.
“We got the old band back together,” says Neil Fried, who stepped up with fellow ensemble member Claire-Marie Hefner to codirect the ensemble after Clendinning’s departure. Fried advocates the student-community model, which he describes as “a mixture that combines the vibrant curiosity of youth with the institutional knowledge and mentorship of an ensemble whose members don’t graduate.”
When Fried and Hefner assumed codirectorship, they came to it with a mutual goal of producing a wayang kulit performance. “We have ambitious plans to kick it up a notch next year, introducing some more nuanced forms of both traditional gamelan and new compositions,” says Fried. “Hopefully, we can get the support again to present another wayang kulit in April of 2016.”
Two specialists were brought in for the occasion. The dhalang, or puppet master, was Midiyanto, who is a lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught Javanese gamelan and wayang kulit for over 30 years. Midiyanto was integral to Everett’s founding of the Emory Gamelan 18 years ago.
The guest kendhang drummer was Made Lasmawan, who is artistic director of the Colorado College Balinese Gamelan. A native of Bali, Lasmawan performs and teaches both Balinese and Javanese traditional music. Both Midiyanto and Lasmawan have helped establish a number of gamelan ensembles across North America.
For the uninitiated, wayang is the general term for traditional Indonesian theater, while wayang kulit specifically refers to Javanese “shadow puppet” theater. In wayang kulit, the dhalang is central to the entire performance. In the traditional manner, Midiyanto narrated the story while manipulating the elaborately decorated puppets, their shadows projected on a large screen between him and the audience, altering his voice at times to heighten the drama or represent different characters.
All the while, the gamelan orchestra musically underscores or comments upon the drama. While a gamelan is primarily made up of instruments that are metallophones — typically arrays of metal bars or gongs — the kendhang, a kind of two-headed hand-played drum, is essential to guiding the music’s tempo and rhythm, including transitions. This essential guiding role was in the hands, literally, of Lasmawan.
A wayang kulit in Indonesia can go all night long, but this Emory performance wisely chose to make a relatively short work of it, starting at 7 p.m. With introductions and a single prelude by the ensemble preceding Hanoman the Messenger proper, the entire show was over by 8:10 p.m. At 70 minutes, without an intermission, it was a reasonable length for an American audience, many with restless small children in tow.
Nevertheless, the production progressively bordered on risking tediousness. In part, that was due to the addition of an extra lamp on a stand behind the screen, added partway through evidently to increase the light and contrast with the shadows. But it was a mistake: what it also did was add an extremely distracting and irritating glare to the screen, through which the image of the glowing bulb became a stark and annoying constant for the remainder.
For those who had never experienced gamelan or wayang kulit, this was still a good introduction to the art forms. For those already familiar with both, it left some headroom for progress in a few details of production. Nevertheless, this performance was an important achievement as a fulcrum point in this new phase of Emory Gamelan’s evolution.