The rows of children in snowpants made an interesting contrast with the warmth of Balinese gamelan music at Lewis and Clark Elementary School.
Led by visiting artist I Made Lasmawan (pronounced Ma-day), several dozen students schooled their peers in the intricate performance form that combines xylophone-like keys, gongs and drums with dancing and shadow puppets of Indonesia. Some, like fifth-graders Estelle Sharkey and Sophie Beaton, have played gamelan for six years.
“I remember being afraid to touch it,” Sharkey said of seeing the collection of instruments for the first time in kindergarten. “It’s loud and clangy. But when you put it all together, it sounds kind of cool.”
Music teacher Dorothy Morrison helped introduce Missoula to gamelan music in 2000, when she was an adjunct instructor at the University of Montana. In the process of arranging Lasmawan’s first visit to the area, Morrison also grabbed a chance to acquire a gamelan for the university. She soon bought one for herself as well.
It should be mentioned that while gamelan means something similar to “orchestra,” it also refers to a group of 24 instruments. Unlike an orchestra’s component violins and cellos and drums, a gamelan must be played together.
“Each gamelan is tuned to itself, so no other gamelan sounds just the same,” Morrison said. “You can’t borrow part of one for another. Each has a character of its own.”
Morrison is part of an adult gamelan group in Missoula called Gamelan Manik Harum. When she joined Missoula County Public Schools as a music teacher in 2001, she also brought her Balinese experience with her. Now she provides one-month gamelan lessons at Lewis and Clark.
“As we’re becoming an International Baccalaureate school, this provides a great exposure for the kids to the cultures of the world,” Principal Susan Anderson said. “And it also connects them to a local community of interest. We have so many things at the university that we should be taking advantage of. This really helps them learn about the world beyond Missoula, Montana.”
Dancers from the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre performed in Balinese costumes for Thursday’s assembly, while several members of the adult gamelan group sat in with the students. Lasmawan got behind a red scrim to manipulate Balinese shadow puppets in a traditional story told partially in his native language and partially in English.
“The Balinese believe in good and evil spirits,” Beaton said. “Some of this music is to scare away the evil spirits. Each instrument has the head of Boma – he’s a protecting spirit.”
Beaton also studies percussion in the Lewis and Clark band program. She said playing the gamelan was different from xylophones and vibraphones in its intricate patterns.
“The xylophone has all the notes – A, B, C, D, E, F and G – but the gamelan only has four on each instrument,” she said. “All the different parts have to work together.”
Morrison said gamelan music is appreciated more for its intricacy and rhythmic complexity than for hummable tunes or solo virtuosity. But it makes a great way to show children the building blocks of music.
“What’s great about kids, is they don’t have preconceptions about music,” Morrison said. “They’re a lot more open. They catch on to unique ways of playing music. They see its technical qualities and how it fits into a culture. This fits very nicely into making them global citizens.”