A love letter to the Emory Gamelan Ensemble

There's nothing else like this music

A love letter to the Emory Gamelan Ensemble
Gamelan music is native to Indonesia.

Photograph by Cat Kerr

No one listens to classical gamelan music for the first time and thinks, “I’ve heard something like this before.” There’s nothing like it.

A gamelan is a classical Indonesian orchestra anchored by hand-forged gongs, chimes, and other instruments made of tuned bronze and wood, which are struck with a mallet—similar to a xylophone or marimba. A lead drummer keeps the beat and simultaneously conducts the gamelan players with auditory cues. Solo string and wind instruments add texture, and vocalists add a sung melody over most pieces.

This music’s millennia of history is a pillar of culture and community in Indonesia, originating in the courts of Java. You don’t have to cross an ocean to bask in the ethereal and opulent resonance of a live gamelan performance, though—you can do that right here in Atlanta.

Our local gamelan was founded at Emory University in 1997. The group currently plays in the Central Javanese style and is directed by Darsono, one of Java’s most prominent living classical musicians. Not every U.S. gamelan is fortunate enough to have such an ideal leader at the helm.

I’ve been enthralled by classical gamelan music, called karawitan in Java, since I first heard it as an undergraduate student in Virginia. Its scales and modes, unfamiliar to my Western-classically trained ear, were haunting, warm, and bright. The musicians sat on the floor, humble and grounded. Their smiles and gestures showed the rapport among them; they were connected. I moved to Atlanta 10 years later, and, knowing that many university gamelan groups allow community members to participate, I immediately contacted Emory’s to ask whether there was space for me to join. I needed a creative outlet and a place to build community in my new city.

Of course, I love how karawitan sounds—from the highest tones of the delicate peking (a bronze metallophone) to the lowest tones of the time-marking gong. But no music is just sound alone; it comes with layers of context and meaning. Academics have published volumes on the cultural significance of karawitan, and my experience playing in a gamelan thousands of miles from the music’s geographic source is deeply enriched by studying that literature. Most gamelan players say there is also a local significance for them: a feeling of the distinct identity that makes their group theirs alone.

Even more importantly than being based at Emory and making appearances at local mainstays such as the High Museum of Art and Georgia Tech, I think what makes us Atlanta’s gamelan is the way we represent the inspiring diversity of this city.

During a typical rehearsal, I watch as a first-year student gets tips on an instrument she has never played before from a CDC employee who has been with the ensemble since its earliest days. Students from China and Japan comfortably chat with me about their summer plans. Among us are scientists, philosophers, and artists; singles, parents, and newlyweds; Muslims, Christians, and Wiccans. Our sexual orientations and gender identities are all over the map, and we span four generations.

Gathered here, we all belong. Only collectively can we make something beautiful. The multitude of perspectives, interpretations, and expressions afforded by our collaboration is what allows the music to shine. It’s true for the gamelan as it’s true for our city.

The Emory Gamelan Ensemble performs Saturday, April 13, at Emory’s Performing Arts Studio. For details, visit music.emory.edu.

This article appears in our March 2024 issue.