LISTENING POST: Emory Gamelan Ensemble plays with shadow puppets

Ancient Javanese art transports those who encounter it

#0 Lead Peppertree Wayang Kulit Gamelan Darsono Puppeteer
Photo credit: Maho Ishiguro
WAYANG KULIT: Master dalang (puppeteer) and Emory Gamelan Ensemble director Darsono Hardiraharjo leads a Javanese shadow puppetry show on Friday, April 23, at the Emory University Burlington Road Building & Performing Arts Studio on North Decatur Road.

On Friday, April 21, the Emory Gamelan Ensemble will present a program of traditional Javanese shadow puppet theater known as wayang kulit. Providing accompaniment for “Babad alas Mertani (Clearing the Forest of Mertani)” will be about 20 musicians — Emory professors and students, players from outside the university, plus three guest musicians — led by Darsono Hardiraharjo, newly appointed director of the Emory Gamelan Ensemble. The performance takes place at the Burlington Road Building & Performing Arts Studio on North Decatur Road.

In 1889, at the Paris Exposition Universelle marking the centennial of the French Revolution, 27-year-old French composer Claude Debussy attended a performance of Javanese music and dance staged in a model kampong (village). In keeping with the unabashed colonial milieu of the era, the faux Indonesian hamlet was constructed within the confines of the Dutch East Indies pavilion, which proved to be one of the international exhibition’s most popular attractions, exceeded only by the newly completed Eiffel Tower.

About the encounter, Swiss journalist Robert Godet recorded that his friend “spent many hours listening to the percussive rhythmic complexities of the gamelan with its inexhaustible combinations of ethereal, flashing timbres.” The small ensemble that enthralled Debussy in 1889 played a handful of percussion instruments (gongs and metallophones) made from bronze. A year later, the composer again attended a gamelan performance at the Paris exhibition, this one performed by a considerably larger, more expansively equipped, orchestra.

Before his death in 1918, Debussy wrote several works inspired by the exotic music of Indonesian origin, which had stirred his imagination on multiple levels. The most prominent example, “Pagodes,” part of a three-movement suite for solo piano completed in 1903 titled Estampes, is an exquisitely beautiful, highly impressionistic interpretation of what a gamelan sounds like when played on a foundational Western classical instrument.

That same year, writing in a French music periodical, Debussy observed: “There used to be — indeed, despite the troubles that civilization has brought, there still are — wonderful peoples who learn music as easily as one learns to breathe. Their school consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves and a thousand other tiny noises, which they listen to with great care, without ever having consulted any of those dubious treatises. Their traditions are preserved only in ancient songs, sometimes involving dance, to which each individual adds his own contribution century by century. Thus, Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint which make Palestrina seem like child’s play. And if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”

In the 21st century, having inspired a multitude of composers from Ravel, Messiaen and Britten to Partch, Cage and Reich, gamelan is not the same alien creature that thrilled, mystified and undoubtedly repelled some attendees at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Nevertheless, the music’s mellifluous melodic lines, manifold interlocking rhythms and shimmering harmonic waves have lost none of their collective enchantment, which seduces the ears with uncommon reverberation and touches the soul with chiming grace.

Wayang kulit is an ancient, sacred, spiritual practice, often part of ceremonial events in family temples and villages. It’s also a form of popular entertainment suitable for all ages. The storytelling incorporates social commentary on current events, philosophical and theological musings, and playful, sometimes ribald, humor. “Babad alas Mertani” recounts the experiences of Bhima, a heroic figure from the Mahābhārata, a 100,000-verse Sanskrit epic, which dates from the 4th century BCE and includes the Bhagavad Gita. In addition to offering an ideal vehicle for adventurous puppeteering, the ancient tale of Bhimi’s actions in the Mertani forest broaches the critical subject of deforestation and other environmental issues faced by Indonesians today.

For “Babad alas Mertani,” Darsono is the dalang or puppet master whose responsibilities include story narration, voices and animation of the puppet characters. A master drummer with a deep gamelan pedigree, Darsono has conducted classes for and directed past performances by the ensemble he now leads. In 2018, as a visiting fellow from Cornell University, he directed the Emory Gamelan Ensemble in a wayung kulit production of “Celebration of Arjuna,” another tale from the Mahābhārata.

“Darsano was born into a family of traditional Javanese gamelan music, theatre and dance performers,” says Maho Ishiguro, Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Emory University, Emory Gamelan Ensemble member and Darsono’s wife.

According to Ishiguro, her father-in-law made commercial recordings of gamelan music and performed as a puppeteer in wayang kulit productions while Darsono’s uncle, aunt, cousins, siblings and mother are all involved in the arts in one capacity or another. Darsono studied at the national conservatory of the arts (Institut Kesenian Indonesia Surakarta) and later taught there. He learned the art of gamelan at the court of Mangkunegaran where he played in the official performing arts troupe, Langen Praja.

MASTER DRUMMER: Darsono Hardiraharjo, director of the Emory Gamelan Ensemble, born into a family of Javanese gamelan performers. PHOTO CREDIT: Erik Voss

Darsono’s first opportunity to perform abroad came when he joined the original troupe for Robert Wilson’s I La Galigo, a music-theater production based on a creation myth from South Sulawesi, Indonesia, which premiered in Singapore in 2004. He has traveled extensively as a teacher, performer and dalang in Europe, the U.S, and Asia. He has been an artist-in-residence at educational institutions including Wesleyan University, Smith College, Tufts University, Bates College and Cornell University.

As for her own career, Ishiguro says, “I started to play gamelan at Smith College during my graduate studies at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, then continued studying gamelan at Wesleyan with a prominent Indonesian ethnomusicologist and another incredible gamelan musician, composer and teacher.”

Ishiguro completed her PhD in Ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University in 2018. Two years later she joined the Emory University faculty. Prior to Emory, she held teaching positions at Bates College and Wesleyan. Ishiguro’s research interests include music and dance of Indonesia (Java and Aceh), impact of Islamization on performing arts, women’s performing arts in Muslim society, popular art cultures of Southeast Asia, ethnography and film documentation, representations of identities (gender and ethnicity) through movements and sounds, and translation.

When Darsono was appointed director of the Emory Gamelan Ensemble last fall, the job description came with a gamelan inventory, which has mutated and evolved from an original set of instruments procured by Steven Everett, the ensemble’s founder, in 1997.

“The original set was a 19th century vintage gamelan very likely similar to the instruments Debussy heard in Paris in 1889,” says Robert Tauxe, a member of the Emory Gamelan Ensemble since 1998 (family members have also performed) and informal chronicler of the university’s gamelan activities.

In 1998, a new set of Javanese court instruments was procured and promptly christened Paksi Kencana (Sacred Eagle). With this set, the Emory Gamelan Ensemble played its first gigs, which included a wayang kulit show at the Carlos Museum and performing exit music for an ecumenical service in the presence of the Dalai Lama at Cannon Chapel.

In the summer of 2005, Warren Herberg (an Emory Divinity School graduate) donated a gamelan of Sundanese anklung (bamboo) instruments. Each anklung consists of two to four bamboo tubes set in a frame, tuned in the Western scale and played like hand bells with a shaking motion.

“I don’t think they have ever been played in performance at Emory,” says Tauxe.

In 2007, a Sundanese gamelan was donated by Tony Lydgate, who made similar gifts to music departments at the University of Pittsburgh, UC Davis, Bates College and Kenyon College. In 2013, a set of Balinese Belaganjur instruments was purchased. In recent years, the Javanese court gamelan has seen the most use with the Belaganjur set featured in a few select performances.

“The goal we want to achieve is to further strengthen the principles of playing Javanese gamelan for all members,” says Darsono. “Of course, the process will be gradual and will take some time, but we are working to expand our network both on campus and within the wider community.”

Ishiguro adds that gamelan is an ideal setting for novice and veteran musicians to come together, learn new techniques and share musical experiences. After all, a gamelan mostly consists of instruments that are not very difficult to play, although masters spend their lives studying them.

“We want to cultivate a tight community where members are willing to support each other by making music and becoming better listeners, which is most important,” says Ishiguro. “Listening to each other well and being mindful of what is happening around you makes you a better person.”

So what, finally, does this millennia-old Indonesian art form have to do with the 21st century and why should anyone attend a wayaung kulit production at Emory University at the end of April?

Neil Fried, longtime member and former interim director of the Emory Gamelan Ensemble, offers an answer: “One of our guest teachers said that art in general, but gamelan in particular, has the power to transport people through time and space. Gamelan brings to us elements from another culture. When you’re listening to it, it takes you someplace wonderful and beautiful, which seems to me like a pretty good reason to check it out.”

Sounds like a pretty good reason to me, too. —CL—

$Free. 8:00 p.m. Donations accepted at the door to support future gamelan programming. Performing Arts Studio, Emory University, 1804 N. Decatur Rd. Atlanta, 30322. Free parking in the Fishburne Deck. 404-727-0708.

Sat., Apr. 1


IT’S A SMOL WORLD: The 2023 SoundNOW Festival concludes Sat., Apr. 1, with a concert at First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta featuring Smol Ensemble (left) and Moloq (Paul Stevens, left, Jake Aron).PHOTO CREDIT (left): Stephen Tyndall, PHOTO CREDIT (right): Joey Kopanski

Smol Ensemble, Moloq, First Existentialist Congregation — Wrapping up the 2023 SoundNOW Festival is a double bill featuring a consort of toy pianists and percussionists called Smol Ensemble and a duet named Moloq. Having made their debut at the 2019 SoundNow Festival, Smol Ensemble currently comprise Justin Greene, Olivia Kieffer, Amy O’Dell, Monica Pearce and Paul Stevens. The ensemble focuses on works that explore playful timbral sonorities, open endedness, improvisatory elements and all things toy piano-related. Moloq (Jake Aron and Paul Stevens) describe their music as “pushing the notion of pop accessibility” with a wild blend of freaky art-rock, Arabic music and funky grooves.
$10-15 suggested donation. 8 p.m. First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta, 470 Candler Park Dr. NE, Atlanta, 30307 404-378-5570

Wed., Apr.5


OK, CELLO!: Okorie “OkCello” Johnson stretches the established boundaries surrounding the cello at City Winery Atlanta Wed., Apr. 5. PHOTO CREDIT: Henry Jacobs

Okorie “OkCello” Johnson, City Winery — Atlanta’s master cellist combines instrumental prowess with live-sound-looping, improvisation and storytelling to create singular works that inhabit the intersection of classical, jazz, EDM, reggae and funk. Inspired by African diaspora melodies and narratives, Johnson stretches beyond preconceived notions about the classical Western nature of the cello.
$18-$30. 8 p.m. City Winery, Ponce City Market, 650 North Ave. NE., 30308. 404-496-3791.

Tue., Apr. 25


ANAGRAMS & ZIONA: Anagrams (JD Walsh and Jeff Crompton, right) share a double bill with Nashville singer-songwriter Ziona Riley Apr. 25. PHOTO CREDIT (left): Ziona Riley, PHOTO CREDIT (right): Courtesy Jeff Crompton

Anagrams and Ziona Riley, Red Light Café — Anagrams, a duo featuring saxophonist-composer Jeff Crompton and multi-instrumentalist JD Walsh, will perform at Red Light Café on Apr. 25 with Nashville singer-songwriter Ziona Riley as the opener. Anagrams play what Crompton describes “a somewhat bewildering blend of jazz, electronic pop, folk, funk, hip-hop, country, ambient and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting.” Riley is one of those songwriters whose singing voice imbues her music with a sublime poetic beauty, which is simultaneously fragile, provocative, witty and heart-wrenching. For this performance, Riley will be accompanied by fingerpicking guitarist Kevin Coleman.
$10 advance; $15 door. Doors 7:30 p.m, music 8 p.m. Red Light Cafe, Amsterdam Walk, 553-1 Amsterdam Ave NE., 30306. 404-874-7828.

Sat., Apr. 29-Sun., May 7


THE RING’S THE THING: Alberich discovers the Rhine maiden’s gold in the local premiere performance by the Dallas Opera of The Atlanta Opera’s new production of ‘Das Rheingold.’ Wagner’s monumental work runs Sat., Apr. 29-Sun., May 7. PHOTO CREDIT: Scott Suchman/Dallas Opera

The Atlanta Opera presents Das Rheingold, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre — The Atlanta Opera closes out its 2022-23 main stage season with General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun’s new production of Das Rheingold, For the company’s first attempt at staging any opera from Richard Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) or Ring Cycle, Zvulun has reunited with scenic and projections designer Erhard Rom and lighting designer Robert Wierzel. Complemented by the costumes of European Opera Prize-winner Mattie Ullrich, Zvulun set out to capture the opera’s timeless mythology in a style as grandly operatic as opera gets in the 21st century. Das Rheingold recounts the exploits of gods, giants, dwarves and nymphs who inhabit the Rhine as they fixate on and quarrel over a supremely powerful, but cursed, gold ring (sound familiar?) According to the company press release, this production of
For ticket prices and performance times for the four productions, check the Atlanta Opera website. Ticket services: 404-881-8885. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Pkwy, Atlanta, 30339

Sun., Apr. 30-May 1


SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS X 4: Kamasi Washington plays a special four-show engagement at City Winery Atlanta with Moroccan-Dutch singer Ami Taf Ra on Sun., Apr. 30 and Mon., May 1. PHOTO CREDIT: Russell Hamilton

Kamasi Washington, City Winery — The current day saxophone colossus returns to Atlanta for a two-night, four-show stand at City Winery. Known worldwide as a gifted composer and fiercely improvising saxophonist, in 2020, Washington was nominated for GRAMMY®  and Emmy awards for his contributions to the Netflix documentary Becoming, a profile of First Lady Michelle Obama. This special engagement at City Winery Atlanta also features sensational Moroccan-Dutch singer Ami Taf Ra.
$45-$75. 6:30 and 9:30 shows both nights. City Winery, Ponce City Market, 650 North Ave. NE., 30308. 404-496-3791.