Creating and Composing New Music for Gamelan
The Irish Gamelan Orchestra (IGO) (formerly Cork Gamelan Ensemble) was established in 2013 with the aim of developing a collaborative approach to the composition and performance of new music for gamelan. Born out of twenty years of music-making in the Seomra Gamelan (Gamelan Room) at the Department of Music, University College Cork, the Irish Gamelan Orchestra performs a repertoire of original music, which is co-created with a variety of artists across a wide range of genres.To date, the ensemble has been joined on stage by a host of performers, including Duke Special, Fiona Shaw, Kate Ellis, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Nick Roth, Caitríona O’Leary, Julie Feeney, Martin Hayes, Ken Edge, West Cork Ukulele Orchestra, Matthew Noone, Malachy Robinson, poet Matthew Sweeney and dancers Colin Dunne and Nick Gareis.
Instruments: Nyai Sekar Madu Sari and Sekar Arum
The Irish Gamelan Orchestra performs on both the University College Cork (UCC) and University of Limerick (UL) gamelan instruments. In 1994, the UCC gamelan instruments were commissioned by Mel Mercier from the master gamelan maker, Pak Tentrem Sarwanto. The gamelan was made at Pak Tentrem’s forge in the court city of Solo, Central Java. where fifteen craftsmen worked over a period of three months to forge the sixty-plus instruments that make up the set. The UCC instruments were first played by a group of leading Solonese musicians at a naming ceremony at Pak Tentrem’s forge in the summer of 1995, where the gamelan was given the name Nyai Sekar Madu Sari (meaning ‘Venerable Flower of Honey Essence’) in honour of one of Solo’s legendary female gamelan vocalists, Nyi Bei Mardusari.In December 2016 the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick received delivery of a new gamelan, which was made by the master gong-smith, Pak Saroyo, at his forge in the Sukoharjo Regency, near the court city of Surakarta (Solo), in the Summer of 2016. Pak Saroyo named the gamelan Sekar Arum – Fragrant Flower.The Javanese gamelan is an orchestra of tuned percussion instruments – bronze gongs and metallophones, drums, wooden flute and two-stringed fiddle – which together create distinctive and rich sonorities. The instruments of the gamelan are arranged into two tonal families: slendro and pelog. Slendro has five, almost equally spaced notes in the octave, and pelog has seven, variously spaced notes in the octave.
The practice of composing new music for gamelan – both within the traditional idiom (kreasi baru) and through employing more experimental approaches (komposisi baru) – is thriving in Java and is common amongst ensembles outside of Indonesia. The first newly composed pieces performed on the UCC gamelan were Kondangan, by the renowned Javanese performer and composer KRT Wasitodinigrat, and an excerpt from Alicesongs, by the English composer, Adrian Lee. In 2004, Linda Buckley and Mel Mercier collaborated to compose Telephones and Gongs, the first piece of original music written specifically for the UCC ensemble. Since then, Mel has co-composed music for the ensemble with several other composers, performers and improvisers, and the Irish Gamelan Orchestra repertoire continues to grow.The group released its debut CD, The Three Forges, in August 2015 on the Diatribe Records label. The album features a collection of original compositions performed by the ensemble in collaboration with a host of Irish and international guests, including vocalists Iarla Ó Lionáird, Duke Special and Julie Feeney, dancer Colin Dunne, saxophonist Nick Roth, cellist Kate Ellis and West Cork Ukulele Orchestra.

The encounters between the Irish Gamelan Orchestra and guest collaborators begin in the gamelan rooms at UCC and UL where new compositions are forged as distinct musical worlds push into each other and shared musical space is discovered. Reflecting on his experience of collaborating with the ensemble to make the title track on The Three Forges CD, singer Iarla Ó Lionáird describes his discovery of a musical space ‘in-between’ sound worlds:

Approaching a musical encounter with the gamelan, it was natural to feel both pull and quail in the face of the unknown. An alien language in every sense, with sonorities and textures that usually gave the sense of spaces and tones of the in-between; but so beguiling too, so inviting, like a dark forest – bells tinkling in the hidden distance, a music of charms and prayers, of meditation and dream. I searched therefore for a bridge, a metaphor that would translate it for me and me for it. And, recalling Mel’s story to me of how he had travelled to Java to witness the great resonant bowls cast and forged in fire as an intrinsic part of their coming into existence with a sacred naming ceremony, I remembered the three tests that our ancient bards undertook to forge their craft and bring their worded mastery into being. They called these tests “the three forges.” And so our song, drawn from the early 17th century poem “Aonar Dhomsa Eidir Dhaoinibh,” one of the very last bardic texts, forms the heart of our coming together.

Three sanctuaries wherein we took rank,

three forges that sustained

the loving company of artists,

houses that bound comrades together.

The three forges wherein

I was wont to find mental delight,

Embers red and shining

A universe of art