David Hughes – Playing Gamelan

David Hughes
Taught music for 22 years at SOAS, University of London; since retiring, now an Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Music, Durham.

First played Javanese gamelan in 1972 at University of Michigan, and have been involved with various ensembles ever since. Spent total 8 months in Java in 1990 & 1995, learning more gamelan, doing research about street musicians etc. Ran a day-long introductory gamelan workshop in Okinawa, 1981. Have played a bit with groups in Japan (where I’ve lived for ten years, as Japanese music is my main research path). Taught gamelan ensemble at SOAS. Spending about a third of my time in Durham, I join the Durham group sessions when possible, and always enjoy performing with them.

One reason that we require all first-year Music students at SOAS to play in the gamelan ensemble is because it truly is a social experience, very different from learning a solo instrument, or playing in a symphony orchestra where one person is up there waving a wand and ordering you about. To play gamelan, you need to learn to LISTEN to other instruments and voices, to take and give signals, to play various instruments of modest technical demand, and then you also have the chance to tackle much more challenging instruments.

This diversity of technical challenge is one reason that gamelan is so popular throughout the UK (there are over 70 gamelan sets in these isles), and so suitable for workshops for community groups or for schoolchildren (e.g. at the Southbank Centre): After a one-hour introductory session, you can leave having played an entire traditional piece, simple but still giving you a sense of achievement and a new experience. But you will also get a taste of the far more advanced level of performance.

Many famous Western classical composers have been influenced by gamelan, including Debussy and Benjamin Britten. Worldwide interest has led to hundreds of new composition for gamelan by people outside Indonesia – including by members of the Durham ensemble!