International Novelty Gamelan: Everybody can compose, just like everyone can draw

Categories: Q&A

For 12 years, local ensemble International Novelty Gamelan has been composing and performing with a variety of unique instruments in an eccentric spin on the traditional Gamelan music of Indonesian culture. Currently comprised of six members, International Novelty Gamelan will be performing an acoustic set of all newly composed songs -- one by each of its members -- at Heliotrope X this Thursday evening. They will be the only group to perform outdoors at the festival.

The term Gamelan originated on the island of Java and Bali. It is generally used to describe a set of a wide variety of instruments including xylophones, gongs, and various percussion instruments, that are built and tuned to stay together.

International Novelty Gamelan's music may be best described as ambient drone, though it is extremely difficult to categorize. The group has found that their sound transcends age and genre barriers. As they prepare to debut their new songs as well as make an important album release announcement at Heliotrope, the group chatted with Gimme Noise about their unique niche.

Gimme Noise: How did International Novelty Gamelan begin?

Elaine Evans: The group started back in 2002, with a group of us that had been playing in a Javanese gamelan group in the Twin Cities. We had one concert where our group organizer had encouraged everybody to compose, and so we did compositions from the people in that traditional music group. It was a lot of fun, and really opened up our eyes.

We don't just have to play these traditional songs from across the world; we can be composing songs ourselves for these sets of instruments. They're really well set-up for composing. They sound great, and they're really beautiful. So, a group of us started playing on our own and composing. Everybody in the group composes. It developed from that idea -- of wanting to make our own music on these instruments.

Can you tell us a bit about the instruments?

Chris Parker: The instruments are made into two different tuning systems, which you're supposed to stay away from sometimes, especially in Western music. The instruments are tuned when they're made. You can whittle away at them, and when you tune them they're pretty much tuned as a set, as the set it made. The person who makes the set decides on the tuning. We play different sets for songs that sound different.

How did you initially become interested in using these particular instruments?

Parker: My sister invited me to a gamelan event, where we were invited onstage after the performance to try the instruments. It was just, man, there were so many cool sounds on one stage. Gamelan is really kind of forgiving.

I sat down and somebody showed me how to hold the beaters, and what to hit. I started doing that, and it sounded pretty good. Another totally ignorant person sat down next to me and started playing something else, and we both sounded pretty good together, in total ignorance. A third person sat down, and it still sounded good. Then they said, guess what, you can sign up for lessons! So I did.

It's a fairy tale.

Parker: Yeah, it was, kind of. Then the learning curve starts, of course. But, it's really forgiving at that beginning moment. It's just sweet.

Do any of you have a particular tie to the cultural relevance of the instruments?

Parker: No, we're a bunch of white people. (laughs)

The instruments are from Java. The traditional kind of music we learned is Javanese. That island is full of palaces. People play gamelan everywhere -- in factories.

What is your creative process like when composing music?

Evans: In terms of the creative process, one of the interesting things with all of the different people composing is the different approach that everybody has. For some, the whole thing is there all at once, and everything is all worked out completely. Some people just come in with a rhythm or an idea that's more abstract, and we work it out, and when they hear it together they'll work out the parts for everyone.

It's really encouraging to see what everybody can do with composing. I think particularly in our society, people think that other people compose music. Like, kids in school, they draw pictures and they do all of these things, but they don't make their own songs in a music class. You sing someone else's songs. But everybody can compose, just like everyone can draw. That's my soapbox about composing. I think everybody should try it! Once you open your mind up to the fact that you can do it, it just starts coming out.

Kathy Knight: I've been doing this about the same amount of time as everybody else, but I just started writing. I wrote one song like five years ago and hated it. I always knew how difficult it was, and I know for a fact how many hours of work it takes. It has been good for me. It took me two years to write this eight-measure thing that I have now, but it has been so good for me. It really got me going again. All of the sudden I had a second song. Maybe two years from now it will be done.

There are people that have been in and out of the group, but it is a nice mix of different kinds of songs and different personalities writing the songs. It works for everyone.

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