Gamelan Son of Lion is a new music repertory ensemble based in downtown New York City specializing in contemporary pieces written for the instruments of the Javanese gamelan. There are about a hundred active gamelan ensembles in the United States at the current time. Gamelan Son of Lion now rates among the oldest of these, having performed continuously since 1976. It is also one of the few in this country which operate independently of institutions as a professional music ensemble.
The ensemble was begun by a core group of composers: Barbara Benary, Daniel Goode, and Philip Corner. Its repertoire centers on new compositions by these and other American composers, both ensemble members and commissioned guests. The repertoire represents a variety of contemporary music styles. The gamelan has also performed experimental works by Indonesian composers, a number of pieces involving gamelan with electronic music, and several theatre works involving opera, wayang kulit, multimedia and dance. More than a hundred pieces have been premiered by the ensemble since its inception.
Gamelan Son of Lion is organized as a not-for-profit corporation and has been supported in its presentations by the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, Arts International and several private foundations. The ensemble performed as guests of the Government of Indonesia at Expo 86 in Vancouver, Canada, and toured Java in 1996, participating in the Jogjakarta Gamelan Festival and the Borobudur Festival. More recent tours have been to New Zealand and Estonia.
Gamelan Son of Lion's instruments were built in village style by Barbara Benary using steel keys, cans for resonators, hubcaps for kempul, etc. They are tuned in a typical central Javanese non-diatonic slendro and pelog. The initial instrument designs were provided by Dennis Murphy, an ethnomusicologist, multi-cultural musician and experimental instrument builder from Vermont.
The set was later supplemented by new iron gongs and bonang by Suhirdjan of Jogjakarta.
Son of Lion began its life as a gamelan composer’s collective in 1976, when the instruments were moved to New York City from Rutgers University, where Barbara Benary had originally built them to use in teaching. From the beginning, Son of Lion had a profound commitment to democracy in choosing pieces to be played. Benary and co-founders Philip Corner and Daniel Goode have firmly believed in and fiercelydefended this founding principle, which they credit with enabling the ensemble to endure the changes of time and personnel over 30 years. As Benary states, “It was part of our vision — me, Dan and Phil. A piece could work or not, whether it was by a student or an established artist. I also feel committed to work by people outside the collective, and try to get at least two people who are not in the group represented in programs each year.” Even with this broad-reaching policy, each of the founding composers brought a strong personal compositional perspective and ensemble aesthetic to the group.
Benary’s early work had been melodically centered, and was often for theater or opera. A violinist Benary became more involved with the music of India and Indonesia while completing graduate studies in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University where she studied Javanese gamelan music. As Son of Lion became more active, “naturally, gamelan became my instrument,” Benary explains. “So I write pieces that take into account what the instruments do, what the tuning does, what the tuning doesn’t do.” Benary drew on her traditional training as well as her theatrical interests to do several shadow puppet operas with gamelan. “In composing operatic music for gamelan my thinking has been much more western and I have pushed the instruments in that direction. My melodic thinking is actually very western, but you know, it goes both directions. The things I learned just became part of what I know, a total vocabulary. I know what a dominant chord is, I know what the Javanese form Sampak is. I don’t really think categorically.”
Goode, a clarinetist who had been composing since 1959, first got to know the gamelan instruments as a performer. His involvement with Son of Lion increased after the move to New York, when he also became familiar with the work of Benary, Corner and early collective members. “I was urged invited, cajoled and almost teased into writing my first gamelan piece,” Goode recalls. “I had already premiered a clarinet piece using circular breathing, which is continuous, with all the bells and whistles of minimalism, a totally committed minimalist piece.” Translating an existing piece to gamelan seemed a good first step, and Goode wasthrilled to find that “it worked technically and spiritually.” His compositions for gamelan continued to draw on contemporary developments inexperimental music. “I was interested in Cage, I was interested in all these new procedures, I was interested in numeric patterns, in random numbers. We were just a buzzing factory of new ideas then. I thought I could make a beautiful piece with random numbers, and up with three different three pieces using random numbers, one of which is on the first record.” [now re-issued by Locust Records as "The Complete Gamelan in the New World."] Goode also began to work with metal hubcaps as instruments, and these were to become one of Son of Lion’s trademark sounds.
When asked what gamelan has added to his life, Goode replied with warm intensity. “Lushness. It is a whole realm, a canvas in my mind. It is a living tradition, and sitting and playing and working with people year after year — we don’t have too many things like that. I still write western music with completely different points of view, models, and techniques, yet I am bi-cultural to the degree that I have adapted to thinking like a gamelan composer. It gave me a whole new way to be involved with this music; it made it real.”
Benary sums up the essential identity of Gamelan Son of Lion as a “composer’s collective and repertory ensemble.” She mentions occasionally thinking about ending her focus on gamelan, but, fortunately for us, she has always changed her mind! (gamelansonoflion)