Kevin Kehrberg - The Gamelan Appalachia Project

Warren Wilson College

The Gamelan Appalachia Project

The Gamelan Appalachia Project was a collaboration involving the Warren Wilson College Music Department and three of the college’s student work crews: the Blacksmith Crew, the Fine Woodworking Crew, and the Fiber Arts Crew. A gamelan (\ˈga-mə-ˌlän\) is a percussion-dominated musical ensemble consisting mainly of gongs and metal-keyed xylophone instruments. It is the major orchestra of Indonesia—especially in Java, Bali, and Sunda—and perhaps the most popular Asian ensemble in the world. There are over 150 sets of gamelans in the U.S., mostly in use at major academic institutions (my training in gamelan performance occurred during graduate studies in musicology and ethnomusicology at the University of Kentucky). Normally, individuals must purchase and import these instruments directly from Indonesia. The Gamelan Appalachia Project has distinguished Warren Wilson College as the only institution in the country fabricating a gamelan that contains instruments actually made by the students themselves.

I established the Warren Wilson College Gamelan Ensemble in the spring semester of 2011, during my first year as a new faculty member in the Music Department. Since its inception, the ensemble has performed for a variety of on-campus events as well as in off-campus settings including the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) and educational programs at local elementary and middle schools. While the Gamelan Ensemble has mostly performed on a rented set of instruments owned by Dr. Will Peebles, the Director of the School of Music at Western Carolina University, the College also owned two important pieces of a central Javanese gamelan (gifts from a past donor). The Gamelan Appalachia Project produced student-made instruments to help complete the partial set in the college’s possession. Eventually, the final result will be a set of instruments that physically and sonically represent a profound integration of work and academics within a cross-cultural framework: an Indonesian Gamelan Ensemble featuring instruments played by students and made by students.

The primary aim of the project was the production of a family of saron instruments in three pairs, or a total of six instruments Each instrument contained seven metal keys tuned to a pentatonic (five-note) scale. The head blacksmith in charge of constructing the keys was Hannah Lauzon, a 2012 WWC alumnus and former student crew leader of the college’s Blacksmith Crew. After Lauzon and I worked together to determine the correct dimensions, student blacksmiths helped her carefully cut and forge the metal keys for these instruments. Dr. Peebles, an experienced gamelan tuner, provided Lauzon and the students with assistance and instruction during the tuning process. The production, tuning, and completion of these metal keys represented the project’s most significant component. Once they were completed, I consulted with the college’s Fine Woodworking Crew in constructing, carving, and finishing wooden resonator stands—modeled after an Indonesian example and using wood from the college forest—for the keys. I also helped this crew fashion the wooden mallets used to strike the instruments. While not directly connected with instrument production, the Fiber Arts Crew agreed to study and utilize Indonesian batik techniques to create a collection of authentic sarongs—depicting WWC’s school colors—as the centerpiece of the Gamelan Ensemble’s performance dress. This crew also received input from Dr. Siti Kusujiarti, Chair of the Sociology/Anthropology Department and an Indonesian native who received extensive dance training in her homeland of Central Java. The staff supervisors of these three work crews—Tom LaMuraglia (Blacksmith), Doug Bradley (Fine Woodworking), and Melanie Wilder (Fiber Arts)—all helped implement their particular project component and manage its completion.

Project Outcomes

Student workers from various Warren Wilson College work crews successfully built six gamelan instruments (saron) and made sixteen batik sarongs. While the sarongs began being worn by WWC Gamelan Ensemble performers in the spring of 2013, the instruments and sarongs debuted together at two performances during the spring of 2014. The first was at a campus celebration following WWC’s Work Day 2014 on April 2, 2014. Work Day is an annual spring event during which regular classes are cancelled and the entire WWC community (staff, faculty, and students) complete campus work projects to recognize and celebrate the college’s work program. It provided a perfect opportunity to showcase this project and its unique collaboration of the work program with academics. The second performance was a public concert on Sunday, May 11, 2014, at the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) in Black Mountain, NC.

While the physical products and performances reflect the most immediate goals of this project, the project also met cross-cultural student learning objectives. Hannah Lauzon, a 2012 WWC alumnus and the head blacksmith on the project, researched both Indonesian and other “homemade” gamelans in New York City and at Cornell University to inform her approach to smithing the bars. She shared this knowledge with student members of the Blacksmith Crew. Students from the Fine Woodworking Crew researched and used Javanese wooden stands as models on which they based their unique design. Finally, the Fiber Arts Crew received input on Javanese batik design from knowledgeable faculty and staff before initiating its work. While the Gamelan Appalachia Project lacked the time and resources to complete a thorough assessment of personal learning among the students and student workers involved, the quality of the final products and performances speaks volumes about the amount of student learning experienced and the effectiveness of the project’s integration of the work and academic programs at WWC.