University Gamelan Ensemble introduces music from underrepresented Sundanese culture


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Members of the University Gamelan Ensemble perform at Bellefield Hall on Nov. 15.

By Aoqin Yan, Staff Writer

The word “gamelan” might not sound familiar to most of us, even to music majors. But Andrew Weintraub playfully defines the word as “super fun” and recommends the University Gamelan Ensemble to all students.

Weintraub, the director of graduate admissions and a professor in the music department, founded the ensemble in 1997. The class plays gamelan music of the Sundanese people and contains a set of predominantly percussion instruments, including tuned gongs, metal-keyed instruments, drums and more. 

Gamelan music usually accompanies many forms of entertainment such as dance, theater, martial arts and concerts. The University Gamelan Ensemble is an optional class in the music department open to all students in each semester — even those without a musical background. 

Weintraub said his mission while organizing the program was to provide students with different cultural experiences through teaching. 

“One of my goals was to teach the kinds of music, and the kinds of things that I wanted to explore more deeply. Gamelan was one of those things,” Weintraub said. “Instead of becoming a professional classical guitarist, I would continue my interest in the music of other cultures. What we’re trying to do is to bring students into different cultures as much as possible.”

Jay Arms, a visiting teaching assistant professor in the music department and current instructor of the University Gamelan Ensemble, provided an in-depth explanation of the word “gamelan” and the history behind it. 

The word “gamelan” has roots in the Javanese language. But as gamelan music has attracted more attention around the world since the twentieth century, Arms said it now encompasses many different kinds of music. 

“[Gamelan] doesn’t refer to one type of ensemble or one type of music. Etymologically, the word comes from the Javanese language, which is not to be confused with the Sundanese language. It means things that are struck, as if with hammers,” Arms said. 

The Gamelan Ensemble at Pitt focuses on Sundanese music, Arms said. This music originates from the Sunda region and ethnic group 一 which occupies approximately the western third of the island of Java in Indonesia.

Members of the University Gamelan Ensemble play instruments during their concert at Bellefield Hall on Nov. 15. (Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer )

Arms also noted that the program’s annual spring concert is one of the most important events of the ensemble, and instructors have invited guest artists from Indonesia.

“The University of Pittsburgh Gamelan presents a range of different styles and music,” Arms said. “It’s not just a demonstration of what we’ve learned, but there’s always something more to it. There’s an interesting musical experience to be had. It’s a really unique experience for this part of the country.”

Because the gamelan class is an introductory-level course open to all students, Weintraub said it is challenging to teach students about collectivity and working together musically. 

“[For] students that have come to Gamelan, 90% of them are not music majors. They are coming to enjoy something. That is definitely challenging,” Weintraub said. “For example, when you first play Gamelan, it’s 12 instruments and 12 people all having to work together, rather than just one person being a virtuoso that everybody else accompanies. So that’s an important lesson about collaborative work, collectivity [and] communitarianism.” 

Weintraub also said it’s harder for students with previous exposure to Western music to learn gamelan music. 

“One interesting story is that when I have had students who have played Western music before 一 like in a music school or a music conservatory 一 if they do have fixed ideas about what the music is supposed to sound like, then that’s more prohibitive, [which] makes it harder to learn,” Weintraub said. 

Beth Wilson, a senior law, criminal justice and society major, said the different patterns in gamelan music are what attracted her to the program.

“A lot of my music classes at Pitt are Western music-based. And I found that Eastern music is just so different from Western music. And I really like to have the exposure to it and really learn from that,” Wilson said. “It has different song structures, different scales and different rhythmic patterns. And it’s just been very cool to learn about other music than what I’ve been brought up with.” 

Weintraub said it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to join the ensemble and play gamelan music at school.

“It’s fun, super fun to play. You meet new people, and it’s just one of those things that you do at a university that’s like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You are never going to do it again,” Weintraub said. “It’s a fun thing that you are gonna do at college, and that’s what college is about. Just try something new.”

Wilson also said students of all backgrounds are welcome to join the ensemble.

“I think it’s a super cool and fun group because you don’t have to be able to read music at all … It’s all learned by ear,” Wilson said. “So I think that that really opens it up to the entire peer community, anyone who’s just interested in learning some new instruments or just a new style of music.”