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Javanese Gamelan - A unique orchestra of instruments at UL

The Javanese gamelan is an orchestra of 60-plus musical instruments - bronze gongs and metallophones, drums, wooden flute and two-stringed fiddle - which together create a rich, distinctive sound.

The gamelan is the traditional orchestra of Java, Indonesia, where it plays an integral role, alongside dance and various forms of theatre, in the cultural life of the people.

In 2016, Professor Mel Mercier, Chair of Performing Arts at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick, commissioned the master Javanese gamelan maker, Pak Saroyo, to make a new Javanese gamelan for University of Limerick.

The beautiful set of instruments, which were made in Pak Saroyo’s forge, near the court city of Surakarta in Central Java, over a period of several months, were shipped to Ireland and arrived in December 2016.

The UL gamelan was named Sekar Arum (Fragrant Flower) by Pak Saroyo and was launched in February 2017 at a concert in the Irish World Academy.

The University of Limerick gamelan is at the heart of the Academy’s recently established BA World Music and classes on the instruments are popular amongst undergraduate students specializing in vocal studies, contemporary dance and Irish traditional music and dance.

The gamelan has also proven to be a valuable addition to Academy MA programmes in ethnomusicology, community music and music therapy, and it is set to play an important role in the new MA in Composition and Creative Music Practice.

Professor Mercier first encountered Javanese gamelan when studying for his MFA in World Music at the California Institute of the Arts (CALARTS) in the late 1980s, where his teacher was the renowned Indonesian performer and composer K.R.T Wasitodiningrat.

In 1995, he brought the first Javanese gamelan to Ireland - a full set of bronze Javanese musical instruments made by the leading Javanese gongsmith, the late Pak Tentrem, for the Department of Music, University College Cork. 

In 2013, Professor Mercier established the Irish Gamelan Orchestra (IGO) with the aim of developing a collaborative approach to the composition and performance of new, original music for gamelan.

Under the artistic direction of Professor Mercier and assistant directors Kelly Boyle and Kevin McNally the Irish Gamelan Orchestra has, to date, been joined on stage by a host of high-profile performers, including Fiona Shaw, Duke Special, Martin Hayes, Brooklyn Rider, Joseph O’ Connor, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Julie Feeney, Colin Dunne, Kate Ellis and Nick Roth.

The IGO released its critically acclaimed debut CD, The Three Forges, in August 2015. The album features several original composition by Professor Mercier, which are performed by the ensemble in collaboration with a host of Irish and international guests.

In a 2015 review, Goldenplec said: ‘…as a work of music and a work of art in general, it approaches a certain kind of genius’.

The Irish Gamelan Orchestra has appeared in concert at prestigious venues across Ireland, and at The Southbank Centre (London). In 2018 the ensemble represented Ireland at the first International Gamelan Festival in Java, Indonesia.

In 2019, Professor Mercier composed the music with the IGO for the highly acclaimed Gare St Lazare production of Beckett’s How It Is (Part 2).

The IGO will present 17 performances of the work with actors Conor Lovett and Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones) in London in April-May 2020.
-  Andrew Carey 

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