Can there be said to be such a thing as a British gamelan culture?
Even in these days of globalization, intercultural exchange and an internationalized "world music" scene, the case of Indonesian arts abroad is a unique one. The number of dedicated students around the world studying Indonesian music, dance, and puppetry on a professional level continues to grow, enthusiastically supported--indeed often generated--by the Indonesian government's generous darma-siswa scholarship program, which encourages overseas students to study at Indonesian institutes of performing arts.
Gamelan became a staple of ethnomusicological study in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s under the leadership of Mantle Hood, who was inspired by his teacher Jaap Kunst, a Dutch specialist in Javanese music. Hood believed that students of ethnomusicology should attempt to become "bi-musical," learning to play music of other cultures (Hood 1960). Gamelan was the ideal tool for this, employing very different musical structures and tuning from Western forms, and it soon became de rigueur for any aspiring ethnomusicology department in the United States, often peopled by graduates from Hood's UCLA training, to own one. Dance, wayang, and sendratari (dance-dramas) often followed, first staged by Indonesian artists but over time by Westerners who studied in Indonesia, in the United States, or both. Still, often it was the music that came first, since it was in departments of music that the movement had established its locus.
The trend took rather longer to catch on in the United Kingdom. In 1982, the University of York became the first teaching institution to acquire a full Javanese gamelan, after years of petitioning by lecturer Neil Sorrell, (1) who joined the faculty in 1973. He studied for his doctorate at Wesleyan University, where Hood's "bi-musicality" approach flourished. Sorrell commissioned Gamelan Sekar Petak (Gamelan of the White Flower, an allusion to the white rose of Yorkshire) from the workshop of Tentrem Sarwanto in Solo, Java. Until then, the only other Javanese gamelans were the Indonesian embassy's set, which they brought over in 1979, and a rather idiosyncratic, unplayable collection of instruments in the British Museum donated by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1816. The first full Balinese gamelan was a gong kebyar obtained by Dartington College in 1979 (Mendonca 2002: 158).
Sorrell was also a founding member of the first performing group in the United Kingdom, the English Gamelan Orchestra, established in 1980 to take advantage of the Indonesian embassy's recent acquisition of a gamelan. This group was instrumental in setting the tone for future British engagement with Javanese music: with their first concert scheduled only a few weeks after they were established, rather than submit the audience to an entire concert of simple, beginner-level classical works, they added new compositions to the program and over the years developed a number of pieces written by members of the group (Sorrell 2011: 9). So from the very outset British gamelan became defined as much by contemporary music as traditional.
In the early days, the focus was largely on music alone, with theatre and dance generally absent from performances by British groups, apart from a few homegrown forays, such as a gamelan-less wayang practical project with York students in 1975. However, Indonesian theatre received a major boost in 1987 thanks to the enthusiasm of the Indonesian ambassador, S. Suhartoyo, who happened to be an amateur dhalang (puppeteer). In 1987, he performed a wayang kulit (shadow puppet play) with Gamelan Sekar Petak, thought to be the first time British players had accompanied Javanese wayang (Sorrell n.d.[a]). Meanwhile, composers were beginning to experiment with combining other theatrical forms with gamelan, for example Adrian Lee's Alice Songs (1987), a music theatre piece for gamelan and narrator, which he later followed with full-scale theatrical performances such as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1992). …