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Monday, 24 November 2014

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Making soundwaves with gongs, chimes and drums

WEST Cumbria is about to acquire one of the finest sets of traditional Indonesian percussion instruments in Britain.

The gamelan orchestra, made up of bronze gongs, chimes and drums, will be shared with Gateshead and the North East and will be welcomed at a ceremony and concert at Carlisle Cathedral on November 20.

The 50 instruments were made to order in the workshops of master craftsman Pak Tentrem in Surakartaon, on the island of Java.

Chris Stones of Soundwave, Workington’s music development agency, travelled to south-east Asia to watch some emerge from the forge.

“First they take one part tin to three parts copper to make the alloy bronze,” he said.

“Next, they take a plug of bronze and super-heat it in a forge until it glows a fiery red. Then it is removed and three workers start beating it into shape using heavy iron hammers which make a strange music as they come down one after another.

“No pictures can convey the intense heat, especially in the furnace room.”

With Chris Stones in Indonesia, was Sarah Kekus, head of schools programme at the Sage, Gatehead.

They and the organisations they represent have been the prime movers in bringing the gamelan to the North and the £40,000 project has also been supported by Newcastle Music Service and Newcastle University’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a £10,000 donation by Big Lottery Funding.

The gamelan can be divided into two orchestras, one for Cumbria, the other for the North East , and the two will be combined once a year for a major event.

But why bring Asian exotic instruments to Cumbria? Sarah started it all when she set up a gamelan at Wyndham School in Egremont 15 years ago and it has since been used extensively by children and adults.

“I was introduced to gamelan at a teachers’ workshop at the South Bank Centre in London,’’ she said.

“I was entranced and enchanted. The gamelan is such a great way of getting into music. It is really accessible.”

The Wyndham gamelan is made of iron; the new one is made of the finest bronze.

Chris said the difference between the two orchestras is like that of a decent upright piano and a Steinway concert grand.

He discovered gamelan while studying music at York University and then studied for three years in Indonesia before working for a spell with a gamelan orchestra at the Indonesian embassy in Prague.

“The benefits for those who come to play gamelan are to do with the way the orchestra works,” he said.

“If you want to play in a western orchestra, you have to put in six or seven years of hard graft to master your instrument.

“The beauty of gamelan is that the technique can be very simple, anyone can start to play within half an hour and enjoy the pleasure of making music in a large group.

“Beginners and master musicians can play alongside each other as an entire musical community is created within one set of instruments.

“Today, children don’t tend to play instruments in large groups, and to play as a whole class is quite challenging for them.

“We work with GCSE and A-level groups as well as entire classes of primary pupils.”

Sarah added: “You cannot play a gamelan by yourself. You have to have friends to be able to play one.

“It is a great way to develop communication because you have to listen.”

Chris added that, when first confronted with a gamelan, children think they have been shown an exotic playroom.

“All they want to do is bash the instruments and for the first ten minutes they create a horrific noise. We then have to organise that noise.”

Although a gamelan can be loud, the sound is soft, never causing pain to the eardrums. “People are not necessarily going to like the music at once,’’ said Sarah. “But to play it is a good way to get into it. It uses numbers rather than names for notes but there is no possibility of getting scared by the score – there isn’t one.”

At Carlisle Cathedral, players from Cumbria and the North East will be joined by students from York University.

Dancers will also perform and the new orchestra will once again be named The Spirit of The Two Seas, a reference to the Irish and North seas of Cumbria and the North East .

“It was quite something when I first saw all the instruments set out,” said Chris.

“When first made, the instruments are extremely shiny, although they later mellow. It was a breathtaking moment when I first heard it played. It was a time to be very still and quiet.”

Soundwave is a member of the West Cumbrian Arts Partnership, a consortium of performing arts organisations and individuals who are committed to developing participatory work in communities within West Cumbria.

Cockermouth’s Kirkgate Centre, also a member of the partnership, was overrun with excited young people recently as part of its school holiday project.

The three-day activity offered the opportunity to experience acting, theatre design, animation, costume design and assemblage, music making, song writing and storytelling.

Run in association with the Kirkgate Centre and Young Cumbria, the activities were led by Storytree’s Rosy Thurston and New Music North’s Celia and Russell Burbush.

Rosy, graduate apprentice theatre practitioner at Storytree, said: “It was manic, but an utterly fantastic experience.

“We started on the first morning by telling a Maori story and the aim of the workshop is to bring that story to life through different platforms and end with a live performance.”

Ten- to 16-year-olds were divided into groups and each tackled a different area. One group looked at costume and design; another at music and song writing; while the others wrote the narration for the story.

“The story was about two ‘taniwha’ but I didn’t tell them what they actually were,” Rosy said. “The children had to decide what they were and what they looked like.

“The story was open to interpretation as to what happened so they had to come up with their own ideas.

“They were very much in control of where the story went – their imaginations were allowed to run wild and they always came up with something far better than we ever could.

“It’s a great method as every time you do it, you get a different outcome.”

The three-day workshops teach storytelling techniques such as eye contact and projection, how to use words to personalise a story, and how to create an atmosphere using your voice.

The team demonstrated how to tell a story through images and pictures.

“The mixture of platforms allows for a much richer experience for all involved and everyone got to try different activities,” Rosy added.

“It’s great to be able to collaborate with other artists and you can see how the children bond.

“They are able to take their ideas much further and you can really see their confidence grow.”

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