Cork Community Gamelan: Sound the Gongs

Cork Community Gamelan has finally found a permanent home in the city-centre, and Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with UCC’s Kelly Boyle and Music Generation Cork City’s Margaret O’Sullivan ahead of the project establishing itself in earnest.

Since being installed in University College Cork nearly twenty years ago, the Javanese Gamelan that resides in the college’s Sunday’s Well music campus has been a feature of music education in the city. An ensemble of tuned gongs, metallophones and other percussion renowned for rich, resonant tones, that lend themselves to ambient music and accessible play, a generation of music students now have passed through the college’s music programmes with the ability to play, compose and improvise. But this same accessibility has lent itself to discussion of community outreach, and a wider remit than the halls of academia, says UCC Music Department’s Kelly Boyle. “We’ve had a Gamelan ensemble as part of the curriculum since the mid-nineties, and over that time it’s become a really important part of musicmaking in UCC. As our graduates have gone through the department, some of them have really, really engaged in the performance, and come back to be part of other performances. Over that time, we realised there was interest bigger than the curriculum, and we began to see the instruments and the way of engaging with them had huge potential for community work, for accessibility, for ensemble work and for all the things community work needs, and fosters.”

Such a large collection of instruments and implements surely presents challenges in funding, to say nothing of shipping the various components to Ireland. While UCC’s music heads had previously had experience in heading to Java to see the gongs being forged, it was a new experience for Music Generation, says co-ordinator Margaret O’Sullivan. “I suppose their familiarity made it a bit less challenging for us. It seemed like a very remote, unconnected piece of culture, but when you break it down, it’s just a set of instruments, really. It’s just the scale, and the weight, and once you get them in situ, without too much moving around so they don’t go out of tune, but making sure they are readily available as well. The biggest challenge has been that since they arrived they’ve been in storage but also out to various spaces for community projects. Really, to fulfill our vision, we’ve been looking to get them out, as much as possible, but the challenge was finding a dedicated space.”

At time of writing, the quest to find a permanent home for the Gamelan for use for practice, tuition, etc. was winding to a close, with a residency in Cork Community Artlink on the verge of a formal announcement. The city’s current property and arts space situation was among a number of factors that had to be taken into consideration, says Doyle. “This has been the single biggest issue beyond the decision to get it, fund it and ship it. Finding the home has been the hardest, and we really didn’t anticipate how hard it would be. This is primarily about being in the community, and accessible. That means accessible to all of the demographics that we would want. First and foremost is somewhere close to the city centre, but you also need somewhere secure, as there’s a lot of valuable metal there. So we needed a space that wouldn’t be a thoroughfare for other things, a dedicated space. There are issues even of physical accessibility, as the instruments are wonderful for encouraging people with mobility issues or physical disabilities, so you don’t want it up four flights of stairs. All of those requirements made for a perfect storm of not being to find a home.”

The Cork Community Gamelan has been part of festivals like Quarter Block Party in 2016 and subsequently in Music Generation Cork City’s own May-Hum festivals. It’s been one thing to theorise about how the community would receive this massive installation, and quite another for O’Sullivan to see the reactions from would-be musicians, both in education, outside of the traditional pathways up the ladder. “It’s always really touching, and really moving, to see people experiencing it for the first time. But also going beyond that, getting a deeper experience, even to see groups from primary schools, one particular school came in and they’re studying music, but it’s more along the lines of wind instruments. To see them come in and sit among these unfamiliar instruments, with a little bit of guidance from the musicians of UCC, the way they explain the layering and the story, it’s almost imperceptible. To hear it coming together in a fabric of texture and sound, when you’re listening to a group of ten-year-olds discovering a completely new sound and being in tune with each other, it’s really something special.”

With a residency in place for the foreseeable future, an idea has emerged of what the Community Gamelan group will be better able to accomplish with a permanent home for the Gamelan. With accessibility and participation coming increasingly to the fore in Leeside music, stemming from the improv scene of a few years ago, leading up to more recent workshops like GASH Collective’s DJ/production tutorials for female-identifying/non-binary individuals, the project comes along at the right time. Doyle speaks on what they now can accomplish. “Up to now, all we’ve been able to do is offer once-off taster sessions. You can’t build a programme, give people experience over a long enough period to become familiar with the techniques of playing, the repertoire and to get familiar enough to compose their own pieces. You’re limited in terms of what you can do, and not guaranteed a critical mass of people to turn up (regularly). But we want to give people a more sustained opportunity to engage with this kind of music-making over a period of time, work toward a performance, and get a better sense of the instruments and the tradition they’re from.”

Cork Community Gamelan is of course not the only project of its kind, with UCC’s Mel Mercier overseeing projects like the Irish Gamelan Orchestra. The West Cork Community Gamelan has also launched to success in Skibbereen, to massively positive effect in areas not just of community music, but of mental health. “They’re showing the way in terms of working with mental health services, so that’s another aspect of Gamelan that’s really reaching, offering opportunities to people dealing with challenges, an opportunity to integrate people with this form of musicmaking. The West Cork Gamelan and the West Cork arts in general have been very much paving the way in that area and gaining experience that we can learn from. (We’re hopeful of similar) collaborative opportunities when we’re up and running.”

With the search nearly over for a semi-permanent home for the Cork Community Gamelan project, Boyle’s focus now is on setting down roots, and getting the word out into the community. “The most immediate thing now is to get setup in the space and figure out logistics, which will happen over the summer. Which is nice in some ways, it’s downtime for lots of reasons. Then, coming into the autumn, we’ll have UCC’s community engagement week, the UNESCO Learning Cities Conference, so that gives us a little bit of a focal point for us to arrive and announce ourselves. Other than that, it’s time to get people sitting down to the instruments.”

Cork Community Gamelan is presented by Music Generation Cork City, UCC Music Department, Cork Institute of Technology, the Health Service Executive and Cork Community Artlink.

Geoff Tate: Operation MusicGeneration

Ahead of his acoustic show on the 6th of December in the Crane Lane, raising funds for MusicGeneration Cork, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with prog-rock legend Geoff Tate about music education, his new album, and his Cork connections.

In over thirty years of life on the road, Geoff Tate, formerly of prog legends Queensrÿche, has seen and done it all. Now performing solo and with his band Operation Mindcrime, named for his former project’s career album and its sequel, the man is cool and collected as he speaks over the phone regarding his Cork date on the 6th. Taking to the Crane Lane for an acoustic show that runs through material old and new, Tate speaks on the process of rethinking his tunes for the stripped-back idiom.

“I’ve done acoustic presentations before, I really enjoy it. It’s kind of like a return to the beginnings of the song. Most songs, in my experience, start with acoustic guitar or piano, in terms of composing, so it’s a return to the origins of the song, which, to me, is very honest. I’ve got a wonderful group of Irish musicians backing me up on this tour, in Ireland and through Europe. It’s a band called the Band Ana, from Cork, who are a wonderful band, wonderful musicians. It’s an interesting setup: there’s three acoustic guitars, a cello, violin, mandolin, and percussion. And we all sing. It’s a very big, full sound, and a really unique way of presenting my music and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Tate is a man with a Cork connection, and eagerly discloses his fondness for the Crane Lane in particular. “I’ve actually been, many, many times. I visit Cork City quite a bit, in fact, one of my favourite late-night places to grab something to eat is Arthur Mayne’s, there, connected to the Crane Lane. It used to be a chemist’s, a long time ago, and it’s a nice little spot.”

Proceeds from Tate’s show are to go to Music Generation Cork City, the city’s youth music education programme. Tate outlines the importance of music education to him, and the importance of its role in a well-rounded education. “Y’know, when I started playing music, back when I was nine years old, we had music in schools then. So, I grew up in a music programme. I played in the school orchestra, school band, jazz band, then started writing and composing my own music while still at school. Personally, I think music is a wonderful education, you know, it develops a discipline of mind, and of body, it takes a lot of discipline to master an instrument. You have to really dedicate yourself to it. So, it’s very beneficial to someone, growing up, to learn an instrument.”

Carrying on in the same vein, Tate goes on to speak about his observations on the relationship the Irish have with the artform and expression of music. “I’m always impressed at the level of musicianship I find in Ireland. I’ve been to sixty-four countries, while touring the world, and I’ve never seen the level of musicianship anywhere that I’ve found in Ireland. It seems like the Irish culture really relates to music, they cherish it, and they value it. Programmes like MusicGeneration are fantastic for keeping music education alive, and keeping kids in music.”

Operation Mindcrime has just released, and is now touring, new long-player Resurrection, the second part of an overarching narrative trilogy of concept records. Its creation was inspired by travel and expansion of horizons, says Tate. “It’s quite a piece of work, I have to say. I’ve been interested in the idea of a trilogy musical project for many years now. It all started when my wife and I were travelling in Spain, hiking and walking the Camino del Santiago, the trail that goes across Northern Spain, about a 500-mile trip, and took about a month. And while I was walking the trail, I got the idea for the story for the trilogy. I wrote the whole thing during my time in Spain, and then composed all the music when I got to Seattle. I wrote and recorded the whole trilogy at the same time, with the same groups of musicians. It was a wonderful experience because it was one of those creative waves that just lasts and lasts, and it was kind of sad when it was over. I’m happy it is finished, and that the next record is due next September.”

Resurrection‘s status as a concept record, or rather, part of a triptych of same, presents a series of unique challenges in and of itself, demanding triple the recording time, the attendant budgets for recording, press, manufacture, physical distribution and factoring in cuts for digital distributors. Was it a difficult pitch to make to record companies whose circumstances have arguably been straitened by changes in the industry? “Not really an obstacle. I presented it to Frontiers Music, which is based in Italy, and they loved the idea. They handle a lot of artists, have a fairly large roster, of different kinds of musicians, probably more oriented towards what you would call progressive rock. So I think this was something that they could relate to. They were excited, and I’m glad, because I finally got to realise my dream of presenting this trilogy.”

The hot topic in Ireland’s music industry at present, following several big band splits, is the impact of streaming services on the bottom line of an artist or band. Tate’s perspective is obviously different, coming from a commercially successful band like Queensrÿche, but the issue has not escaped his notice, either, noting the changes that the industry has undergone. “Yeah, I’ve been releasing records for over thirty years, so I’ve seen the industry change radically. Live streaming and piracy has dramatically changed the industry. It’s really gutted it, taken the economy out of it, put people out of business. I suppose everything changes, and you have to be able to adapt to the new world, but it is a shame that somebody couldn’t figure out a way to make it all work, so that you could keep selling your product. It’s not easy to write music, it’s not easy to write albums, and it’s not easy to sell albums. It’s a shame the model couldn’t have been improved on and made work. For example, I was signed to EMI Records, one of the biggest record companies in the world, and they had thousands of employees. People’s families relied on the work they did for the label, and now there isn’t even an EMI.”

Tate’s connection to Ireland originates in Cork, and when asked for interesting road stories from his various excursions here, he instead, surprisingly, reveals the extent of his ties to Cork’s music scene and their personal nature. “My wife was in a village in West Cork several years ago, a place called Glengarriff. She went to a pub there, called Bernard’s. There was a young band playing at the pub, and my wife was so impressed by the band, that she brought them over to the US to play support when I was in Queensrÿche. They played two tours with us, a band called The Voodoos. The band did really well, people loved them, they made a record and then they broke up. Which is unfortunate, but that’s how my connection to Ireland really started. Two of the band members, Nick and Tim, ended up marrying two of my daughters. They’re now my son-in-laws”, he says, laughing. “Kind of bizarre. Cork City and surrounding areas have become a second home to us. My wife and I travel to West Cork quite a bit, and it’s become a place we’ve really fallen in love with.”

Some light chatter on 2017 to finish the conversation turns into a rumination on the never-ending tour that Tate finds himself looking at for the year. “There’s this tour, with the Band Ana, over the next couple of months, around Europe, they’re gonna be touring with me. After that, I’m off on a cruise ship called ‘Shiprocked’, it goes down to the Caribbean, for a week of dates aboard that ship, which is really kind of a paid vacation, it’s wonderful. After that, I’m off to South America, then on to a marathon North American tour in February until Summer. Sometime in the Fall after the release of the next album, I’ll start up all over again. The show that never ends.”

Geoff Tate presents his catalogue of songs acoustically on December 6th at the Crane Lane Theatre, with support from Fire & Water and Mark Daly. Tickets are €20, and all proceeds go to Music Generation Cork City.