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.

Han-Earl Park: Music for the Moment

Ahead of his upcoming performance as part of the Sirene 1009 ensemble at the School of Music, Han-Earl Park speaks with Mike McGrath-Bryan about improvisation, musical machinery and more.

For the past twenty years, Han-Earl Park has been on a journey in more than one sense: while travelling the world and collaborating with local musicians and sound-artists in cities around the world, his work has progressively endeavoured to explore the boundaries of noise and musicality. Park outlines the questions that lead him to improvise for answers. “The possibility of music in noise, or of noise in music? For performances that border on chaos, exquisite in detail, yet, in the moment, can convince you of such a thing as perfection? Performances that are physical and social at different scales? Ellington. It all starts with Duke Ellington.”

Seldom do the worlds of music/sound-art and officialdom meet, and it’s always a curiosity to see a contemporary musician funded by the Arts Council. How does it affect/ameliorate one’s work in sound and what does Park reckon of the role in public funding of avant-garde and improvisational music? “I tend to agree that what creative people seek (both artists and audiences), and what art organizations are designed and pressured to support are very rarely the same thing, but, as long as you’re not making art to spec, I think it can be a good relationship. In our post-prosperity, neo-liberal nightmare it’s too easy to redefine ‘access’ into an empty promise, but, funding, done right, is about possibilities—allowing folk beyond the independently wealthy, say, to create and experience the imaginative, the boundary-breaching, the left-field, the subversive or the discordant.”

Park’s dedication to exploration of sound’s outer limits haven’t stopped at his own hand: along with collaborators, he has constructed a semi-autonomous robot, styled after b-movie service droids, to “perform” music of (almost) its own compunction. Io 0.0.1 beta++ performs live, with human collaborators on hand to monitor its physical wellbeing, document its output, and discuss its programming. “Who wasn’t that kid dreaming of machines performing the unlikeliest tasks? Occupying the unlikeliest roles? The idea is as old as the anthropology of robots. My machine musician is a descendent of constructions from the Al-Jazari’s automata ensemble to George E. Lewis’ improvising computer programs to Sara Roberts’ virtual families.”

Park is best known in Cork as a facilitator, more so than a lecturer, of improvisation in UCC’s music department between 2006 and 2011. He discusses his experiences and interactions during his time at the facility as a learning experience of its own. “Teaching improvisation – or creating the social space in which students teach themselves – is like going back to school; you learn a lot, both in terms of clarifying what you already know, and about the learning process.”

His lasting mark on the Cork scene came with the foundation of live event series Stet Lab in 2006. The development of an improvisation scene in Cork followed in close order, with numerous improv and drone outfits in its wake, including the Mersk collective, and coincided with the rise of other strains of experimental event, such as avant-garde outpost Black Sun. Park recalls his time running the events. “Stet Lab almost seemed to exist on parallel tracks from all the other goings on in Cork (and not for lack of effort trying to get cross-pollinations). One thing I will say about the Lab’s effect on the scene: ‘improvised music’ as term of currency in Cork, as far as I know, was a direct result of Stet Lab. Incidentally, I think it’s interesting that certain figures have largely been forgotten, or no longer talked about, in Cork. I’m thinking of Rajesh Mehta in particular. A lot of the structures that we now recognize as underpinning improvisative practices and communities in Cork solidified in the wake of his work here.”

Park performs as part of ensemble Sirene 1009 with collaborators and from the sounds of it, the collective is planning something cavernous for their date on May 19th at the Cork School of Music’s Stack Theatre. “Here’s what the group sounds/looks like from where I sit on stage: Dom Lash’s confident and enthusiastic interjections in sound and line; Mark Sander’s unerring inventiveness – leaping any and all obstacles to musicality with gestures small and large; and Caroline Pugh’s pulling in-and-out of musical and linguistic spaces with her spontaneous conlangs. That’s the soup. The question is: how do those particular elements collide on the night?”

The ongoing journey continues for Park, after his most recent stint in Cork concludes, with another ensemble of his criss-crossing the continent, exploring spaces and venues around Europe. “In November, I’m going on a European tour with Eris 136199, possibly tied as my favorite group. It’s a transatlantic trio with the avant-rock guitarist and computer artist Nick Didkovsky, and saxophonist-composer Catherine Sikora. Eris is a little noisier, if just as musical and unruly, as my other projects – it combines melody and dissonance, ideas of counterpoint and idiom in particular ways that I find always surprising and fascinating. Catherine is also performing at the Stack Theatre (with drummer Dan Walsh), if you want to catch a sense of some of that.”

Improvisation has been a non-traditional route into music for numerous musicians on Cork city’s scene today, as touched upon earlier. On a parting note, Park explores the notion of improv as a non-traditional means of exploring one’s own creativity. “Y’know, I’ve never seen anything nontraditional about what I do. At least for me, the ‘musician’ (as a laboring class) still has the possibility of radicalism—in its physicality, its sociality—so it’s not a question of tradition vs. radicalism, but whether the tradition you’re engaging with, and the way you are engaging with it, helps you dream of the possible, or whether it only allows you to see the-way-things-are (the aforementioned post-prosperity, neo-liberal nightmare, for example).”

Sirene 1009 play the Stack Theatre at the School of Music on May 19th. Doors 7.30pm. Tickets at €16 (standard), €10 (concession) and €5 (UCC/CIT music students) on sale now from