What is a Community Gamelan?

Gamelan Dharma Swara at Basilica SoundScape • Photo Credit: Leonard Nevarez

Gamelan Dharma Swara at Basilica SoundScape • Photo Credit: Leonard Nevarez


Previously published on September 13, 2017 In: Ahead of the Beat

As a student and performer of gamelan for over a decade, I have struggled to succinctly answer this question, especially as it relates to Gamelan Dharma Swara (GDS), the New York-based Balinese music and dance ensemble to which I have belonged for nearly as long.

When I joined GDS in 2007, the idea of a community ensemble was fairly easy to comprehend: in my teens I participated regularly in the community band, performing flute and piccolo at the local park during the summer months.  The band was made up of my friends and neighbors, young and old; we played John Philip Sousa, and the vibe was casual.  When GDS was founded back in the 80’s, it was indeed a community ensemble, and when I became a member some fifteen years later, it had maintained this profile even as it became increasingly renowned for its performance of mainly traditional repertoire.

But in the years since, Gamelan Dharma Swara pursued exceptional opportunities that have consequently fueled new ideas about our potential, artistic and cultural impact, projects, and how we engage with audiences.  Most notably, an invitation to perform at the Bali Arts Festival in 2010 validated our ability to bring a new level of discipline and dedication, and achieve astonishingly high levels of artistic and technical execution in front of discerning Balinese audiences.  Then in 2014, we performed at Basilica SoundScape–billed as an “immersive, innovative weekend of art, music and culture”–which prompted us to think more deliberately about the work we do in the context of the larger pop culture landscape, how our audiences experience our performances and interact with our ensemble.

In this light and only recently President of the ensemble, I appreciate more fully the obstacles to simply stating what we are and do as a matter of community, and yearn to engage ourselves in dialogue as to how we contend with them in the course of my leadership and beyond.  

The word “community” is a loaded term, and assumes specific connotations in performing arts, some of which fairly reflect the collaborative ethos of GDS, yet fail to illustrate our ensemble’s high ambitions. None of our members perform Balinese arts for a living–and admittedly our model does not facilitate this sort of reality either–but gamelan is far from being a hobby for many of us:  it is a serious dedication of time and pursuit of artistic expression, discovery, and excellence.  Now more than ever it is leaning in the direction of adopting a “professional” mentality or approach without it being that in name.

As part of ensemble leadership, I hold responsibility to nurture a passion for learning and performing the Balinese arts among our members, and enable an environment that facilitates such on an ongoing basis.  In the days since our ambitions have grown, so, too, have the number of complex organizational topics with which we have had to contend (eg. do any members of a certain skill level or contribution receive compensation and, if so, when?), and so, too, have we realized that circumstances from which we had previously benefited (eg. free rehearsal space, strings attached), were now undermining our goals and overshadowing the joy that membership in the ensemble ought to bring.  These challenges and our various responses to them caused the last few years to feel like an extended period of transition without a timeline for relief, and ultimately prompted leadership to embark on this study to find answers.

Over the course of time, however, this study evolved from being a search for solutions into a contemplation on existing along the continuum between the two poles “community” and “professional”, and more importantly, a deep exploration of which issues took precedent.  Conducted by members of our ensemble, including those of leadership, this study represents the collaborative dynamic we have always sought to embody together.  The relatively simple conclusions to which the study arrives belie the huge investments of time and effort by all of us involved.  The research was conducted nearly two years ago, and writing only recently completed (click here to view the full study report).  At the same time, our ensemble has continued to evolve, and as soon as analyses was done, leadership immediately began undertaking steps to address the areas of focus as identified in the study, and which, in the spirit of an epilogue, I wanted to share:

  • Independence – invest in arrangements that limit external constraints on key activities and ensemble development
  • As referenced in the study, GDS had already purchased a new set of instruments in 2015, and at time of the study were still awaiting their arrival, which came to fruition in April 2017
  • One year in advance of instrument arrival, drew up a tear sheet of our key residency needs (very, very important), and embarked on a search to find rehearsal space via institutional partnerships as well as affordable options; ultimately identified an appropriate space within a Long Island City music school, where we’re paying rent for the first time
  • Clarity in communication – provide clear documentation on operational policies and procedures to ensure alignment on expectations among membership; invite member deliberation and offer transparent guidance on decision-making
      • Developed and implemented in Summer 2017 an onboarding process for prospective members where commitment expectations and leadership promises are communicated in advance
      • Begun project to compile a Member Handbook so that all such expectations and promises are appropriately memorialized
      • Plan to hold membership forums in the next year to invite dialogue on issues such as member compensation
  • Agility – introduce pedagogical models and programs that streamline learning and empower the ensemble to flex to various circumstances and opportunities
    • Plan to introduce a Beginner’s class for new members in Fall 2017 to develop requisite skills and basic knowledge so that rehearsal time is preserved for learning repertoire and ensemble development
    • Implementing two complementary teaching methods working in parallel:
      • Engaging Balinese guest artist to lead some rehearsals on developing artistry and ensemble-playing through repertoire
      • Without Balinese guest artist, leading balance of rehearsals that move away from rote-based learning, further focus on building technique, and intellectual understanding through repertoire

These actions notwithstanding, our work is not and never done.  Some members will inevitably leave, and new members will eventually join; our circumstances and objectives may accordingly change.  Regardless, I believe the insights set forth in the study are relevant for us and other ensembles at any time, and as a new leader, I am eager to build upon them to re-establish a strong foundation for GDS–community gamelan or not. Indeed over the course of this study, I’ve come to terms that what matters least is fitting neatly in others’ understanding of “what is”, and that we must cultivate our own definition, while maintaining a healthy perspective that doing so will require a generous capacity for experimentation, patience, and optimism.

As participants or supporters of music- and arts-making, we all share an interest in cultivating, touching, and engaging community–and we are a community unto itself.  My hope is then that you will find the study of interest, perhaps come to additional conclusions for GDS, your ensemble, and even ensembles at large.  And should it be so, know that you are among friends who are eager to hear your perspective.


This post was written by Victoria Lo Mellin of Gamelan Dharma Swara, a Paul R. Judy Center grant recipient. Share your thoughts with her via email at: victoria@dharmaswara.org