Western audiences have long been fascinated in the Balinese art form of gamelan, which honors tradition while embracing experimentation.
The music’s shimmering sound is instantaneously recognizable, a unique timbre resulting from pairs of detuned instruments after an entire ensemble has gone through an extensive tuning process. As the slightly different frequencies pulse against each other, it creates a beating effect called ombak.
"The whole ensemble vibrates with this chorusing effect. It's pretty wild," says Patrick Alonzo Conway, the current director of Kansas City’s Gamelan Genta Kasturi, which celebrates its lineage with a performance Sunday at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's Atkins Auditorium.
Gamelan is an everyday part of Balinese life, its intimate rituals telling stories of historic and mythical figures as well as regular people. In keeping with tradition, Gamelan Genta Kasturi (which translates as "Ensemble of the Blossoming Sound") performs in Balinese costume with sarongs and headdresses.
Conway was a founding member of the group when it started in 2003, but he joined up without really knowing much about the music.
"I had been into African music and Afro-Cuban music, which is very polyrhythmic, so this contained that element really strongly, but also a rhythmic, melodic thing," he explains. "There's this concept called kotekan in Balinese music, where you have these interlocking melodic rhythmic fragments that are really intense and syncopated."
That was what attracted him.
"I got really into it" he says, "and the rest is history."
Working with a master is imperative. Gamelan is bound in the tradition of community, passed on in families or from teacher to student. The lineage in Kansas City starts in Bali with the revered I Wayan Beratha, one of the key figures to develop the art form (he died in 2014), who taught I Ketút Gedé Asnawa, who came to the University of Missouri-Kansas City to teach gamelan in 2003.
Highly respected in Bali, Asnawa is perhaps the most famous purveyors/promulgator of gamelan in the United States.
Conway visited Bali with the Asnawa family in 2006, attending the Bali Arts Festival (now in its 30th year) as well as family events, including a wedding and cremation. When Asnawa moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Conway took over directing Gamelan Genta Kasturi. That was 12 years ago, but he has brought Asnawa and his family (his wife and daughters are dancers) back to Kansas City throughout the years for coaching and performances. This is Asnawa's third annual appearance with the group.
Gamelan has a built-in learning structure, with individuals moving up to more intricate, virtuosic parts as they master the technique. Today, Gamelan Genta Kasturi includes a wide range of age and ability. The youngest member is 14 years old while other members are old enough, Conway jokes, to start exploring Medicare options.
For this performance, the works are mainly "classical Balinese compositions of the modern, 20th century style," says Conway. Gamelan gong kebyar is "a little flashy, with lots of quick changes between sections and dynamic shifts."
Most of the works also include the imperative element of dance. The highly stylized movement, imbued with symbolic meaning, uses distinct postures, carefully articulated gestures, and rhythmic eye movement called seledet. Ansawa's wife Putu Oka Mardiani choreographs and performs, as do the couple’s daughters, Ni Made Nias Yunirika and Ni Nyoman Nias Yonitika. The Indonesian Community of Kansas City Dancers also perform on some of the works.
One of the more traditional works on the program is Beratha's "Kepandung Sita" (The Abduction of Sita), a dance drama from The Ramayana, an ancient Hindi poem in Sanskrit.
"Technically, the story would be three hours long," says Conway, but they will perform about half of the one-hour "tourist version."
Adapting works is also a part of the tradition. Asnawa's extensive body of work expanded the genre with experimental works and resettings of esoteric, obscure traditional works with modern styles and elaborations, but he has returned to more traditional styles in the last few decades.
"He felt like people were losing their connection with their roots, like they were going so far afield," Conway says.
The program includes his "Tari Gopala," a dance depicting young herdsman. Asnawa continues to write new work for gamelan and he remains "very open minded," says Conway, even contributing to research comparing heavy metal and gamelan.
As gamelan continues to evolved and expand, with new sounds — a New York group made a gamelan out of bike tubes, a Javanese musician uses synthesizers — and new combinations, Kansas City's Gamelan Genta Kasturi appears to be keeping up.
Conway has written a handful of works for Gamelan Genta Kasturi, collaborating with local groups and artists, mixing Western instruments, jazz, harmony, and shadow puppetry.
"I've tried to incorporate traditional concepts but expand upon them also," he says.
His "Samvartaka" uses traditional instruments “a little non-traditionally," he says. "This is more on the experimental side, with improvisation."
He also brings in electronic musician Shawn Hansen to improvise on "some synthesizer noisy things" with the ensemble.
"I've always liked exploring," Conway says.
Gamelan Genta Kasturi presents its 15th Anniversary Concert 2018, Sunday, April 29 at 2 p.m., Atkins Auditorium, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street Kansas City, Missouri 64111; 816-751-1278. The event is free, but requires a ticket.