A hit all round

29th April 2005 at 01:00
Arnold Evans introduces an award-winning program that allows pupils to compose Gamelan music on the computer

The kempul and the computer have only one thing in common: both engender in any sane person a compulsive desire to hit them with a hammer. While computers, as a rule, do not respond well to this, there's something profoundly satisfying about banging away at the kempul or any of the other beautifully crafted percussion instruments that make up a traditional gamelan orchestra. Children love the mesmeric and mellifluous rhythms of the Indonesian gamelan, so it's a shame that very few schools can afford to buy the instruments. Fortunately, there is an alternative - and it doesn't cost a penny.

The Virtual Javanese Gamelan (VJG), which anyone can download free from the net, is an ingenious simulation that offers pupils the experience of playing along with Sumber Laras - the gamelan orchestra made up of young musicians at Wells Cathedral School in Somerset.

Of course, it's not quite as good as the real thing. "A computer program cannot reproduce the full experience of playing in an orchestra," says John D Williams, who is deputy director of music at Wells and wrote the content for the software. "There are elements that lie beyond sound: the feel, texture, vibration and even the smell of a real instrument."

However, his Year 7 class, who are being given the opportunity to play on real gamelan instruments and on the VJG, had no hesitation in giving the software an unsolicited thumbs-up.

They were in the computer suite practising kebogiro, a Javanese dance, on which the whole simulation is based. It didn't matter that Nicola Kingston had missed the introductory lesson, because VJG is designed primarily for independent, self-directed learning, so interactive tutorials and self-evaluation tests can be summoned by a click of the mouse.

After watching video clips of the three primary gamelan instruments, she donned headphones and opted to try her hand at the bonang panerus - a row of small kettle gongs. The VJG automatically provided her with the soundtrack of kebogiro with the bonang omitted. On screen she could see the notation she had to follow. Remarkably, the notation for this wonderfully intricate music is wonderfully simple - the five notes in the scale are represented by the numbers 1-5. All Nicola had to do was press the appropriate numeric key on her bog-standard qwerty keyboard. It really is that simple. Instead of having to waste a moment of her precious music lesson on mastering boring computer commands she could concentrate on what really matters - learning to play bonang in such a way that it blends seamlessly with the backing track.

Nicola is a gifted musician and so had no trouble following the notation.

If she had, she could have chosen a help function, which highlights each note at the instant it should to be played. Her classmates, also wearing headphones, were hammering away at their chosen instruments. It's positively surreal to be in a computer suite with pupils who are wallowing in the exotic music of faraway places when all you can hear is the dreary rat-a-tat of computer keyboards. However, unplug the headphones and let the music play through the speakers and each PC becomes an independent musical instrument. With one PC providing the backing track, any class with the minimum of practice and no musical knowledge can enjoy the special thrill of making music together.

The VJG might make it seem simple, but the structure of Indonesian music is fiendishly complex. According to Claude Debussy: "It is based on a type of counterpoint by comparison with which that of Palestrina is child's play."

It would take years of dedication to compose and orchestrate an original lancaran - or a few minutes if you use the VJG.

To show just how easy it is, 12-year-old James Buckle, who's had experience of composing other types of music, used the numeric keys to compose a tune that he wanted the saron to play. Orchestration was a piece of cake.

Because a lancaran must conform to the strictest of rules, the melody line that James composed determines precisely what contribution the rest of the orchestra can make to the piece. So the VJG made James's job easy. It restricted his options to the limited selection of notes that the other instruments are allowed to play and when they can play them. So James clicked in his choices, and then listened to the playback. That will be reward enough for some pupils, but James wanted to get down to the seriously creative process of editing and re-editing his first efforts.

He won't be restricted by the timetable either. Because the VJG is free and doesn't require a licence, James has downloaded it to the computer in his bedroom. Pupils and their teachers throughout the UK will surely want to do the same.

* The Virtual Javanese Gamelan can be downloaded free from www.imusic.org.uk


The software doesn't need a midi interface or any other peripheral. The minimum requirements are Intel Pentium III (550Mhz), Windows 98, 128Mb of RAM, 650Mb available hard disk, and Sound Blaster 64 card or equivalent.

For Macs, the minimum requirement is a G3 running OS9.2 or above with at least 64Mb of RAM and 650Mb of free hard disk space.

The software could be used effectively from Year 6 upwards. It's particularly suitable for mixed-ability classes as it can be quickly mastered by almost anyone, while offering more gifted pupils challenging opportunities in performance and composition.

The software enables pupils to explore an aspect of world music (a curriculum requirement) and to experiment in ensemble playing and composition. It provides a useful resource for lead-in lessons before a class trip to a gamelan workshop. Teachers can log on at the South West Grid for Learning portal (www.swgfl.org.uk) to access support material, including guided interactive tutorials, a teacher's manual, a users'

discussion group, websites and an area in which to share audio files of music composed using the software.

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