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Centuries-old sound finds home in SCV

CalArts Balinese music and dance program to perform at upcoming World Music Festival

Posted: May 6, 2014 11:14 a.m.
Updated: May 6, 2014 11:15 a.m.

Nyoman and Nanik Wenten sit for a portrait with the Gamelan class they teach together at CalArts.

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Cross-legged and barefoot, 13 CalArts students sat on the floor, poised in front their instruments with their hands at the ready.

Signaled by the beat a drum, the Balinese orchestra awakened in one simultaneous motion.

Using hammer-like tools, the students rapidly hit gongs and xylophone-looking instruments, filling the room with a rich, resonant euphony of tones.

As in synch as dancers executing detailed footwork, these students must be perfectly in step to create the structural complexity of Gamelan, or traditional Balinese music.

“I love watching the students learn and love to play,” said Nyoman Wenten, a faculty member of the Balinese Music and Dance program at CalArts.

Since Nyoman came to the U.S. with his wife Nanik, now a dance instructor for the program, the couple has been teaching the Eastern-style music and dance to Western students — and loving the process.


A Gamelan is a traditional Indonesian ensemble of instruments equal to the symphony orchestra Americans are used to seeing in Western classical music, said Nyoman.

Two kinds of Gamelan music exist today — classical music played in the courts and folk music played on the streets, Nanik said.

Ubiquitous throughout the Indonesian islands, the bright, ethereal music is central to Balinese culture. Steeped in history and religion, it’s said to have been created as a way to summon the gods.

For centuries, different forms of Gamelan have been played for weddings, religious ceremonies and entertainment.
“In our culture, we start learning when we’re very small, especially if it is inherited through the family,” Nyoman said.

Bringing it to America

When Nyoman and Nanik met at an arts college in Indonesia, he was a musician and she was a dancer.

And they loved the Gamelan.

A traditionally-trained Balinese musician-actor-dancer, Nyoman was born into several generations of musicians and artists.

“At six years old, I just started banging the instruments and never stopped,” he said with smile and a shrug.
Also from a long line of musicians and dancers, Nanik began her training dancing for the courts — just as her grandfather.

“Historically, only men could dance in front of the courts. So my grandfather danced women’s parts,” she said. “It’s still like that in some courts today.”

Years of formal study lead Nyoman and Nanik to the National Music and Dance Academy in Java, an island of Indonesia.

Through their studies, they met Robert Brown, an American music professor who had set out to bring Balinese music and dance to U.S. schools.

Working with Brown, the Wentens eventually came to be both students and faculty members of CalArts at different times, eventually establishing the Balinese Music and Dance program for their college.

The program

Teaching at CalArts for decades, the Wentens have found much joy from weaving together Western and Eastern cultures, creating an incredibly diverse Gamelan group.

Currently, they have animation, dance and international students all working together to create the intricate, synchronous sounds of a Gamelan ensemble.

But with such a diverse group, there comes challenges to teaching and perfecting the art.

“The movement is very different (in done),” Nanik said of Balinese compared to American styles of dance. “They use one method to teach dance in my culture, but it doesn’t work here. So I had to come up with a different method.”

Learning Western music and dance through CalArts helped the Wentens become better teachers, they said, and they often incorporate Western influences into their teaching.

But CalArts students, especially the dance students, pick it up quickly.

“They are easy to teach,” she said. “They know rhythm.”

Nanik’s students have gone to dance in Bali or Java, and one has gone on to dance for the courts, she said.

Walking around the music room — a sizeable room with wood floors and instruments lining all four walls — Nyoman went to sit with his students, starting rehearsal with soft tones of encouragement.

The students gathered in front of instruments as bright and ornate as the music itself.

“Most students are stunned,” Nyoman said of their first impression of the music. “But sometimes they get so into the music that they switch from the art school to the music school.”



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