Vancouver maker, George Rahi of Publik Secrets, and members of the Gamelan Gita Asmara, here in BC (yep, that’s in Canada!) created quite the spectacle at this year’s Vancouver Mini Maker Faire. Not only did they make beautiful sounds, but George and others built all of their own instruments out of old bicycle tubes, bike parts, and pots and pans. The sound and craftsmanship are quite incredible, and I invite you to learn more about both building instruments and playing in a Balinese orchestra in my interview with George below. (Oh! and don’t forget to watch the videos for the full experience).
1. What is gamelan? And how did you get involved in the orchestra?
Gamelan refers to both the musical tradition that dates back centuries in Indonesia and the collection of instruments themselves, ranging from gongs, drums, metallophones, and flutes. The music is intimately bound up with all manner of community gatherings and spiritual rituals for the Hindu and Muslim cultures of Java and Bali. Ensembles can range from a few people to over 30 players in size. It is an immensely rich musical tradition quite unique with its own practices of tuning and composition, and most excitingly, gamelan music is constantly transforming itself through experimentation and revolution.
I became involved in Gamelan music through a community group that has been based at the University of British Columbia under the direction of ethnomusicologist Michael Tenzer and visiting Balinese teachers, most recently, I Wayan Sudirana. The group, Gamelan Gita Asmara, strives to faithfully represent the traditional and contemporary music of Balinese gamelan. In 2013, we took our entire ensemble to Bali for a tour, playing 8 shows. Our home-made bike gamelan project came out of our experience with the “real” instruments and our love and enthusiasm for the music.
2. How did you come up with the idea to make instruments out of bike parts and pots and pans?
We definitely did not start out with any specific idea around making a gamelan from salvaged and found materials. Rather, the whole thing kind of morphed out of an altogether different project entirely. Myself and two musicians from the Gamelan group were working on a bicycled operated music box for Burning Man in 2012. We experimented on a trial and error basis for a while trying to figure out how to pull it all together, testing out a lot of different materials such as steel bars, pots, and pans. There was a distinct aha moment when we cut out a section of steel tubing from the frame of a bicycle and it sounded wonderful, resonating for a long time with a shimmering tone. After this we couldn’t help but see more potential in making the bicycle tubes into a gamelan that could be played by multiple people, rather than by a music box that had a fixed arrangement.
3. Can you describe a bit about how you made the instruments?
At the beginning was a long process of collecting discarded bikes. We would look for steel-frame bikes in the scrap bins at community-bike shops in Vancouver and pick out ones that had appealing colors and qualities. Bikes from the 1960s and 70s sounded particularly good due to the heavier, straight-gauged steel tubing that was commonly used in manufacturing. Starting with the triangle of tubing in the middle of a bike frame, we would cut out each steel tube one by one. Each rough cut tube was then tuned by ear by shortening the length of the tube with a metal chop-saw, thus raising the pitch of each tube. To hold the tubes up in the air so that they would resonate freely, we cut the end of a bike’s fork blade, with the drop outs pointing up into the air. Brake cable housing was weaved through holes drilled in each bike tube which then rested in the drop outs, creating a suspended row of tuned bike tubes. Every choice of materials was limited to what we could salvage and repurpose, making for a very unique home-made gamelan. Guiding us along the way was the basic design of the ‘gangsa’ instrument found in a Balinese gamelan, whose elegant design has continually been refined over centuries by instrument builders in Indonesia.
4. What was it like playing in Bali?
Before going to Bali, our group spent countless hours rehearsing our repertoire of traditional and contemporary gamelan. It was a very taxing ordeal and perhaps as a result, the experience of performing for people in villages that had likely never seen a western gamelan group perform before felt all the more special. We played eight shows in the “mebarung” format, which means two groups share the stage, trading off one piece after another. This meant we got to play alongside many incredible ensembles that repeatedly blew our minds with their precision and sense of togetherness. Having that exchange and a dialogue with the musicians in Bali, many of whom are pushing the boundaries of gamelan itself, was a tremendously rewarding experience.
5. What’s up next for you?
We are keeping busy composing new music and shadow – plays for Gamelan Bike Bike as well as performing at many community events around Vancouver. An exciting new collaboration this year is with Miscellaneous Productions, a local theatre company that will be using our custom instruments in an upcoming production! We are also experimenting with new types of instruments. This fall we started making a MIDI-controlled pipe organ in progress as part of a musical playground installation. Check out more of our upcoming projects at www.publiksecrets.com