Gamelan and Poetry

Last year Sloop Group were invited to be part of the COOLture Conversations project as part of Hull City of Culture. It was a wonderful oppourtunity for the group to work with a Gamelan that they had previously met on a trip to the National Centre for Early Music in York. As well as working with the enchanting instruments of the Gamelan, the group had two sessions with the poet Cassandra Parkin, to create a poem that would become the starting point for their own orginal composition using the Gamelan. The whole project culminated in a public peformance at Hull City Hall. You can find a copy of the poem the group created attached to this post.


The two music leaders of Sloop Group, Tom Sherman and Tom Hill, both wrote their reflections of how the project went.

Tom Hill:

During this Project young people worked with a text artist to devise a poem  as well as Musicians from University of York and Gamelan Instruments to compose an original piece of music to accompany the poem. Both of these were new to members of the Sloop group (half of which had not played a Gamelan before) and gave them new exciting opportunities in which to develop their musical and lyrical skills. As well this participants had chance to perform as part of a Hull City of Culture performance along side other groups playing instruments from other cultures such as Japanese Taiko Drums and Traditional Asian Instruments which gave them an enriching opportunity to experience types of music they may not have heard before.

Working with Words was quite challenging for the group as words aren't a lot of young members strong points. After the first session, the music leaders had a discussion through email about the content of the poem being appropriate as ideas concerning dogs chasing ice cream vans were mentioned, but after a brief discussion the Project leader contacted Cassandra to suggest different ways of working with the group to get more out of them about their feeling of identity (as was the theme of the project). After this suggestion was taken on board the second session seem to run better in terms of content generated by the young people and ended with Cassandra pooling all peoples suggestions and comments about themselves to create the poem "Just" which is about challenge peoples pre-conceived ideas of what to expect from a music group comprised of members with various learning disabilities. Overall, I felt both sessions were good for most of the group (Sloop had never spent a full session as a whole group devising lyrics/words before) although it felt rather inaccessible for at least 2 members of the group who are non verbal, in hindsight it would have been good to have an alternative activity linked to the word writing that could have included people in the group.  As a Musical leader of the group I should have checked with the Text artist or Project leader prior to these session that they'd be suitable for non verbal members and maybe request/suggest something that would allow them to still be part of the group.
Working with the Gamelan, though brand new instruments to most participants, felt very similar to how a Sloop group session would usually run in that there was some group discussion of the theme of the piece, splitting into small groups or working individually to create small parts and then bring them together to form the song and improvisation with leader guidance. The young people were definitely excited about working with the Gamelan and had strong ideas when developing the piece for the poem. Learning about traditional Gamelan, the way it's played, tunings and cultural history were interesting for the group. Emily, the Project leader as well as other Gamelan musicians Angel and Maddy were very conscious about accessibility of the Gamelan and had worked one on one with some members during the poetry sessions to find out what was comfortable for people to play and what could make it easier for them. Most of this was having chair insead of cushion for people to sit on, bringing tables at different heights to put instruments on, using different beaters to the traditional ones and in one case, recording sounds of the Gamelan to be triggered using a sampler app on an iPad. This, as well as having our usual support staff/carers, volunteers and music leaders made these sessions, in my opinion, very accessible and worthwhile for everyone involved.
Tom Sherman:

Composing music using the Gamelan has suited the young people we work with very well. I think that part of the reason for this comes down to the accessible nature of the instruments. The fact that the whole Gamelan is in one key means that any melodic patterns or riffs are guaranteed to fit together harmonically, like Lego bricks. This enables the compositional process to run smoothly, and also means that individual musical ideas that were created independently of each other can be combined in a plethora of different ways, presenting a whole range of creative possibilities to the group.

Writing music to fit a poem has been a different approach for us. Typically when working with words, the text and music are created together as part of the same creative process. However for this project, the group created a poem first, and then a week later began to compose music to fit the poem. I think that the music they created was very effective and worked very well, but I did feel at times that creative options were limited by the need to follow the poem. Perhaps we could have taken a more flexible approach to working with the poem, being more free with the structure and maybe exploring the sonority of individual words. Having said that, I think that what the group created in two days is very impressive.

Another new experience for the group has been to write a poem about themselves. Usually our artistic inspiration is external, or comes from a set theme- we write music inspired by a story, or about a fictional character or situation. However the poem that the group created as part of this project was about the young people personally and how the world sees them. I think that it has been beneficial for the young people to connect with themselves creatively in this way, and the most valuable part was the creative process itself- the discussion and sharing of ideas that lead to the poem is perhaps more important than the actual text. I think that being aware of the intrinsic value of the creative process when writing something personal will inform our future projects as a group.

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