International Novelty Gamelan: Everybody can compose, just like everyone can draw

For 12 years, local ensemble International Novelty Gamelan has been composing and performing with a variety of unique instruments in an eccentric spin on the traditional Gamelan music of Indonesian culture. Currently comprised of six members, International Novelty Gamelan will be performing an acoustic set of all newly composed songs -- one by each of its members -- at Heliotrope X this Thursday evening. They will be the only group to perform outdoors at the festival.

The term Gamelan originated on the island of Java and Bali. It is generally used to describe a set of a wide variety of instruments including xylophones, gongs, and various percussion instruments, that are built and tuned to stay together.

International Novelty Gamelan's music may be best described as ambient drone, though it is extremely difficult to categorize. The group has found that their sound transcends age and genre barriers. As they prepare to debut their new songs as well as make an important album release announcement at Heliotrope, the group chatted with Gimme Noise about their unique niche.

Gimme Noise: How did International Novelty Gamelan begin?

Elaine Evans: The group started back in 2002, with a group of us that had been playing in a Javanese gamelan group in the Twin Cities. We had one concert where our group organizer had encouraged everybody to compose, and so we did compositions from the people in that traditional music group. It was a lot of fun, and really opened up our eyes.

We don't just have to play these traditional songs from across the world; we can be composing songs ourselves for these sets of instruments. They're really well set-up for composing. They sound great, and they're really beautiful. So, a group of us started playing on our own and composing. Everybody in the group composes. It developed from that idea -- of wanting to make our own music on these instruments.

Can you tell us a bit about the instruments?

Chris Parker: The instruments are made into two different tuning systems, which you're supposed to stay away from sometimes, especially in Western music. The instruments are tuned when they're made. You can whittle away at them, and when you tune them they're pretty much tuned as a set, as the set it made. The person who makes the set decides on the tuning. We play different sets for songs that sound different.

How did you initially become interested in using these particular instruments?

Parker: My sister invited me to a gamelan event, where we were invited onstage after the performance to try the instruments. It was just, man, there were so many cool sounds on one stage. Gamelan is really kind of forgiving.

I sat down and somebody showed me how to hold the beaters, and what to hit. I started doing that, and it sounded pretty good. Another totally ignorant person sat down next to me and started playing something else, and we both sounded pretty good together, in total ignorance. A third person sat down, and it still sounded good. Then they said, guess what, you can sign up for lessons! So I did.

It's a fairy tale.

Parker: Yeah, it was, kind of. Then the learning curve starts, of course. But, it's really forgiving at that beginning moment. It's just sweet.

Do any of you have a particular tie to the cultural relevance of the instruments?

Parker: No, we're a bunch of white people. (laughs)

The instruments are from Java. The traditional kind of music we learned is Javanese. That island is full of palaces. People play gamelan everywhere -- in factories.

What is your creative process like when composing music?

Evans: In terms of the creative process, one of the interesting things with all of the different people composing is the different approach that everybody has. For some, the whole thing is there all at once, and everything is all worked out completely. Some people just come in with a rhythm or an idea that's more abstract, and we work it out, and when they hear it together they'll work out the parts for everyone.

It's really encouraging to see what everybody can do with composing. I think particularly in our society, people think that other people compose music. Like, kids in school, they draw pictures and they do all of these things, but they don't make their own songs in a music class. You sing someone else's songs. But everybody can compose, just like everyone can draw. That's my soapbox about composing. I think everybody should try it! Once you open your mind up to the fact that you can do it, it just starts coming out.

Kathy Knight: I've been doing this about the same amount of time as everybody else, but I just started writing. I wrote one song like five years ago and hated it. I always knew how difficult it was, and I know for a fact how many hours of work it takes. It has been good for me. It took me two years to write this eight-measure thing that I have now, but it has been so good for me. It really got me going again. All of the sudden I had a second song. Maybe two years from now it will be done.

There are people that have been in and out of the group, but it is a nice mix of different kinds of songs and different personalities writing the songs. It works for everyone.


Where do you see your music fitting in with the overall music climate of Minneapolis and St. Paul? What has your experience been like?

Kevin Cosgrove: I think the gamelan group is pretty extraordinary in how we are received. I remember one week where we played a show at Orchestra Hall, and then later on in the week we played the first show ever at Medusa. I just remember, we were playing very abstract avant-garde music at Orchestra Hall, and there were all of these old people standing there just loving it. It was really nice.

Then, when we played at Medusa, there were all of these punk kids sitting on the floor. We were playing a very pop song, but we just have such a unique sound that it's very appreciated by a vast range of people -- people who are willing to listen to something that doesn't sound like 'normal' music. We're very unique, because we write our own songs on these exotic instruments.

What do you have prepared for Heliotrope?

Cosgrove: This year, Elaine made a set where everyone in the group has a song. Heliotrope is our big show of the year. It's our favorite show to play. Right now we have six people in the band, but one of them will be out of town for the weekend. He did write a song for us, so it will be all new songs, and everybody in the group has written one.

You must have gotten close to one another through this process.

Cosgrove: Yes. It's kind of amazing. I've been in the group for ten years, and the band has been going for twelve. We don't annoy each other, except for Kathy and I.

Why is that?

Cosgrove: Well, 'cause she's so annoying. (Knight is laughing hysterically in the background)

We're very good friends, even though we're all so different and do very different things when we're not playing gamelan music.

You've played at Heliotrope before.

Cosgrove: We've played every single Heliotrope. It really is a special show. The person who books us knows that we don't really have so many places for us to play. We can't just set up in a basement. It's special for the people who set up Heliotrope too, because they can bring us to people who might never necessarily see us.

And you have an album coming out later this year?

Elaine: We do. We're going to do a 10-inch on vinyl. We know it's being mastered in July, but the pressing can take up to three or four months, so we don't have an exact release date yet. We recorded it at the University of Minnesota, with John Marks. It was a while ago -- it was about five years ago. We've been waiting for it to get mixed right, and sound right. There's going to be an official announcement at Heliotrope!

International Novelty Gamelan performs at Heliotrope X this Thursday. Tickets are $12 for a 1-day pass or $30 for 3-day. The festival will be held at Intermedia Arts at 2822 Lyndale Ave S. Here are the set times for Thursday:
6:00 Milo Fine/Paul Metzger
7:00 cyrusvance
7:30 Puny
8:00 Breakaway
8:40 International Novelty Gamelan
9:15 Jesse Petersen
9:40 Mar Habrine
10:20 Robust Worlds
11:00 Comb Boats

53 things you might not know about Prince
73 things you might not know about Bob Dylan
Brother Ali: My fans are kicking the sh*t out of me over Trayvon Martin

Here's why we didn't sign the Foo Fighters photo waiver
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians: The complete list