Mel Mercier tells Eoghan O’Sullivan about plans for the UCC-based Cork Gamelan Ensemble to release their debut album
AT UCC’s School of Music on Sunday’s Well in Cork, a quiet Saturday morning is disturbed by sounds you’d more usually associate with a documentary about the Indonesian island of Java.
The Cork Gamelan Ensemble are rehearsing for this week’s show at Kilkenny Arts Festival. The 10 players swap notes, advice, and instruments and, just like that, are chanting ethereally along to ‘The Parabé Song’, one of the highlights of their debut album, launching to coincide with the gig.
The Javanese gamelan is an orchestra of tuned percussion instruments — bronze gongs, metallophones and drums — and UCC’s collection is housed in the School of Music’s Seomra Gamelan.
“This is a special group of people, says Mel Mercier, director of Cork Gamelan Ensemble. “The members of that ensemble are all graduates of music at UCC. What began to happen was, over the years, the community of gamelan musicians began to grow so people would come, do gamelan as much as they could for the two, three, four years they were here, then they’d go off.
“Some of them went off to Java to continue their studies, some went to other universities to continue their studies, some of them stayed in Cork and when we’d have our annual concert, several of them would always come back to play in the concert.”
Around 2012, there was a critical mass of those people in Cork to actually form an ensemble. Their repertoire of new music had built up and, says Mercier, it got to the point about two years ago where it became clear they had enough of a repertoire to make a recording.
Nick Roth of Diatribe Records in Dublin suggested they make an album. “I’ve since discovered that gamelan is notoriously difficult to record,” says Mercier. “If I knew that at the start I would have approached it differently. However, it’s been a steep learning curve and we’ve learned a lot along the way.”
Cork Gamelan Ensemble have collaborated with various artists, many of whom appear on the debut album, The Three Forges, including Duke Special, Julie Feeney and Iarla Ó Lionáird.
The album has essentially been a year in the making, says Mercier, but effectively its genesis goes back at least 20 years. “It really is the culmination of a 20-year evolution of gamelan in Cork, developing the players, developing the repertoire, developing the relationships with the guest musicians, Colin and Nick and Kate and Duke Special and the Orchestra, they’ve all been performing with us now for a good few years, they feel to me like they’re part of the ensemble, but they are presented as soloists.
“Kilkenny will be the first concert that we do that all of our collaborators over the last few years will be appearing with us.”
Cork Gamelan Ensemble will perform a new piece in Kilkenny with acclaimed fiddle player Martin Hayes, guest curator of the Marble City Sessions.
In rehearsals, most of the players in the room swap places, new instruments are introduced, and the rhythm is slowly remembered from the only session they had with Hayes, around two months ago.
“Martin has been in the Seomra Gamelan, we’ve had a session together,” Mercier says. “We’ve found some common ground and we’ll explore that at the Kilkenny concert. We’re really looking forward to that.”
Cork Gamelan Ensemble, with special guests, play St Canice’s Cathedrel on Thursday, August 13, as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival. Debut album The Three Forges is released the same day via shop.diatribe.ie/album/the-three-forges
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