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Gamelan Sulukala Performs Live Soundtrack for 1926 Animated Film

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Musicians  of Gamelan Sulukala - COURTESY OF GAMELAN SULUKALA
  • Courtesy Of Gamelan Sulukala
  • Musicians of Gamelan Sulukala

Americans tend to believe that Walt Disney's Snow White, from 1937, was the first animated film. But that honor actually goes to The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the earliest surviving animated feature, created in Germany by Lotte Reiniger in 1926.

The silent film tells its story using figures in silhouette that move against colored backgrounds, interspersed with title cards. Reiniger, who was a wizard at scissoring silhouettes from childhood on, cut the exquisitely detailed figures from black cardboard and hinged their joints with wire. She created the animation frame by frame, making tiny adjustments in the moving parts for each of 250,000 frames. The finished product uses 96,000 frames and took her three years to make.

Achmed was originally screened to music in the German 19th-century classical style, played by an orchestra. But how boring is that, when the story comes from The Arabian Nights and features magical flying horses, princess abductions and Aladdin's lamp? Two screenings of Achmed at Goddard College this weekend will instead feature a gamelan orchestra — that is, a 30-piece Indonesian instrumental ensemble of gongs, xylophone, bronze keyed instruments, lute, zither and more.

The starring ensemble, and the presenter of the event, is Gamelan Sulukala, a Plainfield-based group of 15 musicians led by Steven and Kathy Light. The group plays a set of court gamelan instruments built on the Indonesian island of Java for Goddard College. Unlike the less-fancy village gamelans, Gamelan Sulukala's court instruments are ornate, with gong racks made from bronze and carved-wood cases painted with dragons.

How did such a thing come to Vermont? The Lights explain during a phone call from their Marshfield home. The couple, who met as undergraduate music majors at Goddard, both studied ethnomusicology with Dennis Murphy. Part of the course involved playing on a homemade village gamelan, which Murphy had constructed as part of his doctoral thesis at Wesleyan University and brought with him to Vermont in 1967. It was the first gamelan of any kind to be built outside of Indonesia, according to the Lights.

"He used milk strainers and found objects," Kathy recalls. "He would go to metal shops and get rolled steel. He had a former student who was a welder build the big gongs — which are 70 to 80 pounds."

Steven sums up Murphy's influence: "He brought gamelan to Vermont. He wrote gamelan music. He created a whole culture of gamelan here." There are currently three gamelans in use in Vermont, he adds.

The couple graduated in 1975 and taught music at Hazen Union High School in Hardwick until they retired from full-time teaching in 2012. (Steven now teaches at Northern Vermont University-Johnson.)

When Murphy retired, he took his gamelan home with him. But in the 1990s a Goddard alum, inspired by Murphy's legacy, commissioned the court set now played by Gamelan Sulukala as a donation to Goddard. It was shipped from Java, and a delegation from the college "picked it up at the piers in Boston," says Steven.

After discovering that the court gamelan had sat unused at the college for a decade, the Lights founded Gamelan Sulukala in 2013. Founding musical groups is, after all, what the musician-couple is known for. In 1974 they founded the Fyre and Lightning Consort, a medieval and Renaissance music ensemble in which Steven plays lute, Renaissance winds, cornet, bagpipes and recorder; Kathy plays Celtic harp and recorder and sings. In 1981 they started klezmer band Nisht Geferlach, in which Kathy plays clarinet and Steven trumpet. Kathy also sings in the early-music women's chorus Anima.

In 2016, the Lights founded the Plainfield Opera Concert Series at the Plainfield Town Hall Opera House, where Gamelan Sulukala usually performs. (Achmed will be shown on the large movie screen at Goddard College's Haybarn Theatre.) Gamelan Sulukala's musicians — who currently range in age from teens to sixties — meet for weekly rehearsals during the school year in a practice room in the Goddard library.

It was one of Gamelan Sulukala's younger participants, 23-year-old Mazie O'Connor, who suggested the group accompany Achmed.

"I kind of got deeply into the history of animation last summer," explains the University of Vermont math major, who lives in Cabot.

O'Connor's internet research led her to some interesting revelations. "One was the whole art of accompanying animation films. I've been able to dig up a couple books on the subject," she says. Another was the discovery of Lotte Reiniger. "I was like, Wow, that's a girl's name. One of the first major animators of that time was a girl. That was kind of fascinating."

The idea of accompanying Achmed made sense to the group: Gamelan music traditionally accompanies Indonesian shadow-puppet plays, which look a lot like Reiniger's cutouts.

O'Connor, who began playing gamelan as a student at Cabot School, describes the experience of playing in an ensemble as "pretty darn loud — it's a lot of metallic sounds."

The music, she adds, is "rather interesting from a music theory standpoint, because a lot of things are flipped from Western styles. In Western music, the downbeat is emphasized. In gamelan, the emphasized beat is at the end; all the subdivisions come before the beat." She recently composed a gamelan piece in an atypical time signature for Gamelan Sulukala.

The soundtrack the group devised for Achmed consists of both traditional Indonesian and 20th-century American pieces. M.T. Anderson, the National Book Award-winning East Calais author, is one of three members of Gamelan Sulukala who have visited Indonesia. He says the traditional pieces are standard accompaniments for fight scenes, traveling scenes and so on. Some pieces come from Bali — the Muslim archipelago's only Hindu island, where gamelan playing is "incredibly precise, glittering and intense," he says — while others come from Java, where gamelan "is more meditative, dreamy, contrapuntal."

Oddly, Anderson adds, the content of the Muslim country's gamelan-accompanied shadow-puppet plays are the Hindu epics of India. "It's kind of like the European fascination with The Odyssey," he says.

Gamelan Sulukala's presentation of Achmed takes those cultural crosscurrents to a new level. As Anderson puts it, "This is a group of Americans playing Indonesian instruments to accompany a German silent film based on an English translation of an Arabian fantasy about China."

Or, as the Lights declare with a laugh, "There's no authenticity in anything whatsoever."

O'Connor notes that Reiniger's film, which ends with a Muslim call to prayer, depicts a Muslim as a hero — a welcome departure from current-day depictions — but also has way too many princess-abduction scenes. "You kind of have to look at it knowing it's from a very different culture than ours," she advises.

"The plot is a little bit messy," O'Connor adds, "but it's very aesthetically pretty, the pacing is good, and the music's gonna be great. All in all, this is just a bunch of really cool things on top of each other."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Plainfield's Gamelan Sulukala Performs Soundtrack for 1926 Animation"

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Speaking of Haybarn Theatre, Goddard College

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