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Gamelan drumming dreams turn 20

Citizen Staff Writer



Last Friday a small piece of Tucson history was made as the Fine Stream Gamelan delivered its 20th anniversary concert.

The gamelan is an Indonesian folk orchestra, consisting mainly of percussion instruments forged from metal and wood. Tucson’s Fine Stream Gamelan is the brainchild of local composer/percussionist/bamboo expert Matt Finstrom. Over the years, Finstrom has convinced dozens of people to join in pursuit of a local expression for Javanese and Balinese traditional music, as well as new works for those unique and dreamy sounding instruments.

Finstrom’s gamelan dreams have roughly coincided with my own time at the Citizen. I recall going to a party at Finstrom’s house roughly a year after I started with the paper, celebrating his forging of the group’s original great gong. After that he set about creating by hand the numerous kettle and metalophones that would make up early configurations of the gamelan. At the same time he was enlisting recruits to join the group and training them to read the numeric code that serves as a score to the interlocking musical parts.

I had numerous friends in the group over the years, and made many more. Their dedication to the music and Finstrom was serious, and the result was simply amazing, concert after concert. To Finstrom it’s all grown organically and in the right way – like a family. You could see that in the current crop of Fine Stream Gamelan players Friday night, not only in the cooperative spirit in which they bring this music to life but also in a more literal sense as the children of Finstrom and David Dettman have joined the group’s ranks. And out in the audience, almost the same number of former players as were onstage watched the current generation put its stamp on the music, joined by a contingent of about 100 gamelan fans.

The show was a major milestone, underscoring how far this group has progressed in two decades. Along with Finstrom’s handmade Balinese-style instruments there were a number of instruments purchased in Indonesia for the group. Likewise the costuming of the players was closer to traditional garb. And the playing has clearly progressed, with more challenging repertoire becoming the norm. Not that Finstrom ever cut his players any slack in that department.

Musically, the concert was a mix of traditional Indonesian fare and music written by Finstrom over the years, working from traditional styles. Among Finstrom’s contributions were the original composition commissioned from him for the group’s initial appearance 20 years ago, a piece he composed in imitation of shadow puppet music, a piece that won him the 1991 Arizona Composers Forum award, a work blending Javanese and Balinese drumming styles, and the piece FSG played at the 2008 All Souls Procession finale. The latter work was dedicated to the late Rofl Jordahl – an artist and art restoration expert who was a former member of FGS and a beloved member of Tucson’s visual arts community.

Finstrom’s “Swara Manis” (Sweet Sound) is online in its entirety, attached to this column at www.tucsoncitizen.com. There is no substitute for seeing and hearing this music made, so I highly recommend going online to see it.

Watching the show, so many memories came back to me. I recall crowding into the tiny rehearsal space in Finstrom’s house where the players sat packed as close as atoms in a hunk of lead, painstakingly hammering metal bars with one hand while damping the previous bar with the other to keep its tone from clashing with the new sound. I recall when Finstrom’s wife, Holly, was pregnant with their daughter Ariel, now a beautiful 12-year-old who plays with the group. I remember most vividly the night that the father of the gamelan in America – classical composer Lou Harrison – and his partner, Bill Colvig, came out to Finstrom’s house during one of the rehearsals and jammed with them on traditional tunes all knew. Harrison was very impressed, both with the group and the instruments Finstrom created.

I’ve known Finstrom for about 25 years. We met when he was playing a variety of world percussion instruments and jamming with one of my former teachers, Larry Solomon. Over the years I’ve watched Finstrom take on more and more complex chunks of the global sound, through FSG and Sruti – Finstrom’s ensemble for the performance of East Indian music. Always an adept and highly informed player, Finstrom has organically grown as a composer and group leader, creating beautiful works and empowering community members to learn how to play this special music. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see him nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Lumie Award. He deserved to be so recognized for the powerful contribution he’s made to this community.

It was nice to see his troupe honor him with its first “Gammy” award after the show and acknowledge the patience and perseverance he’s shown over the years. And even better to bask again in the beautiful sounds his labors have produced.

Congratulations, Matt, and many more decades to follow.

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