A Javanese instrument made up of bells, chimes, gongs and various other percussive elements, the gamelan is one of the most elegant music-making devices ever created. The Bow Gamelan Ensemble, which existed in England from about 1983 to 1991, is considerably less elegant and doesn’t feature much you’d confuse with an actual gamelan. But the basic concept — using lots of different percussion to produce an elaborate tapestry of sound — is the same. Just with a lot more pyrotechnics.
Formed by percussionist Paul Burwell, performance artist Anne Bean (previously of tongue-in-cheek glam-rockers Moody and the Menstruators) and sculptor Richard Wilson (later famous for insane large-scale artworks like this one), Bow Gamelan specialized in creating site-specific, large-scale industrial art installations, often over water, upon which they would then perform semi-improvised musique concrète works featuring scrap metal, motors, air compressors and various other industrial noise-making devices. Their shows typically climaxed in explosions, fireworks and bursts of flame.
Bow Gamelan certainly weren’t the first or last group to use power tools and found objects as instruments, but they were among the most ambitious. Here, for example, is a 16-minute documentary about their 1987 work, Offshore Rig, which occupied a one-acre island on the Thames for several weeks as the Bow members and a team of helpers outfitted the island and several surrounding pontoons with oil drums, steam whistles, vacuum cleaners, a massive set of wind chimes made from 100 sheets of broken glass, and 3,000 pounds of pyrotechnics.
And here they along another section of the Thames, in Kent, performing a 10-hour piece on a set of concrete barges. As they banged on their bells, pipes, springs and barrels, they and their instruments gradually submerged in the rising tide.
One of the cool things that set Bow Gamelan Ensemble apart from other musique concrète ensembles was their fascination with water and its distortive effects on sound. Even performing indoors, they often found ways to incorporate water into the show, as in this piece called In C & Air that also used the stage floor itself as percussion by raising and slamming down planks of it via an elaborate pulley system.
Strictly speaking, Bow Gamelan — who took the “Bow” part of their name from the East London district where they formed — were more of a performance art project than a band. But they did release some of their “music” on cassette and LP, including this 1984 tape from the cassette magazine Audio Arts and a 1988 album called Great Noises That Fill the Air.
Some accounts of Bow Gamelan Ensemble have them breaking up in 1990, but I found several references to a cassette called Dancing With the Ghosts that appears to be a recording of a 1991 performance in Rome. I’m pretty sure this features a later version of the group that included only Burwell and a second percussionist called Z’ev. The original trio, plus Z’ev and several other performers, also reunited in 2004 for a one-off performance in a place called Margate Harbour, which judging from this video was a classic Bow Gamelan show, pyrotechnics and all.
Sadly, Burwell died in 2007 at the age of 57. But Bean and Wilson haven’t abandoned the project completely; in fact, if anything, they’ve been even more active, creating a very Bow Gamelan-like large-scale performance in Birmingham, England in late 2007 in his memory, and forming a new duo called W0B that’s carried on the Bow Gamelan tradition of exploring sound with unusual, sculptural assemblages like this one. Later this month, on Oct. 26th, they’ll premiere a new performance at the Cooper Gallery in Dundee, Scotland as part of a two-month retrospective of Bow Gamelan’s work. If any of you readers are planning to attend, please give us a report.
P.S. Our thanks to reader Thremnir for suggesting we add Bow Gamelan to the Weird List.
- Anne Bean official site (an ongoing “autobituary”)
- Anne Bean’s YouTube channel (includes several Bow Gamelan Ensemble videos)
- Richard Wilson official site (includes some great Bow Gamelan photos)
- Bow Gamelan Ensemble: Great Noises That Fill the Air exhibition page on Cooper Gallery’s website