Unique and Fresh – Tchaikovsky on Gamelan

By Aref Omar – 14 August 2014

The Hands Percussion Gamelan Group marries its unique sounds to the Russian composer’s gems. Aref Omar writes about its latest show

THE celebrated Hands Percussion ensemble continues to evolve and soar to newer heights as the years go by since its inception in 1997. A milestone for the outfit, headed by founder Bernard Goh, was in 2007 when it acquired a gamelan set and formed the Hands Gamelan Group.

The group has upped the ante with its upcoming show that takes the music of Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and expresses it through the gamelan.

Supported by Sime Darby Foundation and the National Department for Culture and Arts, Tchaikovsky On Gamelan will feature three ballets from the renowned classical composer: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

The hour-long performance by 11 Hands members will see excerpts from each of the ballets re-imagined like never before. Four guest musicians — playing the cello, violin, marimba, bassoon and clarinet — will accompany the percussionists in the unique show that blends classical music forms from the east and west. During the show, master calligrapher Chang Moke Wah will create live calligraphy in a separate room that will be projected in real time onto a screen.

The concept of marrying Tchaikovsky to the traditional gamelan music ensemble of Java and Bali was done by the show’s artistic producer, Susan Sarah John, who has worked closely with Hands in the past.

“It was a new beginning for us, studying the score and understanding how things should sound,” says Ng Siu Yee, the show’s music director together with Jack Wan, when met at the Hands rehearsal studio in Sungai Buloh.


The realm of western classical music was new territory for the passionate drummers. Although the two first time music directors had lots of help from Susan, the whole group worked together on the arrangements to tweak and perfect the sounds and flow.

Wan says: “It was like learning a new language, we know how to speak it but we had to work on how to write it out, so it was a very good process for us.”

Ng explains that all of them had to play individual instruments together in an orchestral manner rather than just playing the drums simultaneously like in previous shows. Experiments in balancing the tones and dynamics of the gamelan set as well as fine tuning the melodies, aside from the rhythms, took a lot of hours to accomplish. “This time, it’s very personal,” says Ng.

They watched the various Tchaikovsky ballet performances on Youtube to soak up the feel. The whole group had to eat and breathe Tchaikovsky for their preparation and a lot of research and studying went into it.

“I feel Tchaikovsky is the king of melodies. His music is very beautiful, romantic and emotional,” says Wan, a Boh Cameronian Arts award-winner. “And all his compositions relate to his life, so when I play it I can feel his sadness, happiness and struggles,” he adds.

Both say that the mellifluous sounds of the gamelan feel very connected to Tchaikovsky’s music and they agree it feels amazing performing the fusion of styles.

But the aim was also to ensure that the spirit and the roots of both Tchaikovsky’s music and the gamelan style were not in any way changed or diluted into something totally different or foreign. Another challenge for the group was to internalise their movements as opposed to the physical and almost acrobatic stage dramatics that they’re known for. “We had to mentally express ourselves this time,” says Wan.

Ng adds: “We had to learn how to express ourselves differently so the audience would feel our emotions as well as the composer’s intentions through the music.”

She explains that the music itself is the dance and if everything goes well, the audience will be able to imagine that there’s a dancer on stage.


Both Wan and Ng evinced their natural talents on the drums from when they were young; they were already playing the instrument while in school. They joined Hands Percussion after leaving school, initially as part-timers, and later becoming full-time members. Ng has been with the established group for 13 years already, while Wan has been a member for a decade.

Aside from their work with Hands, both are currently drum coaches for secondary school students and are no strangers to the drumming community.

Wan has experience in playing the timpani as part of the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, while Ng has collaborated with the Yamato drummers of Japan and The Light Surgeons from the UK. “When I joined Hands, drumming became my career and I took it seriously,” says Ng.

She explains that from her early days of drumming on the shigu, she has developed artistically, from attending dance classes and physical training to playing with different traditional Malaysian and modern percussive instruments, as well as the gamelan.

“We really explored different things and for me, it’s been a very fulfilling life journey to become a professional performer and musician,” says Ng.

For Wan, it’s the continuous learning process that he appreciates in being with the group for so long. “I want to grow, develop and learn more as the group evolves and progresses,” he says.

Tchaikovsky On Gamelan
Where: Pentas 2, KLPaC, Sentul West, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Ipoh, KL
When: Aug 15-16 & Aug22-24, 8.30pm (Aug 15, 16, 22, 23) & 3pm (Aug16, 17, 23, 24)
Admission: RM88 & RM128
Call: 03-40479000 or visit:


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  1. Pingback: Chiming with Tchaikovsky – A Gamelan Orchestra |

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