Concert Review: Gamelan Merdu Kumala Perform a Reimagined Score to the 1926 Film “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”

Members of Gamelan Merdu Kumala. Photo courtesy of the ensemble.

The screening of mass appeal cinema with live orchestra performing memorable cues to captivated audiences is a fairly recent phenomenon in the music industry. Philharmonics in major cities certainly have capable performance forces and a clientele willing to dish out the big bucks to bask in nostalgia associated with iconic films such as Jaws or The Lord of the Rings. However, during the past year in Southern California, an entirely original yet perfectly natural arrangement of film and music is ongoing thanks to the efforts of Gamelan Merdu Kumala.

Gamelan Merdu Kumala is a community performance group and grassroots organization based in Tujunga, California. Artistic director Hirotaka Inuzuka founded the ensemble in 2014 as a way to give back to the community and bring instruction of the exquisite art form of gamelan outside of the halls of higher education. The entirely volunteer based ensemble put together a vivid show Sunday night, March 26, at the Harvey Mudd Drinkward Recital Hall in Claremont, California.

In partnership with Harvey Mudd College and MicroFest, the yearly southern California based microtonal concert series, Gamelan Merdu Kumala gave an exciting and well-attended live score performance to the animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger. Reiniger’s film is considered to be the oldest surviving feature length animated picture, pulling from 1001 Arabian Nights as source material. The film combines animation techniques and large-scale storytelling that predates Walt Disney’s Snow White by over a decade.

The current version of the score was arranged by Hirotaka Inuzuka and originally premiered during the Secret Movie Club in March, 2022. Co-director of MicroFest and Harvey Mudd College professor of music Bill Alves deserves the credit for arranging this third performance of the entire production.

The pairing of gamelan and The Adventures of Prince Achmed may be arrived at from the technical aspect of how the film works. The movie’s animation style is inspired by Indonesian shadow theater called wayang kulit, in which puppets are lit from behind and silhouetted against a screen. Reiniger accomplishes smooth and elegant movements of the characters and scenery through stop motion and the back lighting of the two-dimensional cardboard or paper cutouts. Gamelan traditionally accompanies wayang kulit in Indonesia and Inuzuka’s reimagined score gives new life, a new voice to the silent film nearly a century later. The original score, by German composer Wolfgang Zeller, is rich with romanticism and outlines the action and plot development nicely. This music could be performed with the film if the cinema had a large enough orchestra in house. Zeller’s score, though convincing, is rather continuous and lacking in emotional variety. Gamelan certainly adds an extra dimension of orchestral text painting that successfully updates the mood and action of the film.

Inuzaka used three types of gamelan to re-orchestrate the film: 1.) gamelan gambuh, led by the meter-long bamboo flutes called suling gambuh, 2.) saih pitu alit, a custom seven-tone gamelan made by Inuzaka, and 3.) gamelan mulut / cak, a vocal gamelan. Each gamelan serves the action, mood, and tone of the film in a variety of manners.

The movie begins with suling and gamelan as each character is introduced: the sorcerer, Prince Achmed, his sister Dinarsade, the ruler of Wak Wak Pari Banu, Aladdin, and the witch. The barang mode takes six notes from the gamelan pelog scale and sets up the mystical nature of the eventual character interactions effectively. The music, entitled “Sepuk Ngenget,” has also been used by Gamelan Merdu Kumala in performance with I Nyoman Wenten to depict the dance of a black magic practitioner who shape-shifts, falling deeper and deeper into his magic. This composed piece by Inuzuka is accurately underscores the first act in which the sorcerer conjures a flying horse and will only exchange his creation for the hand of the ruler’s daughter, Dinarsade. Prince Achmed flies far into the sky on the horse and the gamelan speeds up, enhancing the drama as Achmed swirls around in in dangerous thunder clouds. Upon his decent, Inuzaka leads the ensemble into a moment of rest as Prince Achmed lands in the distant land of Wak Wak.

The gamelan oscillates between a steady rhythmic pulse and improvised drumming, abrupt changes in patterns that effectively underscores Prince Achmed’s first meeting with the ruler of Wak Wak, Pari Banu. Pari Barnu is at first scared and flees from Achmed. Her fears are eased when Achmed returns her magical feathers. The gamelan kebyar style is accurate here as subtext shifts and characters interact with each other.

Scene from Aladdin in the Cave of Wonders. Photograph by the author.

The saih pitu alit, seven-tone gamelan features extensively during Reiniger’s depiction of Aladdin and his magic lamp. Prince Achmed requires the magic lamp to free Pari Banu from the land of Wak Wak, so Aladdin retells the story of how he came into ownership of the magic lamp. Suling and percussion create a mesmerizing environment as Aladdin descends into the Cave of Wonders.

A convincing use of gamelan occurs during the fifth act when Prince Achmed, Aladdin, and the witch must battle the demons of Wak Wak. This entirely supernatural sequence is underscored by the gamelan mulut / cak. The vocal gamelan is frenzied as interlocked, rapid rhythms are juxtaposed with moments of pure homophony. Any normal action sequence in modern cinema would rely heavily on strings or percussion instruments. Here, Inuzaka and Gamelan Merdu Kumala avert preconception as this “fight sequence” features the human voice sounding each pitch and rhythm. It brings a human element to the climax of this story that is marked deeply by the relationship between good and evil. Zeller chooses to orchestrate a climax at the end of the battle once Prince Achmed and Pari Banu embrace as the demons retreat. Gamelan Merdu Kumala continue their vocal gamelan styling until the text cue card “Look, the Palace!” signals a new section of the story wherein our main characters soar away from Wak Wak in their floating palace.

Gamelan Merdu Kumala and The Adventures of Prince Achmed create a spirited bond between a relic of film animation and the source material it was inspired by. The mystical themes, charming imagery, and multicultural elements of the story are well-served by the ensemble and the author hopes to see Gamelan Merdu Kumala bring their revitalized scoring of Reiniger’s 1926 film to audiences outside of California.

For more information about Gamelan Merdu Kumala and their schedule, please visit:

Gamelan Merdu Kumala logo courtesy of the gamelan’s website.