Music, Physics, and Conservation: An Interview with Dr Gea Parikesit

Music and physics are interconnected in ways that are not only fascinating but also crucial for how we go about conserving musical instruments. Grimwade Centre Visiting Scholar Dr Gea Parikesit applies his scientific expertise to enhance our understanding of musicality and how to care for musical instruments. Ashley Hayes spoke with him about his ongoing collaboration with the Grimwade Centre and his work on the bundengan, a rare Javanese musical instrument.

The principles of physics can be used to describe the making of music. Put simply, playing a musical instrument creates mechanical vibrations which form soundwaves that move through particles in the air and into our eardrums. Knowing these physical processes can deepen our understanding and appreciation of music.

The physics of music can also be applied to the conservation of musical instruments. Visiting Scholar Dr Gea Parikesit, from the Faculty of Engineering at the Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia, has devoted much of his working life to this field. In 2019–2020 Dr Parikesit was an Asia Scholars Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. In this role, he conducted research into the preservation of musical instruments. He also taught students about data analysis in Preventive Conservation, one of the first-year subjects in the Master of Cultural Materials Conservation course.

Cultural materials conservation is an amalgamation of a broad range of disciplines. Chemistry, art history, practical art skills, ethics, and cultural studies are just some of the areas in which students are required to have basic knowledge. Each conservator brings unique experiences and skills to the field and utilises the knowledge of people working in other industries through collaboration and knowledge sharing. The conservation of musical instruments is one such area that has fostered a multitude of interdisciplinary collaboration and research.

Musical instruments pose a set of unique challenges for the conservator. For example, instruments are interactive objects that are intended to be played, so it is essential to consider not only their material conservation, but also their musicality and playability. In order to ensure repairs to a damaged instrument are successful in restoring the musical functions, conservators are required to understand how the objects are engineered and how the physics of the instrument’s design relate to their musicality.

Dr Gea Parikesit, 2018. Photographer: Indraswari Kusumaningtyas

Dr Parikesit first came to Melbourne in February 2018 to participate in the Making Connections Project, which brings communities and institutions in Indonesia and Australia together to promote the exchange of music and conservation knowledge. After this, he was invited to conduct research with masters students at the Grimwade Centre by Dr Nicole Tse, supported by the Faculty of Arts Indonesia Initiative, in June 2018.

I was fortunate enough to assist Dr Parikesit with a research project during his time as a visiting fellow. Along with fellow Grimwade Masters students Lia Sumichan and Leon Rong Wei Sim, we applied Dr Parikesit’s methods of non-invasive sound resonance testing to instruments from the collection at the Musical Archive at Monash University (MAMU).

This process involved using white noise to measure the resonating frequencies of the instruments, without needing to physically play them. This reduces the risk of mechanical damage from overhandling. Calibrating this method was the focus of Leon Rong Wei Sim’s minor thesis research in which Dr Parikesit acted as a supervisor along with Dr Nicole Tse.

The Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation has been involved with conservation projects since 1999 alongside MAMU and their collection of Asian musical instruments and performance related objects. Professor Margaret Kartomi and Dr Bronia Kornhauser from MAMU have been integral to the success of this partnership, and the collaborations have generated valuable opportunities for students and researchers from both institutions.

Could you tell us a bit about your background and your research?

My training background comes from Engineering Physics, also known as Applied Physics, which can have many different applications. The most common is actually biomedical. Not many people have applied the learnings from engineering physics to art. Personally I am very passionate about art, which I think is how I became involved in this multidisciplinary research. In Indonesia I work in Yogyakarta, which is full of art. I wanted to combine what I do and what I like, so I applied engineering methods to study art. My first venture into this field was my research into Wayang Kulit, Indonesian shadow puppets, using stereoscopic illumination.

Then I collaborated with my wife, Dr Indraswari Kusumaningtyas, on research into the physics of guitars. I was able to apply my optical expertise to take measurements in order to characterise the vibrations of the guitar. This was the beginning.

One day we went to an exhibition in Yogyakarta, which was the first time we encountered the bundengan [a rare Javanese musical instrument, also known as the kowangan].

When we first saw the bundengan, it was a static object in a storage cupboard, which was not that interesting. It wasn’t until the end of the tour that we actually saw how people built and played the bundengan. After seeing this we became very interested and wanted to know how the instrument works. After doing some research, we contacted Grimwade Centre Graduate Rosie Cook because she had conducted a conservation treatment on a bundengan. Through Rosie we were connected to Professor Margart Kartomi from MAMU and also Dr Nicole Tse from the Grimwade Centre.

I am continuing my research into the bundengan. I am still regularly in contact with both Margaret Kartomi and Rosie Cook. Rosie came to Yogyakarta in April 2019 after our team received a grant from the National Geographic, which we used to invite Rosie to Indonesia to conduct fieldwork. We will present a paper about this research and collaboration at a conference in Germany in September. These projects have allowed us to spread the knowledge and enable a wider audience to engage with our research into the bundengan and Indonesian culture.

What’s the focus of your current research?

We are wondering why the bundengan players always soak their instruments before playing. They say that ‘wetter always sounds better’ but, when asked why, they can’t explain it, it’s just something they know from experience. From a conservation point of view, this cycle of wetting and drying is quite damaging to the object. However, this process is culturally significant in terms of the sound that is produced. I want to explore that middle area between conservation and cultural practice. We have our hypotheses, but we still need to conduct further research.

Dr Gea Parikesit, from the Faculty of Engineering at the Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia, was an Asia Scholars Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne in 2019–2020. He also visited Melbourne in 2018 as part of the Faculty of Arts Indonesia Initiative.

Feature image: A bundengan being played in rice fields, Bahasa Indonesia, 2020. Photographer: Erwinabdillah via Wikimedia Commons.