Bow Gamelan Ensemble

The artists Anne Bean, Paul Burwell (1949 – 2007) and Richard Wilson all had studios in Butlers Wharf, on the Thames at Tower Bridge (London), in the mid to late seventies. As friends, during this time, they extensively explored riverscapes by boat, which fired their imaginations. Visions started to germinate and their shared excitement of the countless possibilities within the visual dynamics and unexpected sounds, often on vast scales, stimulated the ideas that became embedded in the group DNA. Their first performance together Echoing Tower Bridge in 1978, five years before Bow Gamelan took shape, attracted thousands of onlookers as they explored the echoes and shadows underneath Tower Bridge with Paul Burwell and Richard Wilson in a rowing boat with drums. Anne Bean joined them as a vocalising swimmer with high intensity lightsticks attached to her body. They attracted spotlights and loud hailers from the River Police which became unexpectedly, but intrinsically, part of the sound and lighting of the work.


The Ensemble’s name derived from the area of East London, Bow, where the artists lived and worked and from the Indonesian metallophone musical ensembles. The unique sensibilities of the individual members combined with their long experience in the areas of performance art, drumming, sculpture, environments and multi-media made the collaboration remarkably creative and fruitful.


Their instruments were specially constructed including using scrap metal, electric motors, glass, early warning systems, explosives, paraffin, gases, (including propane, helium and hydrogen), low and high pressure steam, compressed air, high pressure water jets, high-power wind and lightening machines, cranes, boats, barges, fire, tidal energies and acoustic pyrotechnics, often specifically commissioned. These instruments produced a wide variety of sounds ranging from the deep, organ like drones of the pyrophones played with propane, through a gamut of percussive timbres. Both the sound sources and the musical structures generated were unusual because of the physical relationship between the way instruments work and how they had to be played. They did not so much transform materials, as try to explore the core of what one could get out of the physical object. See more on the Archive section Instruments page.


Bow Gamelan Ensemble grew from intimate indoor performances to massive outdoor events which created new orchestras out of discarded materials around the world. They developed relationships with pyrotechnicians such as Wilf Scott of le Maitre fireworks and El Diablo in Mexico and entered into a range of working relationships with artists and groups such as the sound poet Bob Cobbing, the American percussionist Z’EV, Simon York of Miraculous Engineering, Tom Leadlay of the Thames Steam Launch Company, Eel Pie Marine, Ballooning World and their hot air balloons, Treveni Kathak Dance Troupe, historic re-creation societies, kite enthusiasts, remote control helicopter fanatics and the Japanese Buddhist monk of Sado island.

Since their first public performance as Bow Gamelan Ensemble, in 1983 at the London Musicians' Collective, they have shown works at festivals and in galleries nationally and internationally along with devising their own large-scale outdoor site-responsive events on rivers and waterways. Their works were shown at art galleries including: Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; Modern Art Oxford; Ferens Gallery, Hull; Whitechapel, London; Orchard Gallery, Derry, Northern Ireland; Anchorage, New York; AIR Gallery, London; Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, Spacex, Exeter and Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol.

After their research at the Science Museum and contact with specialist curators there, they were asked to donate one of their pyrophone recordings to the Museum.

In their seven year history, Bow Gamelan received enthusiastic accolades and extensive worldwide press coverage. Their Time Out Performance Award in 1988 read ‘They serve up adventures in music, sculpture and performance that dazzle the eyes, astonish the ears and stimulate the imagination of viewers with an unorthodox magic’ and City Limits declared them to be ‘the most stunning cross media project of the decade.’

Drawings, press, letters and other documents, as well as films, relating to many of these projects can be found in the Archive section.

Anne Bean and Richard Wilson would like to especially thank Artsadmin for their huge support of Bow Gamelan Ensemble, as well as London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) for several commissions and later on LADA (Live Art Development Agency), Tate Research and Matt's Gallery for TAPS: Improvisations with Paul Burwell. Also, Cooper Gallery for commissioning Great Noises That Fill the Air, 2018 which seeded ideas for this website.

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