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What is Gamelan? by Andrew Timar

What is Gamelan?
Gamelan is an indigenous Indonesian orchestra composed largely of pitched percussion instruments. These appear in the form of knobbed gongs, some of which are suspended and some laid out horizontally on rope supports and keyed metallophones, mounted on trough or tubular resonators. Additional instruments are often included such as various types of drums, bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked string instruments, drums as well as solo and choral singing.

Although similar ensembles are found in other parts of Southeast Asia, gamelan (used here as a collective noun) are primarily found on the islands of Java, Madura, Bali, Lombok and Borneo, in the country of Indonesia. There are many regional gamelan types found on the islands of Java and Bali, each with its own idiosyncratic instrumentation, tuning and repertoire. It has been said that indeed, every gamelan has its own unique tuning and sonic personality.

Certain musical traits however are characteristic of all true gamelan and music played on them. A number of musical layers are present, each represented by an instrument or set of instruments. These instrumental layers may include the following:
-a hierarchical punctuating layer- gong, kenong, etc;
-a skeletal melodic layer - saron, etc;
-an elaborating melody layer - bonang, etc;
-an iterative or drum layer - kendang;
-a chorus - gerongan, kor, sekar [Sundanese]
-and/or vocal soloists: female - pesinden and male - bawa [Javanese]


solarised photo of the gamelan degung instruments of the Evergreen Club contemporary gamelan

What are gamelan made of?
Three types of metal (or metallic alloys) are commonly used to make the sounding parts of gamelan instruments. In order of preference, the keys and gongs of a gamelan may be made of bronze, brass, or iron - bronze being the most preferred and prestigious material. A few experimental instruments have been made in Indonesia of zinc and other novel materials, such as glass. Since the 1970s, musicians in N. America have been making aluminium instruments based on gamelan. In addition to the choice of materials, an owner's wealth and personal aesthetic sense are determining factors in the number of instruments in the set, the type of wooden furnishings the instruments are supported on or the iconography found on the decorative carvings and paintings of the instrument cases. In short, while there are regional standards concerning the sound and decorative elements of a gamelan, it is also true to say that each individual gamelan has a unique personality. This individuality extends to the personal name for each gamelan and often for the large gong itself.

Tuning and scales in Javanese gamelan
Although different gamelan will vary in their tunings (the variation can be significant indeed and has spawned many papers by ethnomusicologists exploring this aspect of gamelan), almost all gamelans (in Java, at least) are tuned to one of two tuning systems and scale types:
- slendro or salendro (in west Java) is a 5-tone anhemitonic tuning system [no semitones present in this scale]
- pelog is a 7-tone hemitonic tuning system (this scale has semitones).
In the pelog family of scales, a number of 5-tone modes are used, which can be considered sub-sets of the possible 7 tones within the octave. These scales exist in local variants and may be called different names, which may also vary between specific musical genres. It is important to note that these two parent scales, pelog and slendro, which are also tuning systems, have intervallic structures which are completely different from the western model of the 12-tone equal intervals within the octave - the tuning system found for instance on the piano. For this reason, gamelan music may sound "out-of-tune", or at least certainly very different to those with a sense of tuning deeply rooted in standard Western instrumentation and music. In addition, the modes - or how the notes of the abstracted scales are actually used in gamelan musical performances - have very different melodic and structural contours from those found in western musical practice.


A negotiation between musicians - collective music making
Gamelan is also a particular way of playing and thinking about music. My current favourite definition was given by a Javanese musician who said that gamelan was "a negotiation between musicians ". The ideals of density of sound articulation, rate of speed, melody, structure, deference to social standing and authority that musicians carry in their hands, hearts and minds are all open "to negotiation": This becomes more and more evident as one delves more and more deeply into the music. This definition underlines the value placed on social responsibility and the importance of "working together" in playing music on gamelan instruments. After all, it is an orchestra, but without the single conductor as found in the western orchestra.

Gamelan usually plays as support for various theatrical forms: shadow puppetry, rod puppetry, several forms of live human theatre and dance and even various types of opera. In addition, it is common to have gamelan playing [even if it is only a tape] at official and life-change events, for example at marriages, circumcisions, at the Sultan's court functions and government celebrations. In fact it is quite uncommon to have a concert of gamelan music only where the audience pays admission and listens attentively, as is typical in a western concert.

What does the word "Gamelan" mean?
The word Gamelan comes from the ancient roots gambel (Bali) and gamel (Java). Gambel means to play - musically. Gamel means to strike in the context of initiating a defined and intentional sound. Technically put therefore, gamelan means [to make] music. The suffix "an" makes the word a concept. The root word gamel is no longer used in modern Indonesian however and gamelan has come to mean "a Javanese orchestra." In Bali for instance, various terms are used to refer to specific gamelan types - such as Gong Kebyar for the instruments and repertoire of the popular gamelan gong kebyar.

In general, the word gamelan is used to distinguish a certain genre of Indonesian music with its own particular instrumentation, hierarchical structure, feeling of order - with emphasis on the end beat, not the beginning, as in western music. When new music came via travellers and traders to the Indonesian islands, new elements were sometimes integrated into the ongoing context of gamelan. For instance, in the historical Kawi language of Bali, the words gamelan and merdangga meant similar things (merdangga [mrdangam] presently refers to the leading drum in the classical music of South India). This points to the ancient links between India and the Indonesian islands. The term gamelan became "style specific" slowly over the course of centuries, particularly as different musics and new exclusive names to go with them were introduced from many neighbouring lands and far-off Europe.

A brief history of gamelan music
The major Indonesian islands have been demonstrably inhabited by humans for many thousands of years. Attracted by their tremendous fertility, people have visited, traded and stayed to live on these islands in continuous waves up to the present day. This rich admixture of many different cultures has, over time, resulted in a vibrant kaleidoscope of musical languages and dialects. One of its supreme expressions is gamelan. Music is a basic form of human expression or culture, and as such, it is constantly subject to a healthy creative tension between the human urges of conservation and innovation. This accounts for the co-existence of many layers of many types of instruments, scales, poetic meters and the varied aesthetic aspects found in gamelan music.

The earliest written Javanese and Balinese sources of information about gamelan can be found in epic court poems. These epics chronicle many facets of the rich court life, not unlike those of the troubadours of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Alongside this court culture was and remains a vibrant village musical culture - perhaps more elusive to document - but nevertheless feeding the courts with musicians and developing their own forms of entertainment.

Even prior to this layer of recorded history, we can find illustrations of a rich cultural life, including instruments found in the contemporary gamelan, as illustrated in stone carvings found on temples, going back to the 8th century. In this era, Java and Sumatra were ruled by kings who were influenced by the culture and religious beliefs and practices of India - first Hindu, then Buddhist and finally Islamic. Some of the instruments and musical-ritual traditions found in the nexus of gamelan today can be traced back to these early periods. For instance the string zithers, bonang-like gong-chimes, sarons and various types of gongs and drums are found pictured on Hindu and Buddhist era temple reliefs. The rebab -the bowed spiked fiddle, is commonly considered to have been introduced by Islamic travellers to the Indonesian islands. It too was in time incorporated into the rich fabric of gamelan.

Gamelan outside of Indonesia
The court in the Malay state of Trengganu - in the N.E. of the country of Malaysia - also developed its own style of gamelan. Legend has it that the roots of this style were brought to the court from Java as part of a dowry.

Gamelan has been of interest to European scholars and musicians since the 18th century. Jean-Philippe Rameau, the well-known French composer owned a gambang kayu - a particular type of Javanese xylophone. It probably came from the (then) Dutch colony of The Cape around 1755. Rameau mentions playing it and noting its tuning (a recognisable slendro) in one of his last theoretical essays. Sir Stamford Raffles, the English governor of Java and founder of Singapore, penned the definitive text on the topic, entitled 'The History Of Java', in 1819. Gamelan is described in this history. Raffles, a considerable collector, brought back to England two complete Javanese gamelan, both of which are still there in remarkably good condition. He also brought back with him a Javanese prince who is said to have performed music on these instruments.

The Rameau and Raffles examples point out the fact that gamelan has been present in the western world for well over 200 years. Probably the most well-documented case of the early fascination western composers have had with gamelan started at the Paris Exposition in 1889. Among the hundreds of thousands who visited the Expo was the composer Claude Debussy who was profoundly impressed by the novel percussion-based gamelan sound-world and exciting performances he encountered at the Expo's Javanese village. The 1892 Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, IL, also had a Javanese village set up for the duration of the Fair. It featured daily performances of Javanese music, dance and theatre, similar to the fair in Paris, some of which were recorded for posterity on the new invention, the Edison phonograph.

The 1932 Paris Expo brought Balinese gamelan and dancers into the west's collective consciousness and influenced composers such as Darius Milhaud as well as theatre visionary Antonin Artaud. Also in the 1930s, Canadian-born composer Colin McPhee spent most of the decade in Bali, studying the enchanting music he found there and composing his most famous orchestral work, Tabu-tabuhan, which is imbued throughout with Balinese musical ideas and idioms. By the 1970s, several generations of western composers had been studying gamelan, particularly in several Universities on the US west coast, and they were ready to compose directly for gamelan itself - which until then had not been done. It was American composer Lou Harrison who was the first to break the ice in 1976 by being the first western composer to write a piece of music for gamelan. Once the implicit taboo had been broken, however, hundreds of works followed in quick succession composed for several regional gamelan types in many countries.

Gamelan music can now be heard played around the world, from Kyoto to Paris, from London to Vancouver, Tel Aviv to New York, in Indonesian Embassies and Consulates, in community groups and at an increasing number of Universities and schools. There are even a handful of groups working on a professional level such as the California-based Sekar Jaya and the Toronto-based Evergreen Club contemporary gamelan.

The term gamelan, therefore, implies several layers of meaning and in fact refers to a variety of cultures: the world of Java and Bali which is now finding its place in both its original forms and taking root in countries all over the globe.


Andrew Timar
composer, writer on music
gamelan musician & instructor
atimar@istar.ca

 

This article was published on Friday 07 April, 2006.
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