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]
|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
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
composer, writer on music
gamelan musician & instructor