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What is Gamelan Degung? by Andrew Timar

In the western third of the island of Java, an area with its own language and culture, live the Sundanese people. They play a unique type of gamelan called Degung - often these days, the term gamelan is implicit and is not used to describe [gamelan] degung. Degung developed in the small courts of Sunda and, to the present day, it is associated in the minds of the Sundanese with aristocratic rituals and traditions. Its present instrumentation, with goong (a large hanging gong) and suling degung (a 4-hole bamboo flute which plays a prominent role in degung) is attributed to Pa Idi and colleagues of his generation, who began to be active around 1920.

Although its roots have not been clearly documented, Degung is likely related to a gamelan type called Denggung which is found in the courts of Cirebon, on Java's north coast. This tradition predates Sundanese degung by several centuries. There is also an antique Degung at the Museum in the former court city of Sumedang, west Java, which is reputed to date to the mid-18th century. There are also probably more distant links to central Javanese gamelan, particularly to a few musical pieces in the gamelan pelog repertoire called dengung. Sundanese [gamelan] degung also has an ancestor in a rural ritual gamelan called Goong Renteng, as the instrumentation is similar. Goong Renteng or simply Renteng is still found in some villages in the Sunda and Cirebon (north coast of Java) areas and is used to primarily to celebrate the rice harvest.

Degung is a gamelan which is unusual in several ways. It falls into the category of gamelan used for listening and ritual, rather than for various forms of theatre or dancing. It also originally did not include singing, which is unusual among gamelan genres. Furthermore, its idiosyncratic 5-tone scale can be considered a particular 'mode' of the 7-tone per octave "parent" Pelog scale. It can be roughly thought of as a descending scale: G, F#, D, C, B. Note that Sundanese musicians construct scales in descending order. The intervallic temperament varies considerably of course from the western 12-equal model referred to, and the pitch can range higher or lower, from gamelan to gamelan, by up to about an interval of a third.

Degung's core repertoire consists of roughly 60 pieces, many of which are closely linked through characteristic melodic (particularly cadential) and rhythmic patterns. This core repertoire is called Degung Klasik. Many of these pieces are said to have been composed or arranged in the early to mid-20th century by important musicians (such as the previously-mentioned Pa Idi) who based their pieces on existing formal, modal and cadential patterns.

The instrumentation of Degung can be flexible. The ensemble may include goong, jengglong, panerus, peking/saron, bonang, kendang and suling. Recent ensembles have added the following instruments: cempres, kempul, demung, kacapi, salentem, et al - instruments originally found in other ensembles, such as Gamelan Sunda and Kacapian.

Degung has also seen sweeping innovations in recent decades and the number of pieces has more than doubled the degung klasik repertoire. For instance, as opposed to its instrumental-only past, it is now primarily used in live performances which feature female soloists or small choirs singing relatively recent compositions over simple instrumental [degung] accompaniment. In the 1980s and 90s, cassettes of instrumental versions of these more popular degung renditions were played in many retail stores and restaurants throughout Indonesia. This music was what many tourists to Indonesia came to associate with gamelan. More recently, diatonically tuned versions of degung have been constructed in Java and a major Indonesian label has released a series of themed albums of well-known Indonesian regional and western melodies, including a cassette/CD entitled "Degung for Christmas".

Degung is now found around the world, in England, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada and Japan, to name only a few countries. There has been a steady growth in the proliferation of degung groups over the past 20 years. This growth can be seen in light of the general international spread of gamelan. These international degung groups perform both Sundanese pieces and new compositions - often for instruments in addition to the usual degung instrumentation - and attracting leading western composers such as John Cage, who composed "Haikai" [1986] for Canada's Evergreen Club contemporary gamelan [est. 1983]. It has also attracted film composers and filmmakers who have used its evocative sounds for their movie scores.

Andrew Timar
composer, writer on music
gamelan musician & instructor
32 Rosemount Ave, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
atimar@istar.ca

This article was published on Friday 07 April, 2006.
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