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A Mode of its Own - Gamelan

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Dusted's Josie Clowney takes a look at a few recent releases featuring the gamelan.

A Mode of its Own - Gamelan

Felmay gets a little closer to a home run with each installment of Gamelan of Central Java; the playing and recording have been top-notch throughout the series, but volumes since VII include exemplary attempts by Wesleyan professor Sumarsam to explicate gamelan structure and practice for non-practitioners. Something addictive in Indonesian music makes it popular for serialization but the depth here is novel; the most visible precursors, from Nonesuch and Folkways, gathered breadth.

Gamelan of Central Java departs radically from many previous gamelan recordings available overseas because it was spearheaded by Indonesian performers rather than by foreign musicologists. These players, professors at Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia-Surakarta (STSI, Indonesia’s premier music school) engage in a high degree of exchange with American and European colleagues that may have encouraged the releases’ capitulation to foreign hunger for digestible, archival recordings of gamelan.

Recordings of gamelan are inescapably partial. Gamelan is rarely experienced divorced from dance or shadow puppetry (wayang); it is performed in fairly elaborate traditional dress, often in special places where the gamelan instruments live; the instruments themselves are alive to the extent that disrespecting one by stepping over it is rumored to prevent one from ever being able to pee again, and they receive food offerings prior to performances. The gamelan room at the University of Michigan, though no Javanese palace, has immaculate blood-red carpet with gold borders, trunks of costumes and puppets, and abundant photos of previous generations playing the gamelan. Quite a departure from typical utilitarian practice rooms.

Further, as in Western classical music, gamelan compositions can be quite long or consist of many movements played consecutively. The Gamelan of Central Java project presents truncated versions of longer pieces from various time periods and styles. Though these pieces are all very old with unknown authorship, the structure here is something like what one would find in a Rough Guide to European Classical Music, a Verdi sonata bumping up against a Handel interlude and a portion of a Beethoven andante. However, all the songs are played by the same group of musicians performing, in each volume, on a single gamelan.

A gamelan is a collection of mostly percussive instruments played together. “Orchestra” is often given as the English equivalent, but a gamelan is perhaps more like a pipe organ with many players. One cello can be played in many different orchestras because orchestras have standard, objective tuning; the A above middle C is 440 hertz. Gamelan has two scales, each an octave long, divided into equal intervals, numbered from one to six in the slendro scale and one to seven in pelog; each player in the gamelan has two instruments, one for pelog and one for slendro. Within one gamelan, the slendro and pelog sixes are tuned to one another, but there is no objective frequency for six across gamelans. Thus one could not take a slenthem from the University of Michigan’s gamelan and play it in Wesleyan’s gamelan. Songs of Wisdom and Love is played on the “ancient” gamelan at STSI; Court Music Treasures uses the Kyai Kadukmanis Manisrengga set of the Surakarta palace and the palace players join the STSI group. This volume (and its companion, volume VI) was made in part to document the sound of Kyai Kadukmanis Manisrengga as it is thought to be exceptionally sweet and lovely.

In Javanese gamelan, most of the instruments are sets of tuned brass keys. (Balinese gamelan is bamboo; rarely heard, wonderful Sundanese gamelan is also brass but the style is keras or rough, where Javanese gamelan prides itself on being halus, refined.) The instruments which play the skeletal melody (balungan) are called saron and are hit with wooden mallets. The sarons are joined by peking which often plays each note of the balungan twice and which is percussed with a horn mallet. A third group, the genders and slenthems are brass slats suspended over resonator tubes played with wooden mallets muffled by cloth. The slenthems play the balungan, while the higher-pitched genders improvise around the balungan. A group of gongs and tuned pots rounds out the brass instruments. One giant gong is the “goalkeeper” and sounds once at the end of each phrase; sometimes this interval is so long that gong-players joke about falling asleep in between notes. A set of higher pitched, tuned gongs called kempul hit at prescribed notes in the balungan, a group of tuned pots (kenong) hit on other beats, and a pair of pots called kethuk and kempyongplay on alternating beats. Finally, the bonang, two sets a single octave of tuned pots, has the greatest freedom to improvise around the balungan and the most difficult job. A pair of skin drums conducts the whole group.

Outside the brass instruments are a group of “soft” instruments (this includes the gender; the rest of the brass instruments form the “loud ensemble”). There is a one-stringed violin (rebab), a bamboo flute (suling), a marimba (gambang), and when one is really lucky, a zither (called “zither” or rarely, celimpung). These instruments are quite free to improvise and the suling and rebab often join in with the sung melody. Javanese gamelan is sung in Javanese, and these terms are all Javanese (rather than Indonesian).

As Sumarsam explains in the liner notes of Court Music Treasures, gamelan was traditionally learned aurally and notation is a recent, non-standardized acquisition. Most notation is just the balungan written in numbers. The rest of the loud ensemble, in a group of competent musicians, knows when its instrument should play (for instance the kempul could play just after the 3rd, 7th, 11th, and 15th notes of a 16-note phrase, where the gong plays just after the 16th note), though for beginners the rhythm instruments might be denoted by symbols placed over the balungan. Mistakes aren’t really deadly, and in fact the different instruments in the gamelan are deliberately tuned slightly differently from one another so that each note is a blend of nearby frequencies. (Gamelans are tuned every 10 years or so by traveling experts who grind away bits of the brass with serious tools.)

Gamelan singing can be an acquired taste, and Songs of Wisdom and Love makes a good primer. The style, particularly for women, demands singing well above one’s “range” in a reedy head voice. Singing as high as possible tends to trump singing in key, so in a chorus the slightly different tones blend as in the gamelan. Songs of Wisdom and Love uses female soloist and male chorus, a typical arrangement, though other configurations are possible. It includes both poetic pieces and narratives meant to accompany dance or puppet performance. One notable piece, Gendhing kemanek bedhayan Duradasih, switches midway through from the pelog to the slendro scale. The notes include the Javanese text of the sung poems and English translations; Wisdom and Love proves to be an apt description.

Both volumes present a mannered take on classical gamelan. Fast playing, particularly when the loud ensemble plays loudly (!) and alone, is totally exhilarating yet poorly represented in recordings. As Sumarsam puts it, “the intense percussive sound of brass instruments is where musical delight lies.” Gendhing Carabelen on Court Music Treasures is neither especially fast nor especially loud, but it is played on an archaic four-tone gong ensemble and delivers on the “intense, percussive sound” front. It also exemplifies the closeness of ancient gamelan and Minimalism, though gamelan always seems more breathtaking. The modern effect is caused both by the spare composition and by the pure, resonant tones of the instruments, which seem almost computer-generated.

The excitement of ancient gamelan compositions that sound thoroughly contemporary, and their scarcity here, illustrates a shortcoming in the Gamelan of Central Java series and indeed, in much of the foreign pantheon of Javanese gamelan releases. In this country, Balinese gamelan is seen as the “exciting” ensemble, perhaps because the Explorer Series introduced us to it with the heart stopping Ramayana Monkey Chant. The Monkey Chant entered the postmodern stew and became the definition of “gamelan” for Americans (including, one assumes, Mike Patton, who sampled it in Mr. Bungle). Javanese compositions available on record here have always seemed comparatively slow and “classical” (in the for-geriatrics sense). The chopped-up format of Gamelan of Central Java would seem to lend itself to a needed facelift, but the length of the pieces in Javanese releases has never been the problem. Rather, we most often hear compositions in the slow rhythm that are heavy on soft ensemble, probably because these are most halus styles. Future presentations would do well to include more rough styles: more of the loud ensemble; theimbalan style, in which the sarons play interlocking melodies; and the three-person hand clapping called keplok.

Why stick to the classical mode at all? Modern Javanese gamelan composition is thrilling because it breaks all the rules (sometimes cloth dampers are taken off gender mallets, village style is incorporated into “high” playing, slendro and pelog are used at once, etc) while maintaining a mantle of respectability and tradition. The scene was last sampled nearly 15 years ago, in Lyrichord’s excellent three-volume New Music of Indonesia. I would be shocked if in fact the professors heard playing here weren’t also some of the foremost composers in Java. We would love to have access to their music.

By Josie Clowney

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