The Sound of Moonlight – Javanese Gamelan

Gamelan music is comparable to only two things: Moonlight and flowing water. It is pure and mysterious like moonlight and always changing like flowing water.

Since 1893, when Claude Debussy first heard  a Javanese ensemble perform at the Paris International Exhibition, the haunting and hynoptic tones of the gamelan have fascinated the West. Although once ignorantly dismissed as primitive, or simply admired for its exoticism, this music has since been sensitively studied by scholars such as Jaap Kunst and Colin Mcphee, and is now indisputably recognised  as one of the world’s most sophisticated musical arts. In Indonesia, of course, gamelan music has always been simply the sound of everything civilized – the music of art, religion and goverment.

Karawitan is the Indonesian term coined in the 1950s by Ki Sindusawarno, the first director of the musin conservatory in Surakarta. to encompass the entire range of Javanese and Balinese performing arts that incorporate the use of gamelan music – from dance to drama to puppet shows to sung poetry. Though gamelan ensembles most commonly perform as an accompaniment to dance or theatre, the music is also enjoyed for its own sake, often in connection with royal or religious festivities. Today gamelans frequently perform for radio and television, as well as on national and other significant occasions. Cassete recordings have become readily available, so that the liquid tones of the instruments frequently accompany one down the back lanes of Javanese towns or while eating at village warungs in Bali. Yet despite the current ubiquity of the music, it very much retains its associations with festive and ritual events.

The term gamelan derives from gamel, an old Javanese word of handle or hammer, appropriately so since most of the instrument in the oechestra are percussive. The interlocking rhythmic and melodic pattern found in gamelan music are said by some to originate in the rhythms of the lesung – stone or wooden mortars used for husking rice. Others ascribe these paterns to the rhythmic chanting of frogs in the ricefields after dusk, or the wonderful cacophony  of roosters crowning at dawn.

No one knows exactly when the first gamelan orchestra came into being. Metallophones date back to prehistoric time and the manufacture of bronze gongs and drums associated witd the Dong Son bronze culture that is thought to have reached Indonesia in about the 3rd century BC. Since then, large bronze gongs have formed the very heartbeat of this distinetive music.

Javanese Gamelan: In Java, karawitan and its related arts reached its height of refinement in the Islamic courts of the 18th and 19th centuries, despite  the fact that renowned instrument sets supposedly date from the Majapahit era centuries earlier in East Java and that there are references to the instruments from the 10th century AD. The artistocratic refinement of the gamelan in Java has resulted in a music that is slow, stately and mystical in feeling, designed to be heard in the large audience hall of the aristocrstic home and to convery a sense of stately, awesome power and emotional control.

Anywhere from five to 40 instrument make up a gamelan orchestra, and most of them are  never played otherwise than as part of an ensemble. In fact the two instrument that do see regular solo use, the rebab (a two-stringed bowed lute probably of Middle-Eastern origin) and the suling (bamboo flute), are non-percussive and thought to have been a later addition, as was the introduction of vocal parts. In fact, solo playing occurs only in the context of folk music and not at the court.

The basic principle underlying all gamelan music is that of stratification. It is essensially a technique of orchestration in which the density of notes played on each instrument is determined by its register – higher instruments play more notes than lower ones. In addition, instrument are grouped according to their function, Gongs, for example, maintain the basic structure of the music, while mid-register metalophones carry the theme and other instruments provide ornamentation. The kendhang, wooden drums with skins stretched over both ends, lead the orchestra by controlling the tempo of the piece. Many Indonesian musicians metaphorically compare the structure of gamelan music to a tree: the roots, sturdy and supportive, are the low registers: the trunk is the melody and the branches leaves and blossoms represent  the delicate complexity of the ornamentation.

In Central Java, the main theme or balungan (skeleton) of a piece played on the various saron (small to medium size metallophones with six or seven bronze keys lying over wooden trough resonator), and on the slentem (metallophones with bamboo resonators). Faster variations on the balungan are played simultaneously on the elaborating instruments; the bonang (a set of small, horizontally suspended gong), gender (similiar to the slentem), gambang (a wooden xylophone), and celempung (a zither with metal strings). They, together with the suling, the rebab and the vocalists, create the complex, sensual sound that is unique to gamelan music.

Vocal parts in an ensemble became popular in Java only in the 19th century, evem though solo and choral singing has long been a feature of poetry recitations, folksongs and religious ceremonies. In an orchestra it is now common to have soloists as well as a chorus. These may be either female (pesinden) or male (gerong), although female singers seem to be more popular. It is important to note that the sound of voices is traditionally regerdad merely as another element in the overall texture of the orchestra and is not necessarily given prominence over the instrumental parts. Lyrics are only rarely understood, as they are normally composed in a archaic or literary language.

A common misconception of gamelan compositions is that they are improvised, perhaps because scores are rarely used. This is not trus. Most composition (gendhing) are as rigidly determined as they are lucidly performed. There are literally thousands of pieces, and every region has its favourites. Each gendhing has its own name and theme (balungan), usually corresponding to the specific wayang character,dance or ritual for which it is played. Special composition were developed at the Javanese courts for every occasion, notably in the palaces of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. A general distinction maybe made betwen the metalophone-dominated “loud” style and the “soft” style of playing which emphasizes the vocals and the rebab.

In addition to the regional styles of West, Central and East Java, we may distinguish the individual style sof the pesisir North Coastal region: Cirebon, Semarang and Madura, which because they were cosmopolitan trading areas, absorbed a multitude of musical influences. Javanese gamelan music has also spread to he neighbouring shores of Borneo and the Malay peningsula where it took on some Chinese characteristics, as it did in the Batavia (Jakarta) region.

–> Read Also : The Sound of Moonlight – Gamelan Balinese

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