Yale University Javanese Gamelan Ensemble
Gamelan Suprabanggo

A Brief Introduction to Gamelan Music

Gamelan is a Javanese/Indonesian word for ensemble. The word 'gamel' means to hammer something in Javanese and indeed, 'hammering' or hitting is the way in which most of the different instruments in the ensemble are sounded with the exception of the two stringed instruments - the bowed fiddle (rebab) and the plucked zither (siter) - the flute (suling), male chorus (gerong) and female soloists (pasindhen). Most of the instruments are made from cast bronze and are in the shape of hanging gongs (gong, kempul) and racked gongs (bonang and kenong) which look like gongs lying on their backs with the boss facing up towards the ceiling. There are metallophones (saron which are like xylophones but made from metal, in this case, bronze polished to a gleaming luster) and drums (kendhang) played with the hands.

Gamelan Suprabanggo is a complete gamelan which means that it has instruments tuned in both the 5-tone Slendro and the 7-tone Pelog scales or laras. If you are trying to figure out which is which, laras pelog has some intervals that are nearly as small as half-steps while slendro has none. Additionally, when we are playing in laras slendro the majority of performers are facing out toward the audience. In addition to changing orientation, you will have noticed that the musicians often change instruments in between each piece. Learning as many instruments as possible is one way to accelerate the learning process for students who are new to gamelan. The drummer and the bowed instrument player are the leaders of the group, one determining melodic transitions and the other determining rhythmic transitions. No single person stands in front of the ensemble and conducts. The musicians must listen and rely on their understanding of what is 'usual' in a piece a particular form and 'special' or pamijen in a particular piece in order to play it properly. The music is cyclic, often composed of several different cycles, each of which is repeated a number of times determined by the rebab or kendhang player. Each cycle begins and ends with the stroke of the biggest gong (gong agung) which is usually given a name. The name of our gong is Kyai Suprabanggo. The length of individual cycles can be as short as 30 seconds or as long as 20 minutes. As most pieces are composed of several different cycles, each played several times, the duration of pieces can range from a few minutes to more than an hour, rivaling a Mahler or Beethoven Symphony in terms of complexity, movements, and duration.

The late 19th century composer Claude Debussy heard a kind of gamelan at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. He was transfixed and spent many days in the Dutch East Indies Pavilion listening to the Indonesian musicians perform. He worked hard to understand the structure and tuning. He later set about composing music inspired by the music he heard. Some of the other composers who have been inspired by Indonesian gamelan traditions include: Maurice Ravel; Oliver Messiaen; Benjamin Britten; Colin McPhee; Harry Partch; John Cage; Lou Harrison; Steve Reich, Peter Sculthorpe; Anne Boyd; Steve Everett; Michael Tenzer and many contemporary Indonesian composers such as I.M. Harjito; B. Subono; Tony Prabawa; Franki Raden; I Wayan Sadra; and Otok Bima Sidarta.

On hearing gamelan for the first time, some people are struck both by the complexity of the relationships between the melody lines of the different instruments and, if they are aware of the 'rules' of western harmony, by the almost 'impressionistic' tone clusters that can be heard if the listener hears the music vertically, or tries to interpret it 'harmonically.' Others focus on the mellifluousness of the sound and the soothing, meditative quality of some of the music. Still others are excited by the multileveled interlockingness of the texture, comparing it to the experience of listening to several, incredibly good jazz solo players improvising together.

Sarah Weiss, Yale University

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