Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis

GAMELAN OF CENTRAL JAVA II. Ceremonial Music

 

SEKATEN GAMELAN MUSIC

Sekaten is a week-long religious Islamic festivity falling in the month of Mulud of the Javanese calendar (the Javanese year is eleven days shorter than the Western one). Ceremonies celebrate the birth and death of the Prophet Mohammed; and the gamelan in Central Java takes a very special sound – a sound that is mystical and powerful at the same time.

When Islam began to spread to Java, from the 15th century onwards, religious leaders thought of using the familiar sound of the gamelan to attract the people to the new faith. Thus, a special ensemble of instruments and a particular style of music were created, which continue to be heard nowadays. At the beginning of the Sekaten week, from each of the two Kratons of Surakarta and Yogyakarta, the two Gamelan Sekati are taken in procession to the Great Mosque. Here they are played every day almost continuously from morning to night. The two gamelans stay inside small pavilions which face one another, and they are played alternatively – when one gamelan finishes, the other begins. The ambience is very noisy and very crowded, as the scene of a popular fair can be. However, the music manages to polarise attention and, if you stand close enough, to induce a state of trance-like rapture and spiritual reflection. The music is loud, so that people can hear it from a distance; it has also the power to stir inner emotions – which may be an intriguing experience for the non-Javanese.

There is a repertory of gendings for each Gamelan Sekati, but for the Western ear it is rather difficult to distinguish one from another. On the other hand, it is fairly easy to distinguish one Gamelan Sekati from the other, as intonation and timbres of instruments vary interestingly. The scale is always the seven-tone pelog. (We briefly touched on scales and intonations of Central Javanese gamelans in the Notes accompanying our previous CD “Classical Gendings”.)

The instruments of a Gamelan Sekati are all of the “loud” type. They comprise the entire family of gongs – both suspended and resting on strings in a wooden frame – the family of sarons – bronze xylophones – and one large barrel-shaped drum called bedug. Not only the instruments are of the loud type – they are enormous, more than double the size of a normal gamelan. Mallets and hammers are consequently big and heavy, including buffalo horns weighted on the striking head with lead. And the force used in sekaten playing is remarkable; this is confirmed in a popular belief according to which, in case a musician succeded in breaking one of the saron keys while playing, he would get a reward from the Kraton.

The pieces, generally lasting from 15 to 20 minutes, have a constant musical pattern. They start rather softly and extremely slowly, then, at various points, pick-up speed and loudness and eventually get to the greatest fortissimo imaginable. After the climax, both tempo and sound subside to the final gong strike. The energy generated during the crescendo produces a total experience – musical, physical, spiritual. It is also a challenge to the ears (and to microphones!), particularly if you sit inside the pavilion. The playing is very demanding on the musicians. These are usually the best from the Kraton: they carry out the task as a religious and honourable service. At the end of a sekaten day these men maintain solemn postures and gratified expressions – with eyes often closed; it would be difficult to distinguish spiritual ecstasy from physical exhaustion.

The two sekaten gendings we hear on this CD are played on the two Gamelan Sekati of Kraton Surakarta. First we hear Gamelan Sekati Guntur Madu ( Honeyed Thunder), then Gamelan Sekati Guntur Sari (Essence of Thunder). For the interested reader, the names of the two other sekaten sets in Central Java, those of Kraton Yogyakarta, are: Gamelan Sekati Guntur Madu – same name as the one in Surakarta – and Gamelan Sekati Naga Wilaga (Fighting Serpent).

After some repeated hearings, the attentive listener will probably take interest and pleasure in a subjective identification of the main instruments within each piece, and also in comparing sonic qualities, timbres, and melodic emotional impact of the two pieces. But of course we would wish the listener to have the real experience more than anything else.

 

THE MOST ANCIENT GAMELAN MUSIC

Munggang is the name of the oldest music known in Java. It is also the name of the “dedicated” gamelans that in kratons and palaces play exclusively that music. The gending, as we know it to-day, is essentially an iteration of a three-tone four-note melody – to give an idea, something resembling the sequence                 A, G#, A, F in the Western scale. It should be noted that gending Munggang is also known as gending Lokananta (which in Javanese means “supernaturally produced gamelan music from heaven”).

The origin of the music goes so far back as to be rooted in myth. The story is told in the introduction of an old manuscript of the Yogyakarta Kraton, Kitab Jitapsara. Both Jaap Kunst in his fundamental “Music in Java” and Mantle Hood in his more imaginative “The Evolution of Javanese Gamelan” refer to the story, which briefly goes as follows.

Batara Guru (Shiva), king of the gods, needed an instrument with which he could summon the gods for consultation, or when going into battle. He fashioned a gong and established the number and types of strokes which would communicate to all the gods the various messages. But, as the combination of strokes grew in number, the gods got confused and the messages misunderstood. So, Batara Guru made a second gong with a different pitch.
Now the two gongs could be struck in alternation, making the combinations and the corresponding messages more clearly differentiated. But the number of messages eventually grew further, to the point that the gods got confused again. So, Batara Guru made a third gong tuned to a third pitch. Hence the three-toned Munggang, with its specialised use, was created.

Jaap Kunst further notes that “the first one of its kind was called Lokananta and is said to have been put into service in 347 A.D.  The position which it occupied in the kraton of Majapahit corresponded, it appears, to that which is reserved to-day for the gamelans sekati in the kratons of Central Java.”

It is generally aknowledged that in the 13th century Munggang music was used in connection with religiose Hinduism. One is led to wonder what was the likely nature of the ancient melodies now lost to the repertory. To-day the one known melody is played on solemn and festive occasions, and also regularly on certain days and times in kratons and palaces. Gending Munggang uses two great gongs (gong ageng) – an unusual feature compared to normal gamelan music, which limits its use to one gong.

Not as archaic and perhaps not as revered as Munggang, the following two gendings complete the trio of ceremonial pieces used for special occasions or played at regular dates.

Gending Kodok Ngorek (Croaking Frog) iterates a two-tone three-note-and-pause melody – something like A, pause, A, G#. A third tone is heard as a constant beat, a sort of bourdon-ostinato. Kodok Ngorek is played on weddings, birthdays, and circumcisions in the kratons and palaces – but also as a popular entertainment.

Gending Carabalen – the meaning of the name is uncertain, it could possibly be “in the Balinese style” – is based on a four-tone four-note melody of the type               G, A, A#, B. A number of versions of this gending are known and played to-day. Carabalen may be heard at great festivities, at the entry of important guests, and other ceremonies. In the Kraton Surakarta it accompanies the procession that closes the Sekaten week.

All three gendings may happen to be played on “normal”gamelans, but the authentic way assumes that each gending be played on its own “dedicated” gamelan – which would in fact comprise a reduced number of instruments compared to a normal complete gamelan. The dedicated gamelans usually form part of the sacred possessions – pusaka – of kratons, palaces, and distinguished families.

Munggang, Kodok Ngorek, and Carabalen heard on this CD were recorded in the great Pendopo of Istana (Palace) Mangkunagaran on a Saturday morning. Until recently – about 1999 – the three ceremonial gamelans were placed in one of the four corners of the Pendopo, with three other complete gamelans occupying the three remaining corners – which gives an idea of the size of this outstanding example of Javanese architecture. Then the Prince Mangkunagoro decided to relocate the ceremonial gamelans and two of the other gamelans, leaving only the world-renowned gamelan Kanyut Mesem for playing in the Pendopo. The reasons for this move are not reported. The consequence – up to the Summer 2001 – is that the three Mangkunagaran gamelans Munggang, Kodok Ngorek, and Carabalen no longer resound every Saturday morning from 9 to 10.

 

Recordings made in Surakarta in 2001 (Tracks 1 and 2) and in 1996 (Tracks 3 to 5)

Recordings, Notes, and Photographs – John Noise Manis

YANTRA PRODUCTIONS