Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis

GAMELAN OF CENTRAL JAVA   –  I. Classical Gendings


Surakarta and Yogyakarta: two different styles

The two Courts of Central Java, Surakarta (also called Solo) and Yogyakarta, have always competed with each other in many forms of art, thus developing different styles. In music the difference is evident to some extent in the shape and decoration of the instruments and, more important but more subtle, in the music itself. Musicologists take the view that the Yogyanese style is heavier, making more use of the loud instruments of the gamelan, while the Solonese style uses more the soft instruments and is considered more refined. This differentiation applies mainly to “art music” (karawitan) and not so much to religious and ceremonial music.
The programme of this CD presents only music from Surakarta.


Scales and tuning of the gamelan

The gamelan music of Central Java uses two scales: a seven-note scale, called pelog, and a five-note scale called slendro. The pieces are in one of the two scales (although occasionally a piece can be adapted from one scale to the other), thus a normal gamelan has two distinct sets of instruments, one tuned to pelog the other to slendro. Two essential characteristics are to be considered from our “Western” point of view:  a) the tones of the Javanese scale do not coincide with the tones of the 12-note tempered scale, and b) each gamelan has tones that are often noticeably different from those of any other gamelan. Only by chance – or deliberate purpose – two gamelans may have precisely equal tones, and only by chance tones of a gamelan may precisely coincide with notes of the Western scale. One consequence of the different tuning of gamelans is that a given piece may sound different if played on different gamelans.


The instruments of the gamelan

A perfect description of the gamelan could have been made by Shakespeare in The Tempest, where Caliban describes Prospero’s magic island:

                             “…..The isle is full of noises,
                             “Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
                             “Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
                             “Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,…..”

A gamelan comprises predominantly percussion instruments, usually made of bronze – forged, not cast – and mounted on carved wooden frames. Iron is often used instead of bronze, and the musical result can be just as good. The instruments are struck with different kinds of mallets (gamel in Javanese is a type of hammer).

The non-percussion instruments are the rebab (two-stringed viola-da-gamba type), the celempung and siter, the suling (bamboo flute), and naturally the voice, particularly female (pesindhen). A special place has the hand-struck kendhang (drum) in its different sizes: his role is similar to the conductor in the Western orchestra. The gambang is a percussion instrument made of wood.

The percussion metallophones can be divided into “families”. The large gong family comprises “hanging” gongs (ageng, suwukan, kempul) of various diameters from 1 to 0.3 metre, and “horizontal” gongs assembled in sets (kenong, bonang panembung, bonang barung, bonang panerus, ketuk, kempyang). The gender family (slentem, gender, gender panerus) is characterized by bronze keys suspended over resonating tubes (originally bamboo); the sound of these instruments is very refined, but the playing technique very demanding. The saron family typifies the loud instruments with its bars being struck with a wooden mallet; it comprises the demung, the saron, and the saron panerus or peking.

We also need to mention a rarely used instrument that is heard with its trance-like rhythmic pattern in the first of the gendings in this CD: the kemanak. It is a set of two banana-shaped hand-held curled bronze plates, each one struck with a mallet and producing a single tone; it requires two musicians.


Cultural taste, the known and the different, and a provocative suggestion by John Cage

Generally speaking, Javanese gamelan music is not immediately appreciated especially by people that have developped a firm taste for classical Western music. The reasons may be various – let us mention some.
Tones and sounds are generally not too precise in Javanese music, thus the cultivated Western listener has a general feeling of “out-of-tuness”.
The Javanese see their music as developping “horizontally”, the various parts flowing parallel one to the other. They are not as attentive to what happens “vertically” at all times, thus the Western ear is often confused concerning the harmonic qualities of that music. Related to this, it can be observed that in Javanese music choruses are in unison, which tends to indicate a scarce interest for chords as such.
Javanese music is essentially “circular”. The listener of Western classics tends to expect a “linear” evolving of the musical material, thus he may find gamelan music eventless and on the boring side.
The people that better appreciate Javanese gamelan music are those that have experienced how easy and gratifying it is to get to a first level of actual playing. Good playing, especially on certain instruments, is very difficult, but it is amazing the way in which an introductory work-out on one of the easier instruments can usher an involvement in that musical world.
In approaching gamelan music the Western ear should free itself from the known patterns, trying to listen for a while in a state that is oblivious of the established musical values. Better still, one should be lucky enough to find himself in some special situations (even concerts!) where enchantment and enthusiasm happen to gush out of the listening experience: in such a case the “different” music would get the best chance to be listened to again, and even to be thankfully acquired among one’s own riches of pleasures.
And then John Cage made it paradoxically but verifiably true when he made the following suggestion. If you listen to some music for two minutes and find it boring, listen for four minutes; if still boring, listen for eight minutes; if you find it still boring, go for sixteen minutes; then for thirty-two, and so on: after a certain point you will find the piece interesting. This is not a witty joke.


Track 1 – 8’ 23” – Gending Anglirmendung   pelog barang. Instruments: kemanak, kendhang, ketuk, kenong, gong; pesindhen (female vocal).

Track 2 – 10’ 07” – Gending Tunggul Kawung pelog barang. Instruments: bonang barung, bonang panerus, gender, gender panerus, slentem, kendhang, demung, saron, peking, ketuk-kempyang, kenong, gong.

Track 3 – 31’ 28” – Gending Danaraja slendro sanga. Instruments: rebab, gender, gender panerus, slentem, kendhang, bonang barung, bonang panerus, gambang, demung, saron, peking, ketuk, kenong, gong; pesindhen.


Pesindhen (vocal): Nyi. Cendaniraras
Musicians: Faculty Members of the Music Conservatory (Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia) Surakarta
Recorded June 2, 2001 at the Music Conservatory, Surakarta
Mastering: Fabrizio Argiolas, Rainbow Music, Turin
Musical Design, Notes, and Photographs: John Noise Manis


Yantra Productions