Gamelan of Central Java – 30 GENDHING DANARAJA
1 – Gendhing Danaraja vocal and rebab 31:16
2 – Gendhing Danaraja bonangan 16:48
A recording of Gendhing Danaraja was included in the first album of the ‘Gamelan of Central Java’ series released by John Noise Manis in 2001. It is here presented in the two main orchestral formations used in gamelan tradition: the rebab-led vocal-featured version, and the metallophones-dominated bonang version.
While the vocal version in this album offers a majestic sunny celebration of Javanese life and spirit, the bonang version directly connects with the opening of the liner notes written for the album of 2001. The notes for that starting volume had the character of a ‘flash introduction’ to gamelan music. We like to recall them here.
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: 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.
Generally speaking, Javanese gamelan music is not immediately appreciated especially by people that have developed 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 developing “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. We can say that heterophony replaces poliphony.
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, going nowhere, and possibly 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 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 advanced the well-known 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. It was not meant to be a witty joke.
Gendhing Danaraja was recorded on June 2, 2001, at the Music Conservatory (ISI) Surakarta
Pesindhen (vocal): Nyi Cendaniraras
Rebab: Suraji Sumarto
Musicians: Faculty Members of ISI
Gendhing bonangan Danaraja was recorded on May 11, 2004, at Kraton Kasunanan Surakarta
Musicians of ISI and Kraton
Gamelan: Kyai Manis Rengga
Kraton Kasunanan, Surakarta