Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis



The colours of the Javanese gamelan – its timbres and voices – are presented in this collection of pieces, recorded in Surakarta between 1999 and 2001. This is music of the traditional repertoire – even when not taken directly from classical compositions, it still speaks the language of tradition. Small groups of instruments are heard – often just one at a time. And the pieces are selected sections of longer classical compositions, or short self-contained pieces, or improvisations on classical themes – all performed by outstanding Javanese musicians (with the exception of the Gong sequence).

We wanted to design a tapestry of sounds and forms of the artistic music of Central Java, employing the essential components of that rich and complex aural world. Not quite a “sampler” in the jargon of record productions – possibly rather a taste-teaser for the novice into Javanese gamelan, and a novelty for the curious connoisseur.

We shall in turn identify the instruments that are highlighted in the CD, then touch upon scales, tuning, and “moods” of gamelan music, and finally describe the content of each track.


The instruments

Firstly we hear the bonang family of instruments. A bonang consists of a double row of bronze kettles resting on a wooden frame. Each instrument covers two octaves. There are three members in this family. Going from low to high pitch range: the bonang panembung, the bonang barung, and the bonang panerus. All together (with overlapping octaves) they cover four octaves. The bonang instruments belong to the broader family of gongs, which in fact comprises both “resting” and “hanging” gongs. The hanging gongs are larger in size and sound in the lowest pitch range. They come in various dimensions, with the largest (up to one metre in diameter) and heaviest (around forty kilos) producing a very deep and powerful tone that can be felt through your body if you stand close enough. Hanging gongs are classified in three sub-groups, where they are denominated as gong, suwukan, kempul, from lower to higher pitches.

One fascinating aspect is that the gongs, regardless of shape and size, are made through an arduous process of forging, with a long alternation of heating and hammering. The making of a large gong ageng would require the effort of a team of 4 or 5 men during at least two days. Gongs – as well as all metallophones in a gamelan – need to be forged. Casting, which could possibly be easier to do, would not at all confer the musical qualities that are proper of the gamelan instruments. If the instruments were cast instead of forged, the gamelan woud sound like a collection of church bells.

Next, we hear the gender. This refined instrument is characterised by its bronze keys suspended over resonating tubes (originally made of bamboo). Its sound is beautiful and long-lasting, and the playing technique very demanding. It is played with two soft-padded disc-shaped mallets, and each hand must simultaneously hit a note and damp the preceding one. The gender family comprises the gender proper, covering over two octaves, the gender panerus with the same span in a higher pitch range, and the slenthem or gender panembung, a one-octave instrument in the low pitch range. The latter is played with one mallet only and employed in a musical role of its own – it plays the balungan, or “skeleton melody”, around which other instruments, including the gender, play their ornamenting role.

I would venture to say that the bonang and especially the gender are the instruments of the gamelan most friendly-sounding to the unaccustomed Western ear. The relative “unfriendliness” of the sound of metallophones – more or less consciously perceived by the lovers of Western classical instruments – has certainly to do not only with the different scales employed but also with the physical characteristics of the sound wave structures. While most Western instruments produce “friendly” harmonics in addition to the basic tone, metallophones produce what the physicists call partials instead, or secondary tones that are not in a “harmonious” relationship with the basic one.

The kemanak is not a standard instrument in gamelan music. Rather, it is used in certain types of sacred or ceremonial pieces, often in conjunction with female singing and dances. The appeal that this unusual instrument can generate is surprising if related to its limited and strictly structured musical expression. It is a set of two banana-shaped hand-held curled bronze plates, each one struck with a mallet and producing a single note. It requires two musicians, which play the two-note sequence in a prescribed fashion.

Kendhang is the Javanese name for the drum in the gamelan. The double-faced hand-struck instrument has at least three versions – the kendhang gendhing (the largest), the ketipung (the smallest), and the ciblon or batangan (the middle-sized). Each one has its own playing technique, always with the important role of setting the pace of the piece and indicating the tempo changes, much like the conductor in a Western orchestra.

The middle-sized kendhang is normally used in lively tempos and in dance pieces. “Ciblon” is a type of water-play in Java, where, through hitting the water with appropriate hand-shapes, young men can produce various rhythmic patterns. These patterns are reproduced in the playing of the kendhang ciblon.

The rebab is a two-stringed bowed instrument of Arabic origin. The moveable wooden bridge rests on stretched skin (usually goat or cow bladder). The bow is made of wood and horse hair tied loosely. The fingers press the strings, but not against the neck of the instrument. It is a difficult instrument to play – with an important role particularly in music that has the female voice. The sound of the rebab is perhaps a “problematic” one for a Western music lover unaccustomed to Javanese gamelan – sound on the harsh side and pitches at times seemingly unprecise could explain the “problem”, if and when it is felt.

The pesindhen, female singer, is an important element of gamelan music, except of course in purely instrumental pieces. Also the male voice has a role, both in solo and as a chorus (gerong), but we do not have examples in this CD. In the West one female singer, surrounded by an orchestra, would be considered a soloist and a particular attention would be paid to her; the audience would be more demanding than with respect to the other musicians; judgements would tend to go to extremes – diva or not diva. This is not the case with Javanese tradition, where the pesindhen ranks equally with the other instruments of the gamelan. But we must hasten to add that nowadays the Western outlook concerning the singing lady seems to affect increasingly the Javanese gamelan scene.

Musically, characteristic of the pesindhen role is a broad rhythmic elasticity and a wealth of ornamentation. She does not sing “the” melody of the piece – such “melody” in fact does not exist the way we know it in the West (with the exception of certain pieces, including Anglirmendung).

We need to mention two more instruments that can be heard in the last piece of this CD. The suling is the only wind instrument in the gamelan. It is a flute made of bamboo and played vertically. Its role is one of pure ornamentation (quite different from the role it has in the music of West Java). The late distinguished musician and teacher Bapak Suhardi of Yogyakarta used to say that the suling should “sing like a bird”.

The gambang is the only instrument that gives us the sound of wood, struck by two long sticks made of supple buffalo horn ending with a padded disc. We like to quote here the pioneering Dutch ethnomusicologist Jaap Kunst (“Music in Java”): “A good gambang-player should give the impression of making the sticks dance across the keys. The sound has a mellow quality: it entirely lacks the macabre sound of the European xilophones.”

The above description does not include other instruments of the gamelan not present in this CD – notably the saron family. The saron, one of the easiest instruments to play, well represents the so-called “loud instruments”, where bronze (or iron) bars are struck with a wooden hammer.


Scales, tuning, and “moods”

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 aspects are to be considered from the Western point of view: a) the tones of the Javanese scales do not coincide with the tones of the 12-note tempered scale, and b) each gamelan has tones (pitches) 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 those of the Western scale. One consequence of the differences in tuning among gamelans is that a given piece may sound different if played on different gamelans. Another consequence is that instruments do belong to a given gamelan – they cannot be traded around from one gamelan to the other. (This aspect would lead us to spiritual and mystical sides of the gamelan story that we cannot deal with here.)

Each of the two scales, pelog and slendro, tends to confer a general “mood” of its own to the music. The difference is made mainly by the fact that intervals in the slendro scale tend to be rather similar, while pelog has unequal intervals (sometimes by relatively large extent) between its notes. The result, making allowance for the subjectivity of the matter, is that the slendro scale sounds “sunny” and as if in a major key, while pieces in pelog sound relatively “sombre” and as if in a minor key. The listener can make a judgement of his own on this matter by noting the laras or scale (pelog or slendro) of the various pieces of this CD, except for tracks 3, 4, 9, and 13 where no laras is established (either because the instrument is not (or not quite) a tuned one, as is the case with the kendhang, or because both scales are employed). A comparison even more focused can be made by listening to pairs of pieces that employ the same instrument(s) but in different scales – namely, tracks 1 and 8, tracks 2 and 10, tracks 6 and 7.

We need to mention that in the gamelan music of Central Java there is a further three-fold distinction – the pathet – within each scale. The pathet of pelog can be lima, nem, or barang, while for slendro it can be nem, sanga, or manyura. The pathet is something rather elusive for the Western ear. The newcomer into gamelan may not be able to tell the difference, and even someone more knowledgeable may just “feel” the changes from one pathet to the other, but without having a precise notion of what is happening. To simplify the matter, what happens is that each pathet elects certain notes as the ones to be played more frequently and/or the ones to be played at certain crucial points of the piece.


Track 1 10:19 – Bonang pelog
Two gongan (cycles of the large gong) of Gendhing TUKUNG, pelog barang. The instruments playing are: bonang barung, bonang panerus, bonang panembung (for balungan), gong. Musicians of STSI  (Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia) Surakarta. 2001.
Gendhing Tukung is normally played by the full gamelan and lasts about 18 minutes.
Track 2 2:38  –  Gender slendro
Buka (opening) of Ladrang GADHUNG MLATI, slendro sanga. Played by Bapak Djoko Raharjo. 2001.
The composition, with strong mystical background, is often played by a gamelan gadhon, a sort of “chamber” or reduced ensemble.
Track 3 1:34  –  Kemanak
Klenengan for four players (normally two players are required). Musicians of STSI Surakarta. 2001.
The two additional players improvise elaborations over the standard rhythmic pattern of the two traditional players.
Track 4 2:02  –  Kendhang and saron
Gangsaran (an ostinato form). Bapak Hartono with Reiner Schuetz, soloing essential elements of this gamelan structure. 1999.
Track 5 1:55  –  Voice and kendhang
Ending of Gendhing ANGLIRMENDUNG, pelog barang. Pesindhen is Nyi Umi Hartono, kendhang  Bapak Hartono. 1999.
The original gendhing is a ceremonial piece connected with the Bedhaya dances of the Surakarta Kraton. In this skinned-down version (as well as in the original) the pesindhen sings “the” melody of the piece – unlike what generally happens in Central Javanese gamelan music.
Track 6 1:53  –  Rebab pelog
Pathetan for three players. Musicians of STSI Surakarta. 2001.
While the main rebab plays his pathetan (a free expressive – someone might say “lyric” – form), the other two instruments improvise “in concertante”.
Track 7 1:50  –  Rebab slendro
Pathetan for three players. Musicians of STSI Surakarta. 2001.
Same as previous track, but in slendro. The comparison clearly reveales the difference in tonal qualities of the two scales. For this writer, slendro is “sunny and direct” while pelog is “sombre and engaging”.
Track 8 6:05  –  Bonang slendro
One gongan of Gendhing DANARAJA, slendro sanga. The instruments playing are: bonang barung, bonang panerus, slenthem (for balungan), gong. Musicians of STSI Surakarta. 2001.
Gendhing Danaraja is normally played by the full gamelan. Here again it is possible to compare the two Javanese scales – this track with track 1.
Track 9 5:17  –  Kendhang
Klenengan solo for kendhang gendhing, ketipung, and ciblon. Bapak Hartono plays. 2000.
The distinguished kendhang player of Mangkunegaran Palace performs a suite of traditional and less standard rhythmic patterns on each of the three drums of the gamelan.
Track 10 1:46  –  Gender pelog
Pathetan pelog barang. Bapak Djoko Raharjo. 2001.
Another expressive form on the gender. Pelog and slendro scales can be compared between this track and track 2.
Track 11 1:04  –  Gender pelog
“Toccata”. Bapak Djoko Raharjo. 2001. Here a special request was made to the musician – to perform a short improvisation following the character of the Western musical form.
Track 12 3:50  –  Voice and four instruments
Inggah (final section) of Gendhing KOMBANG MARA, pelog lima. Pesindhen, rebab, gender, slenthem, kendhang. Nyi Cendaniraras and Musicians of Kraton Surakarta. 1999.
The idea of recording a “chamber” version of this beautiful and over half-hour long gendhing originally was one of providing a tool for exercise in gamelan playing – a sort of “music-minus-one” for filling-in with other instruments that do have the same tuning as the Kraton’s gamelan Kaduk Manis . It turned out that the recording can stand on its own, particularly in this CD where the sounds of the instruments are singled-out.
Track 13 2:01  –  Gongs
A short sequence for gong, suwukan, kempul. John Noise Manis strikes the gongs of Gamelan Lipurtambaneng with a rainy background. The most ancient three-note gamelan melody, Munggang, happens to be heard at the end of the sequence. Surakarta. 2000.
Track 14 2:38  –  Gamelan gadhon (chamber gamelan)
Pathetan Wantah, pelog barang. Musicians of STSI Surakarta. 2001.
Pure tradition. The reduced gamelan ensemble, also traditional, includes two instruments not heard before in this CD: the gambang (xilophone) and the suling (bamboo flute).

Recordings made in Surakarta in 1999, 2000, and 2001
Musical Design, Notes, and Photographs: John Noise Manis