Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis

Cover photo originally taken in Tasikmalaya by Daniel Patrick Quin

GAMELAN OF JAVA  Volume Four. Puspa Warna


This CD was designed mainly around one concept: to show how classical Javanese gamelan music – karawitan – has intrinsic and remarkable capabilities of regenerating itself through internal variations. I am not referring here to novelties that result from external commissions to creative musicians, as with recent Yantra productions such as ‘Gendhing Kombang Mara’ for two pesindhen, ‘Gendhing Budheng-Budheng’ for three pesindhen, and also the 9-stanza rendition of ‘Ketawang Puspa Warna’ on Track 5 of this CD. I am rather referring – and it is of course worth of greater attention – to variations that are factually observable/listenable in performances, and that result from spontaneous renditions of a given piece of music by professional musicians. I am referring to variations that go beyond the freedom of cengkok and of recombining a repertoire of gatra.

The fact that the classical gamelan repertoire may be ‘naturally’ subject to spontaneous non-superficial changes by performing musicians indicates that some ‘evolution’ may happen in that music. And this is particularly relevant with respect to a drastic position taken by the influential late Solonese master Martopangrawit, who stated that “karawitan is a finished product” (see pages 88 and 132 of his ‘Pengetahuan Karawitan’ as reported in ‘Karawitan – Source Readings in Javanese Gamelan and Vocal Music’, Volume 1, Judith Becker editor, 1984).

The influence of the great master is still very much felt in Central Javanese classical music. But seen from the outside – or, to be safer, from this writer’s point of view – it appears to have produced one side-effect in the sense of stifling a natural evolution of forms and languages of karawitan. In recent decades, new compositions (kreasi baru) have been either very conservative and almost indistinguishable from classical pieces, or, at the other extreme, very experimental (gamelan kontemporer) borrowing the indeterminacy of language and sounds of Western contemporary music or toying with the socalled ‘hybrids’ or ‘fusions’. I see in this a sort of  ‘Martopangrawit effect’, where creativity is channelled in directions that do not deviate from the master’s edict, new compositions being either well within the traditional schemes or totally outside of the traditional language: no innovation within the “finished product”. In less recent years, there was one musician who left his mark in innovating the language of gamelan in Java, Nartosabdho, but it appears as an isolated case and it is no surprise that Martopangrawit disapproved the novelties.

It seems to me that while the Solonese master’s ‘freezing of tradition’ is respected in theory, an observation of the performance practices and the musical results indicates that a vast amount of creativity is in fact deployed in various situations by Javanese musicians (I have in mind particularly the ISI music conservatory in Surakarta). One could think that with less stringent traditional, cultural, and dictated constraints, such creativity would likely produce a more evident and recognized evolution of karawitan, all-internal to its language and style. A movement that would add to – not substitute in – the existing artistic patrimony.

Beethoven thought that he was the endpoint in the evolution of Western music, but he was in fact only one stage in the continuous line that had Bach, Haydn, Mozart before him and Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky after him. Just think what a grim life we would have in the West if all music forever sounded like that of Haydn, the master of predictable repetitions. And still today Haydn has plenty of aficionados, confirming the additive, not substitutive evolution.

Now the pattern of Western music evolution is not entirely relevant for a comparison with the culture of Central Javanese gamelan, as the latter is not based on ‘original’ compositions by individual composers. But things may change, or are changing, and the signs of increased freedom from traditional patterns on the part of individual Javanese musicians may point to new trends in classical gamelan music, not unlike the individual composer-based evolution that we have known in the West.

The above discourse is of course the point of view of this writer. It is the point of view of an active – somewhat creative – listener, who also likes hints of ‘universals’ in music. The supposed ‘Martopangrawit effect’ most likely does not entirely explain the official immutability of karawitan. There may be other aspects that probably come into play. But these aspects would be complex and elusive, especially for non-Javanese observers. That is why the ‘world listener’ (a music lover in a cross-cultural context) is better-off following the esthesic approach (that is the approach that puts the listener in the driver’s seat) in the appreciation of gamelan music. The discourse could get longer but we need to stop here.

Two compositions in the present CD are repeated  in two different performances. I like to think that most of the listeners will not be annoyed by the repetition. I like to think that the ‘expert’ listener will be interested in the differences and enjoy the possibility of comparison, while the person fairly new to gamelan might even feel as if he is listening to different pieces altogether.

Ketawang PUSPA WARNA slendro manyura on Track 1 was performed in September 2008. The musicians of ISI Surakarta chose to play five of the nine stanzas comprising the famous composition, with interesting changes among the stanzas. They also decided to have the bawa (male solo sung poetry) MINTA JIVA, which in the best tradition precedes the ketawang.

The performance of PUSPA WARNA on Track 5 was recorded in 2002. In this case the ISI musicians were asked to play all nine stanzas, and to do specific variations of instrumental and vocal parts in the various stanzas. Thus, roughly described, the first and last stanzas are for ‘tutti’, the second has a leading role for pesindhen and rebab, the third for pesindhen and bonang, the fourth privileges the gender and reduces the gerong to one man, the fifth has the siter solo, the sixth the gambang, the seventh puts the kendhang ciblon to the foreground, and the eighth introduces a second rebab to play the part of the gerong.

Although many of the musicians are the same – and the three excellent gerong voices are the same – the characters of the two performances of PUSPA WARNA are quite different, and of course the change of pesindhen adds to the difference. Vocal timbre, melodic flowing, and artistic temperament of Nyi Cendaniraras and Nyi Yayuk Sri Rahayu are so different from each other that the listener, just for this element, should not get bored from the double presentation.

A similar comparison is proposed with Ladrang SEKAR GADHUNG slendro manyura, where we have a 2002 performance (pesindhen Cendaniraras) on Track 2 and a 2008 performance (pesindhen Yayuk Sri Rahayu) on Track 4. No special request was made to the musicians for these performances; the differences in the musical product are therefore totally ‘natural’ and authentic – and excitingly interesting, I hope.

The third piece in the programme is Ladrang GADHUNG MLATI slendro sanga on Track 3. This music, which has legendary and mystical connotations, is rarely played. It was not difficult to have it performed in 2008 at ISI because of the more ‘liberal’ context of a music conservatory with respect to the Courts. And this time we managed to have Ibu Pringgo Hadiwiyono play the crucial gender part in it. In the pesindhen’s role we enjoy here a different set of vocal qualities – those of Nyi Sri Suparsih. Her being a faculty member of ISI is reflected in the well-trained and precise singing, challenged by the difficult and outstandingly beautiful melodic contour of the piece.

John Noise Manis


A short note on Puspa Warna and Sekar Gadhung
by Sumarsam

Considered as one of the most popular pieces, PUSPA WARNA is a composition whose identity is contained in the gerongan (the part sung by the male chorus); i.e., the piece is composed on the basis of the gerongan melody. There are nine verses or stanzas of poetic text originally written for this male chorus. Usually, out of the nine verses, only three are sung. Lack of evidence prevents us from knowing with certainty whether all nine verses were ever sung in a single performance. It is possible that the nine written stanzas were enjoyed solely as literary work by literary circles at the time the piece was composed  (i.e., the nineteenth century, which was known as the period of literary renaissance).

The collection of poems that PUSPA WARNA belongs to is contained in a manuscript entitled ‘Sendhon Langen Swara’, attributed to Mangkunegara IV (1853-1881). The collection includes nine poems: Langen Gita, Wala Gita, Raja Swala, Sita Mardawa, Puspa Warna, Puspanjala, Taru Pala, Puspa Giwang, and Lebda Sari. Each poem has a different number of stanzas, with Langen Gita having as many as twenty.

SEKAR GADHUNG is rarely played. It is one of the very few pieces with introductory melodies played by the gambang (wooden xylophone). Unfortunately, its origin and background are difficult to trace.

The piece incorporates several elements of song texts: the generic wangsalan (a poetic design that works as a riddle, thus of apparently obscure meaning), isen-isen (a filling-in line used by the pesindhen), the kinanthi meter, and some verses from children’s stories. It is curious that in the composition the words “merdiko salaminya” (‘free forever’) are added as an ending-line to the kinanthi text. Does ‘free’ point to to the freedom to master individual life, as an interpretation of the text might suggest? Or does it refer to ‘free Indonesia’, i.e. Indonesia indipendent from colonialism?
All things considered, SEKAR GADHUNG is really a unique piece.


A short note on Gadhung Mlati
by Sarah Weiss

Ladrang GADHUNG MLATI has an interesting connection with the gender. The piece is a sacred song for the principal court of Surakarta and its coming to the court is interwined with some of the oldest Javanese traditions regarding the authenticity of the Central Javanese courts as power centers.

The piece was brought to the court by the gender player Nyai Jlamprang who was a court musician of the ruler, Paku Buwana. Although the story is told in several versions in manuscripts from several different centuries, this retelling captures most of the important aspects of the tale.

Nyai Jlamprang had been struck down by the plague that was being spread around Java by Nyai Lara Kidul, Goddess of the South Sea and eternal consort of the rules of all four of the courts of Central Java. Nyai Lara Kidul would habitually populate her undersea realm with the souls of those who died during the plagues she caused on land. On her arrival to the undersea palace, Nyai Jlamprang insisted that she be returned to her home and to the Paku Buwana. Nyai Lara Kidul refused and, in an effort to entice Nyai Jlamprang to enjoy her stay, offered to teach the young gender player one of Nyai Lara Kidul’s own gender pieces, Ladrang Gadhung Mlati. Nyai Jlamprang dutifully learned the diffucult piece, by all accounts rather quickly, and insisted once again that she be returned to the land of Paku Buwana. Nyai Lara Kidul tried several other lures but failed and in the end allowed Nyai Jlamprang to return to her home. For the journey back, Nyai Jlamprang was provided with turmeric and ginger roots as provisions.

As her family was washing and preparing her body for burial, Nyai Jlamprang suddenly returned to her corporeal existence. Her shocked family rejoiced as her body shuddered and life returned. The provisions provided by Nyai Lara Kidul miraculously turned to gold and silver that Nyai Jlamprang gave to the Paku Buwana before she played for him the new piece from Nyai Lara Kidul. To this day the performance of Ladrang Gadhung Mlati requires a raft of special offerings prior to its performance. Many Javanese musicians decline to play the piece when asked, citing its sacred nature. The importance of the gender and female gender players in Central Javanese culture is reflected in their centrality in a story that confirms the historical legitimacy of the rulers of Central Java.


Text of the bawa  MINTA  JIVA

Larasing rèh sang nahen kung
Ing dyah tan kapadaning sih
Kasangsaja ing turida
Rudatiné angranuhi
Ngrantjaka temah wigena
Ginupita ing saari
Rinipta pama puspita
Pantes patrapé kang warna


Beauty is in the behaviour of the one who restrains love
to a lady whose love is not matched
[who is] increasingly in distress
her sadness very deep
causing her profound lovesickness.
[The song] was composed in one day
arranged using flowers as allegories
representing the variety of behaviours.


Text of the nine stanzas of the gerongan of Ketawang  PUSPA  WARNA

1 – Kembang kentjur (sèdet): katjarjan anggung tjinatur, sèdet kang sarira, gandes ing wiraga, kèwes jèn ngandika, angenganjut djiwa.

2 – Kembang blimbing (maja): pinetik bali ing tembing, maja-maja sira wong pindha mustika, ratuning kusuma, patining wanodya.

3 – Kembang durèn (dalongop): sinawang sinambi lèrèn, dalongop kang warna, sumèh semunira, luwes pamitjara angengajuh drija.

4 – Kembang arèn (dangu): tumungkul anèng pang durèn, sadanguné kula, mulat  ing paduka, ang(e)nggit puspita, temahan wijoga.

5 – Kembang gedhang (tuntut): manglung maripit balumbang, pantute wong ika, tedaking ngawirja, semuné djatmika, solahé pasadja.

6 – Kembang djati (djangleng): sinebar ngubengi panti, andjinggleng kawula, ngentosi paduka, sèwu datan njana, lamun nimbangana.

7 – Kembang djambé (majang): megar  ngambar wajah soré, kemajangan kula, tamuan paduka, pangadjaping  karsa, paringa nugraha.

8 – Kembang kapas (kapi): pinepes anggung pinapas, kapidereng kula, kedah ngèstu pada, tjumadonging karsa, badhé tan lenggana.

9 – Kembang pandhan (pudhak): mawur sumebar neng djogan, tumedhak paduka, ing panggènan kula, sampun wantjak drija, kawula srah djiwa.

  1. Flower of the kencur plant, always talked about with admiration,
    her body is well-shaped and her movements graceful,
    she is so charming in speech that one feels carried away.
  2. Flower of the starfruit tree, when picked soon comes back,
    she shines sweetly indeed like a precious jewel,
    she is the queen of flowers and the essence of women.
  3. Flower of the durian tree, one stops to look at it
    amazed at her shape, her sweet smiles
    and her elegant speech embrace the senses.
  4. Flower of the sugarpalm bends over the durian branches,
    whenever I am looking at you
    and thinking of the flower, I become wistful.
  5. Flower of the banana tree hangs down over a pond,
    it is appropriate for those of noble descent
    to have a demure expression and unaffected manners.
  6. Flower of the teak tree, scattered all around the house,
    I am standing and looking out waiting for you
    endlessly, not knowing if I will match.
  7. Flower of the betel palm opens fragrantly in the evening,
    I am overwhelmed to receive your visit
    hoping that you will grant your favour.
  8. Flower of the cotton plant, constantly cut,
    I strongly desire to adore you,
    to fulfil your wishes unresistingly.
  9. Flower of the pandanus plant, scattered on the floor,
    when you come down to my place
    do not be anxious, I will surrender.


Track 1 –  Ketawang PUSPA WARNA slendro manyura, five stanzas, pesindhen Yayuk Sri Rahayu, bawa MINTA JIWA sung by Darsono – 14:01

Track 2 –  Ladrang SEKAR GADHUNG slendro manyura, pesindhen Cendaniraras – 11:43

Track 3 –  Ladrang GADHUNG MLATI slendro sanga, gender Bu Pringga, pesindhen Sri Suparsih – 11:26

Track 4 –  Ladrang SEKAR GADHUNG slendro manyura, pesindhen Yayuk Sri Rahayu – 15:27

Track 5 –  Ketawang PUSPA WARNA slendro manyura, nine stanzas, pesindhen Cendaniraras – 22:11


Gerong (male chorus): Darsono, Rustopo, Waridi
Niyaga (musicians):  Al Suwardi, Darno, Hadi Boediono, Joko Purwanto, Nurwanto, Nyoman Sukerna, Panggiyo, Prasadiyanto, Rusdiyantoro, Sarno, Sigih, Sigit Astono, Slamet Riyadi, Sriharta, Sri Joko Raharjo, Sukamso, Supardi, Suraji, Suyadi, Wakijo
Gamelan: Kyai Gedhong Gedhe
Recordings made in 2002 and 2008 at ISI Surakarta by John Noise Manis and Iwan Onone
Musical design, mastering, and photos: John Noise Manis


Yantra Productions