GAMELAN FROM CENTRAL JAVA
An introduction to Javanese gamelan music could start with a question: why isn’t this rich and fascinating sound culture more known and appreciated among music lovers?
I have a long answer to the question. Let me give you the brief one.
Javanese gamelan music is definitely different, and the first-time listener does not get the chance to hear the music that may best “connect” with his/her culture and taste. Choice of pieces, quality of performance, clarity of recording – these crucial factors have not been properly taken into account in past productions of Javanese music. Sofar there has been a sort of ethnomusicological approach: proposing performances as if they were ethnological documentation.
We feel that gamelan is not an ethnic curiosity or study subject, but a beautiful part of the universal language of music. While presenting the best expressions of that world, we trust and hope that our choices will appeal to the taste of the broadest range of first-time listeners.
Gamelan music exists mainly in the large highly-populated island of Java and in the neighbouring smaller island of Bali. These are parts of Indonesia, which comprises thousands of islands and hundreds of ethnic groups. In Java and Bali music is not a pastime or a merely entertaining activity; it is an essential part of life and has an important role in the great existential events. It also has a spiritual and an emotional dimension that has no comparison in the West.
We should distinguish at least three broad styles of gamelan music: Bali, Central Java, and Western Java (or Sunda). Such classification does not exhaust the range of further differentiations within those regions. Here we shall deal with the music of Central Java.
The musical culture of Central Java is vast and articulated. Its most refined expression is found in the tradition and style of the royal courts (kraton) of Surakarta and Yogyakarta, and in the smaller courts of Mangkunegaran (in Surakarta) and Paku Alaman (in Yogyakarta). Gamelan music serves many purposes and can be heard in various circumstances: religious ceremonies (sekaten), social ceremonies (marriages, circumcisions, etc.), the shadow puppet theatre (wayang kulit), concerts (klenengan), dances. Many of these activities have maintained a sacred character. For a foreign visitor, even if actively motivated, it may not be easy to have interesting musical experiences.
The word gamelan (probably from gamel, mallet) designates the ensemble of instruments played. The number of instruments may vary, according to the type of pieces being played. A regular piece may have up to twenty musicians playing, but the number of instruments in a full gamelan will be almost twice that number, as each instrument doubles in each of the two scales that compositions may employ – the pelog scale, with seven notes in the octave, and the slendro scale, with five.
Important characteristics of the Central Javanese tuning system are:
– the intervals within the octave are not equal, especially in pelog;
– each gamelan has its own tuning (intervals), so that a given instrument cannot “migrate” from one gamelan to another; also, a given piece will sound somewhat different when played on two different gamelans;
– the notes in the two scales do not correspond (unless by chance) to notes in the Western 12-tone tempered scale;
– in Javanese gamelan music the consonance among parallel melodic lines is conceived “horizontally” and with more or less intentional time-lags, unlike Western music where consonance is sought “vertically” (chords).
These characteristics explain many of the difficulties in the appreciation of Javanese music by the Western ear. A further problem may be the “liberal” approach of the Javanese to tuning in general – in a given performance this may produce some amount of out-of-tuness because of the variable-pitch instruments (voice, rebab); this will be negatively perceived by the Western listener, usually conditioned by a rigid tuning framework.
The listener that is already under the spell of the finer type of gamelan music does not need any encouragement. To the listener that approaches this music for the first time, we might suggest to forget both Beethoven and the pop stars just before and during the listening of this CD, to open mind and heart to different and unknown perceptions, and to give the music more than just one chance.
Outline of tracks (in brackets year of recording)
1 – 2:56 – Srepegan slendro nem (2004)
A short lively piece from the wayang kulit and dance repertoire. Musicians and gamelan
of STSI (Conservatory) Surakarta.
2 – 5:09 – Gendhing kemanak Anglirmendung pelog barang (1998)
A sacred melody with an unusual accompaniment, featuring the ancient instrument
called kemanak. The piece is connected with the Bedaya dances of Kraton Surakarta.
We hear the fresh voice of Bu Umi Hartono with a small group of musicians led by
Pak Hartono. The text is in praise of the ancient rulers of Surakarta. A gentle cricket
participated in the recording.
3 – 9:21 – Ladrang Gadhung Mlati slendro sanga (1999)
A piece rarely performed, probably because of its legendary connotations and magical
powers. It is played here by a gamelan gadhon (reduced). A group of Javanese musicians
playing the Montebello Gamelan, which is housed in its own pendhapa (pavillion) on a
hillside in Northern Italy. A uniquely varied and refined performance.
4 – 2:21 – Bedaya Dances at Kraton Surakarta (1995)
In the Kraton Kasunanan, this trance-like music accompanies (for well over an hour)
the sacred dances, which have mythical origins and outstanding visual appeal. This
is a glimpse for the ear.
5 – 2:35 – Gendhing Munggang (2000)
The most ancient music of Java – the three-note melody called Munggang – is played
on one of the sacred gamelans of the Kraton of Surakarta. The occasion is a procession
during the Sekaten religious festivities.
6 – 9:00 – Gendhing Mandulpati slendro nem (2004)
A beautiful classical gendhing featuring the gamelan Manis Rengga of Kraton Kasunanan.
A rare encounter of the Conservatory musicians with the Kraton gamelan and ambient.
The pesindhen (female vocalist) is Nyi Cendaniraras, one of the
nicest – and “western-ear-friendly” – voices in Central Java.
7 – 3:18 – Gendhing Carabalen (Ladrang Bali Balen and gangsaran) (2004)
Another ceremonial gendhing, belonging to the same genre as Munggang and Kodok
Ngorek. It is played here on the proper low pitched instruments in the Surakarta
8 – 9:01 – Sekaten Gendhing (2001)
Sekaten is a week-long religious festivity celebrating the birth and death of the Prophet Mohammed. A special ensemble of instruments plays a particular style of music almost continuously during each day of that week. The performances, both in Surakarta and in Yogyakarta, take place among the people crowding the courtyard of the Great Mosque.
It is a great experience – not only musically. Here we hear one of the pieces of the
Sekaten repertoire played by the special gamelan Guntur Madu (Honeyed Thunder) of
9 – 1:07 – Goa Tabuhan – Stone gamelan (2001)
Music played on stalactites and stalagmites in a sonorous cave in Pacitan, between
Surakarta and Yogyakarta.
10 – 2:11 – Sampak slendro nem (2004)
Another lively piece from the wayang and dance repertoire.
11 – 4:07 – Gendhing Kodok Ngorek (1999)
The third – with Munggang and Carabalen – of the ancient ceremonial pieces. These
pieces are used on many occasions, both formal and informal ones. This performance
of Kodok Ngorek took place at Montebello. During the performance, a Western vocalist
– Laura Conti – joined the Javanese musicians with a light and congenial improvisation.
12 – 14:27 – Lebaran (1989)
A modern composition by Joko Purwanto, a Javanese musician, Faculty member
of STSI Surakarta, with wide international teaching experience. Here is the Author’s presentation of his music.
This composition was first performed at York University, England, in 1989. The idea was influenced by various social events that take place in the island of Java and are impressed in my memory (births, circumcisions, weddings, funerals) and in particular by an annual event – very important for the Muslim community – which is known as Lebaran. Lebaran means finished or completed, referring to the end of the fasting month. At the end of this month there are lively celebrations where people ask for and offer forgiveness to parents, family members, friends, and neighbours. The sense of joy is strongly felt among all age groups. It is this joyful and celebrative atmosphere that inspired the music for this composition.
Lebaran uses instruments from the two tuning systems of the Javanese gamelan – slendro and pelog – a violin and several other experimental objects and materials. I transformed my ideas into music using short patterns played by different groups of instruments. The different patterns use a variety of dynamics, rhythms, and tempos, flowing smoothly from one section to the other. The musicians on this recording are music students from York University and members of the York gamelan group, directed by Dr. Neil Sorrell.
Musical Design, Notes, and Photographs: John Noise Manis