Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis

GAMELAN OF CENTRAL JAVA – Flowers

 

Puspa, Kembang, and Sekar are three Javanese words that can be translated as “flower”. One of the three words appears in the title of every piece selected for this cd, so the theme of flowers joins together the four gamelan compositions. Three of these have sung texts, and their main parts are translated into English – not an easy thing to do. In fact, Javanese is not one language, but several languages that get stratified in various dimensions – geography, social structure, and time. It was aptly said that defining the meaning of Javanese words is like aiming at a moving target. But why should we be concerned with the ambiguity of the Javanese language, while we are mainly dealing with the most ambiguous language of all, that is music?

 

Ketawang PUSPA WARNA, slendro manyura.

This is perhaps the piece most widely known in the Javanese gamelan repertoire.
It is present in a number of recordings – most notably in two Lps (now Cds)
by Robert Brown. One of the Brown’s recordings was sent into space
with the Voyager, together with other musical works representative of the
presence and creativity of the human race.
But normally only two stanzas – three at most – are performed out of the original nine of the poem written by Prince Mangkunegara IV (1853-1881). The text refers symbolically to nine kind of flowers. In our recording we wanted to have all nine stanzas.
Being aware that the custom of playing only two or three parts probably aims
at avoiding an excess of musical repetition, for this recording we designed
a varying “orchestration” within the composition – and the musicians gladly
went along with the idea.
So, 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 forth privileges the gender and reduces the gerongan to one man, the fifth has the siter solo, the sixth the gambang, the seventh brings the kendhang (drum) to the foreground, and the eighth introduces a “second” rebab to play the part of the gerong (male chorus).

The nine flowers referred to in the text are: kencur, blimbing (starfruit),
duren (durian), aren (sugarpalm), gedhang (banana tree), jati (teak), jambé
(betel palm), kapas (cotton plant), pandan (pandanus). Here is a translation of the beautiful poem by Prince Mangkunegara IV, sung by the gerong.

Puspa Warna
“A variety of flowers”

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.

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.

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.

Flower of the sugarpalm
bends over the durian branches,
whenever I
am looking at you
and thinking of the flower
I become wistful.

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
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.

Flower of the betel palm
opens fragrantly in the evening,
I am overwhelmed
to receive your visit
hoping
that you will grant your favour.

Flower of the cotton plant
constantly cut,
I strongly desire
to adore you
to fulfil your wishes
unresistingly.

Flower of the pandanus plant
scattered on the floor,
when you come down
to my place,
do not be anxious
I will surrender.

Gendhing bonangan KEMBANG GEMPOL, pelog lima.

The flower giving the title to this composition does not have an English
equivalent. We may simply enjoy the pure sound of the gamelan in its typical
instrumental version. This is probably the sound that more easily fascinates
the Western ear, and rightly so. It can be possibly said that the sounds of the
rebab and of the pesindhen (female voice) – which characterise a large portion of Javanese gamelan music – require a bit more time for the taste to be acquired on the part of a newcomer into gamelan music.
The second part of the piece – the minggah – is actually in a ladrang form
with its own title: Bayemtur.

Gendhing KEMBANG MARA, pelog lima.

The title of this majestic gendhing means litterally “the flower comes”, which immediately indicates the symbolic context used in this and in many musical compositions. In this case, one interpretation has “flower” standing for “maiden”. The text sung in this gendhing follows the practice used in many vocal  compositions (including  the pesindhen part in PUSPA WARNA). The type of text  used is known as wangsalan – when  singing, the pesindhen draws at will from a collection of poetic riddles.

There are two practical consequences of this practice. Firstly, there is not a fixed one-to-one correspondence between a given composition and a given text. Secondly, as the  pesindhen adapts a text to a piece, it can occur that the sentences  are somewhat  rearranged or  stay incomplete in order to follow the needs of the music.

The music is highly expressive in this classical form, where the rebab and the female voice are protagonists. This performance was designed to have a relatively sparse singing in the merong (first half of the gendhing), in a way to emphasise the stately character of the beautiful composition. Towards the end there is a section, sesegan, where a change in mood takes place and a fast pace is taken by the metallophones (bonang and saron) without rebab and pesindhen – these both rejoin before the final gong. The gendhing does not end the before the stringed  instrument has played its long expressive coda (pathetan).

Ladrang SEKAR GADHUNG, slendro manyura.

The final piece is a rarely performed one. It is much revered and connected with elusive mythical stories. The flower in the title is that of a variety of creeping edible tuber which is toxic if not cooked properly.
The content of the text, again, is both spiritual and educational. The word that is heard being repeated – “merdiko” – means “free” and, according to one interpretation, points to the condition that the individual needs to create within himself to be the master of his own life.
We provide a translation of what the pesindhen (P) and the gerong (G) sing, sometimes in close alternation.

P Tip of the finger
bone of a coconut leaf
sweetly, sweetly, to be in your power
is in fact a remedy.
P Father, father, a whirlwind
my feelings are in turmoil when I am in your presence
sweetly, sweetly, my feelings are in turmoil.
Free, free, free, forever.
G Sister, wearing a scarf decorated
with a “kawung” pattern
do come here
I am asking for help.
P/G At night-time
the Great Man sets off to meditate
the army of monkeys is quiet
they are all together asleep
even brother Sudarsono
has been asleep for a long time.
Free, free, free, forever.
P/G Uncle, uncle, bathing the horse
just now there was a piece of cloth
a coconut shell carried away.
That piece of cloth, what is it?
It is a piece of woven cloth with a silken border
hesitating
two “gadhung” flowers hanging down.
P/G The smoke of incense drifts off.
Clearing the thoughts is the handsome one (Rama).
The entire world is under his rule
but in a very concealed way
the god Kanékaputra
descends from the sky.

The music – somewhat surprisingly, given the pedagogical nature of the text – is lively and fresh, alternating and joining the voices of the pesindhen and the male chorus. This type of music, both in its form and its character, comes close to the more popular style of the classical repertoire.

 

A critical review by Sumarsam

Pak Sumarsam, born in Surakarta (Central Java), is presently adjunct professor of music at Wesleyan University (Middletown, Conn.) and an internationally renowned gamelan musician. He conducts workshops and concerts throughout the world. He has written “Gamelan – Cultural Interaction and Musical Development in Central Java”, University of Chicago Press, 1995.

In klenengan (traditional gamelan performance) the progression of musical moods, from tranquil to lively, guides musicians to select the pieces they play. This implies that the selection of pieces is based on certain sequences of modal classification (pathet). For example, in a night performance, the sequence is: pieces in slendro pathet nem or pelog pathet lima, pieces in slendro pathet sanga or pelog pathet nem; and ending in pieces in slendro pathet manyura or pelog pathet barang. In addition, the sequence of the pieces is also arranged according to their character, following moods progression as mentioned above.

As with any recording of gamelan, because of its time limit, this CD cannot exactly reproduce this traditional gamelan practice. To a certain extent the sequence and selection of the pieces follow prescribed mood progression stated above, with the first piece (PUSPA WARNA) as an introductory piece. In addition, the producer creatively chose to select the pieces on the basis of the theme of flowers (i.e., the word “flower” appears as part of the titles of the four pieces presented in the CD).

In spite of this thematic constraint, the CD offers listeners with enough musical variety. This is accomplished by the selection of the pieces – they are pieces composed in various formal rhythmic structures (two short structures, ketawang and ladrang, and two longer structures, gendhing), in two tuning systems (slendro and pelog), and the inclusion of an instrumental piece (gendhing bonang). These pieces present a variety of garapan or musical treatment, exemplifying various moods. In this sense, this CD is a welcome addition to existing recordings of gamelan.

The first piece in this CD – PUSPA WARNA – deserves a special comment, since it is presented in an unconventional way. It is a bit unusual that, in spite of the presence of the rebab, the gender plays the introductory melodies. 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. It is true that usually out of the nine verses only three are sung. However, 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 (r. 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 ketawang Langen Gita having as many as twenty.

For someone who wishes to hear clearly each of the various elaborating instruments, as well as kendhang and singing, PUSPA WARNA in this CD is the answer. The CD presents each or a pair of these instruments and singing as if in a lecture-demonstration, foregrounded in turn. Certainly this is very useful for any gamelan student who learns these instruments and gamelan singing. Musically, this may be one of the reflections of the way listeners listen to the music: taking turns and enjoying one or two instruments at a time. But having a second rebab imitating gerongan cannot be found in any traditional gamelan practice.

The pieces in the CD, except KEMBANG GEMPOL, employ a variety of texts sung by the singers. We have mentioned the poems of the “Sendhon Langen Swara” collection – which includes PUSPA WARNA – that are specific for the corresponding musical pieces (another collection of texts and music with similar one-to-one relation, for commemorating special court events, is “Gendhing Panembrama”). Apart from these cases, normally a set of song texts can be sung in different musical compositions. The use of the same text for different pieces confirms the commonly held opinion that the role of the pesindhen singer in the gamelan is far removed from the role of a soloist; exceptions can be found in a few compositional genres, such as jineman and palaran, where the pesindhen singing functions more closely to a soloist’s role. This leads to the question of the meaning of song texts. Informal discussions on the meaning of the text occasionally take place among learned listeners. In the context of a performance, however, the texts sung by the singer cannot always be understood. In any event, it is educationally and culturally useful to know the meaning of these texts; hence the case for translating them into English.

As acknowledged in the liner notes, it is not easy to translate these song texts. Except for the nine-stanza gerongan poem in PUSPA WARNA, originally these song texts are unaccompanied sung poetry. What they have in common (including the “secondary” pesindhen text in PUSPA WARNA) is their poetic design called wangsalan. In this form, the initial lines of each verse is a riddle, describing people, animal, or things, which points to other meanings. The word implied by these initial lines (i.e., the answer to the riddle) will appear completely or incompletely in the subsequent lines – but in different contexts. These proceeding lines usually contain moral ideas, the expression of the emotion of love, reverence to nobility, satire, or other subjects. Below are two examples, taken from PUSPA WARNA and SEKAR GADHUNG.

Wangsalan in the beginning song text of PUSPA WARNA:
Kembang kencur (Flower of the kencur plant – this flower is called sedhet)
Kacaryan anggung cinatur (Always talked about with admiration – referring to the subject of the poem) Sedhet kang sarira (Her body is well-shaped – notice the word sedhet, taken from the implied meaning of the first line. Beside the name of the flower of the kencur plant, sedhet also means “well-shaped”, referring to a woman with a well-shaped figure).

Wangsalan for pesindhen at the beginning of SEKAR GADHUNG:
Ujung jari (Tip of the finger = kuku, nail) Balung rondon ing kalapa (Bone of coconut leaf = sada, palm-leaf rib) Kawenngkua (To be in your power – notice the syllable ku, a partial word of kuku, from the implied meaning of the first line) Sayekti dadi usada (Is in fact a remedy – notice the syllable da, derived from sada, the word from an implied meaning of the second line).

Other song texts, usually used by the male chorus, are not necessarily composed in wangsalan form. The most common text-form used for the gerongan is kinanthi – each stanza consists of six lines with ending-vowel u, i, a, i, a, a. A text in this form becomes a generic text that can be sung in many pieces by the male chorus. And the kinanthi text sung in SEKAR GADHUNG is used most often. The text tells the story of the prince Rama (referred to in the second line of the first verse as the Great Man) from the Ramayana epic.

SEKAR GADHUNG is rarely played, perhaps because of its uniqueness. It is one of the very few pieces with introductory melodies played by the gambang (wooden xylophone). The piece incorporates several elements of song texts: the generic wangsalan, isen-isen (a filling-in line, such as “Rama-Rama” used by the pesindhen), the kinanthi meter, and a quotation of song texts from children’s stories (“Uncle, uncle bathing the horse, etc.”). It is curious that the words “Merdiko salaminya” (free forever) are added as an ending-line to the kinanthi song text. Does “free” point to the freedom to master individual life, as the liner notes suggest? Or “free” refers to “free Indonesia,” i.e., Indonesia independent from colonialism? (“Merdiko” is a Javanized version of the Indonesian word “merdeka”). All things considered, SEKAR GADHUNG is really a unique piece. Unfortunately, its origin and background are difficult to trace.

Certainly, listeners have the prerogative to enjoy music as aesthetic pleasure only. After all, oftentimes it is difficult to trace the background of a piece, and sometimes the title of the piece gives us an ambiguous picture regarding the connection between the composition and the moods of the music. Often, when we ask musicians about the meaning of the title of a piece, they will either say “Don’t know” or they will interpret it according to whatever information they might have heard from other musicians or from older musicians. In any event, it is always exciting to figure out, interpret, or comment on the background and meaning of these pieces.
In connection with this review, I was asked the question: “How does a Javanese listener react to the association of a given known gendhing with a wangsalan text that “happens” to be sung in a particular performance?” Javanese listeners respond to a gamelan performance following the moods of the piece (calm, dignified, animated, etc.), the mood progression (such as the changing from one section to another), the admiration for the pesindhen’s dexterity in andhegan or in jineman or palaran. If they can catch the meaning of wangsalan, they may comment on it not because of the text’s relationship with the gendhing, but because of its moral, philosophical, romantic or other content. Many listeners don’t even care about the meaning of these texts. In many ways listening to gamelan is like enjoying a wayang performance – the lakon (story) is not the only thing the audience is enjoying. The deliverance of janturan (narration) in stylized language, the wayang movements, the jokes, the music, the visual artistry, the dialogue, these are all integral part of the performance. And the audience enjoys them all together or in turn. Often the story is minimally attended.
The sound quality of the CD is excellent. It is a studio-quality sound; the recording was done at the STSI studio. This also means that the CD does not project the kind of sound-scape that one hears when gamelan is performed in traditional spaces, such as in a pendhapa (a wall-less front hall of the house) or in a princely residence. I understand that the producer has chosen to have an in-studio performance for its better clarity and identification of instruments, given the particular program presented.

 

1 – 22:02 – Ketawang PUSPA WARNA slendro manyura
2 – 11:03 – Gendhing bonang KEMBANG GEMPOL pelog lima
3 – 25:53 – Gendhing KEMBANG MARA pelog lima
4 – 11:43 – Ladrang SEKAR GADHUNG slendro manyura

 

Pesindhen: Nyi Cendaniraras
Gender: Ibu Pringga
Rebab: Suraji
Niyaga (Musicians): Darno, Darsono, Hadi Boediono, Nyoman Sukerna, Panggiyo, Prasadiyanto, Rusdiyantoro, Rustopo, Sarno, Sigit Astono, Slamet Riyadi, Sukamso, Supardi, Waridi.
Gamelan: The Ancient Gamelan of STSI (Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia) Surakarta
Musical Coordination: Joko Purwanto
Musical Design: John Noise Manis
Recording: June 22, 2002 at Studio Sembilanbelas of STSI – Sound Engineer: Iwan Onone
Mastering: Studio Nautilus, Milan
Translations: Clara Brakel

 

YANTRA PRODUCTIONS