Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis



Is there a “wall” between Central Javanese gamelan
and the common Western musical taste?
by John Noise Manis


Outside its natural home – the two historical capitals of Surakarta and Yogyakarta – the gamelan music of Central Java is studied, taught, played, and listened to fairly extensively. Universities, schools, cultural centres in the United States, U.K., The Netherlands, and other Western Countries carry out significant activities centered on the extraordinary artistic patrimony of gamelan music, properly identified as karawitan. Fact is that such music does not get, from the general public, an attention and an appreciation proportionate to the attention and appreciation it receives in the specialized, virtually secluded cultural and educational circles.

How often one happens to hear that music on radio and TV? How often one reads articles on music magazines? How easily one finds recordings on the shelves of music stores? Personal experience tells me that karawitan is nearly non-existent in the mind of the average Western music-lover. The word rawit means refined, beautiful; karawitan denotes the collection of everything having to do with that which is refined and beautiful. How is it possible that such aesthetics has not become an important presence in the Western categories of refinement and beauty, at least as far as the universal language of music is concerned? Over time, I have developed some notions about why this is so. I should like to propose concisely such notions.

1- The art music of Central Java is something as complex, deep, and articulated as what we – in the Western world – call “classical music”. But language, aesthetics, sounds, types and ways of fruition are or can be very different between karawitan and Western classical music.

2- In the Western world, with respect to Central Javanese gamelan music, the musically-inclined listener may have the same (possibly greater!) problems that a non-musically-inclined person would have with respect to Western classical music.

3- As with many good things, karawitan is an acquired taste. Only exceptionally it may conquer the listener at first listening. (A “coup de foudre” is more likely to happen with Balinese kebyar music, or the fast spreading popular versions of Sundanese music of West Java.) A first listening – and even the first minutes of listening for someone who already is acquainted with the music – may be quite negatively affected by the problems of tuning and intonation, on the one hand, and of the sound quality of some of the instruments used, on the other.

4- Another pertinent issue is that of “ambient” versus “studio” recordings. The first is the type of recording that has been favoured sofar, as the closest approximation to the natural sound of the gamelan. The latter type of recording lacks the atmosphere so dear to those – including myself – who have experienced the event of a klenengan (musical performance) in a Javanese pendhapa (the typical open-wall pavillion). Nontheless, the studio recordings have a much better chance of keeping alive the interest of a musically-minded Western listener, used to clearer, more identifiable sounds than those provided by the resounding ambient recordings.

The Dutch ethnomusicologist Bernard Suryabrata in his posthumous book (“The Island of Music”, Balai Pustaka, 1987) includes an early recognition of the recording dilemma. He writes (page 62):

“In recording, another question appears. The aesthetic properties of the music lead  acoustically to a reasonable blend of voices but it does not result in a fully artistic  melange. The many parts that are added to the orchestra do not always produce a favourable polyphony.”

(In the last sentence Suryabrata refers also to the situations where for a klenengan as many musicians – and instruments – as available are employed.)

5- Quality of recording, clarity of sound, even flawless performance appear to be not so important for a Javanese listener – he or she is capable of recreating in his/her head the ideal performance and the resulting all-important “feeling” (rasa) of the music that is being played. Not so, in my opinion, for a Western listener, especially one who is confronted with material previously unknown. He or she will likely demand “up-front” a musical proposal that is of good quality, clearly perceivable in all or most of its parts, and performed with care.

Moving from the above notions, I have derived ways to propose the musical treasures of Central Javanese gamelan, having the objective of increasing the number of appreciators among Western music lovers. Such ways touch upon choice of compositions, reduction (in some cases) of the number of instruments, attention to timbral “impasto”, clarity of sound. Some of these choices, in particular changing the “orchestration” of a piece, go against the aesthetic criteria laid down not long ago by the master musicians of the Surakarta area. The illustrious Martopangrawit so states in his “Notes on Knowledge of Gamelan Music”, translated and included in “Karawitan” edited by Judith Becker:

“It is my considered opinion that unnecessary innovation, adding or deleting  something from the tradition, is improper.”

Thus, here we have a problem of making two ends meet – musical orthodoxy and possible ways of winning the Western ear. In designing the content of this CD I am venturing in the second direction (I am a recidivist, since previously published recordings have gone the same way). But the interaction with the experienced musicians in preparing the performances – and the results obtained – reassure me that we are offering the listener a proposal with intrinsic albeit unorthodox musical value. And I should add that the orthodoxy we are talking about may not be as “granitic” as it could be imagined.

If it is true – as I believe – that not all gamelan music is pleasing to the Western ear, particularly at early stages of the listening experience, then it is appropriate to recognize and take into consideration the elements of relative attraction and distraction that the music may present – this, if we want to increase the general appreciation that that wonderful artistic world deserves. By making certain choices we run the risk of reducing or changing the original “feeling” content of a given piece. But this “feeling” would hardly happen in the head of a Westerner the way it does happen in the head of a Javanese. Also, when performing new renderings of traditional pieces – which could amount to a rékréasi – the musicians may very well maintain or re-create a “feeling” in the music through their garap, the intelligent and “with-it” use of their abilities. Martopangrawit says (same source as above):

“Those who take pleasure in creating new gendhing or in rearranging old ones should remember not to be careless.”

The “feeling” aspect leads to a necessary observation concerning the present CD.
The six principal pathet are the main vehicles for expressing (on the part of the performer) and creating (in the listener) the rasa or “feeling” of the music. In this sense the word pathet has often been translated as “mood”. By making changes in the original instrumentation we have somehow modified the original “feeling” content of some pieces. This is why we use the term “mode” for pathet, pointing more to the musical form value of the word, rather than to the capacity to raise emotions, which is the predominant value for the Javanese.

The pathet as “mode” can be defined as the prevalent use of certain notes within each of the two Javanese scales – the five-tone scale called slendro and the seven-tone scale called pelog. Neil Sorrell, in his “A Guide to the Gamelan” (A Society for Asian Music edition) calls the pathet “a kind of melodic tonality”. Pathet means restraint, or limit. There are three pathet in laras (scale) slendro: pathet nem, pathet sanga, pathet manyura; and three in laras pelog: pathet lima, pathet nem, pathet barang. To keep things very simple and more comprehensible to a Western reader, we could refer to a scheme looking as follows, where the numbers indicate the notes in the two scales – 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 for slendro and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 for pelog. Same numbers in the two scale do not mean same note (pitch).

  Basic tone Weakest (“forbidden”) tone
Slendro nem 2
Slendro sanga 5 3
Slendro manyura 6 5
Pelog lima 5,1 7
Pelog nem 5,6,2 7
Pelog barang 6,2 1


The situation in laras pelog is more fluid than the one in laras slendro. Also, the pelog scale brings an additional element of complexity with the note 4. This note has a special role as it introduces an element of general tonal modulation. According to my subjective perception, when note 4 comes in, the music seems to shift from a major to a minor key, in Western musical terms.
And to conclude about pathet, I would again quote Neil Sorrell:

“…..The glimpse of what pathet seems to be about ….. would be obscured in the  quest to establish what it actually is.”

The six instrumental pieces included in the present CD are divided into three timbral groups; all pathet are represented, and each group plays in each of the two laras. The timbral groups are characterized as follows. The first blends the pleasing sonorities of the gender barung and gender panerus, the rhythmic wooden voice of the gambang, and the inventive phrases of the bamboo flute (suling), against the background of the punctuating instruments. The second group works around the expressive melodies of the bowed string instrument (rebab) and the accompaniment of the plucked siter. The third group polarizes around the complete gong-chime (bonang) family. The concept underlying these choices is that the Western listener might find the music so presented more “transparent”, easier to follow in the ways of the classical Western music. The diligently curious listener might decide to compare these with other performances of the same pieces in recordings available in the market.

If this unorthodox though propaedeutically meant approach might be disagreeable to some, it is encouraging for this writer to find that some Javanese musicians are in favour of a certain relaxation of the rigid aesthetic rules of the traditionalists – the relaxation is envisaged through the fundamental role of the musicians’ interpretative skills or garap. Rahayu Supanggah, one of the presently outstanding Javanese musicians, so concluded his Doctoral Dissertation at the University of Paris in 1985:

“Le garap est en effet un des éléments les plus importants de la musique   javanaise, si n’est pas le plus important. A vrai dire, les gendhing ne sont en effet  qu’un véhicule et un terrain du garap. C’est aux musiciens par la suite que la  liberté très souple du garap et variant d’un musicien à l’autre pourrait se produire. Nous avons déjà dit que la qualité du résultat obtenu d’une représentation  musicale est spécialement déterminé par le garap.  (…..)  En raison du changement et de la souplesse du garap favorisés par les nouvelles compositions, la musique traditionelle javanaise doit suivre le cours du temps. Ainsi, on souhaiterait que le garap puisse satisfaire les besoins liés aux diverses  circonstances. Car ce qui est certain c’est que le garap fait partie, directement ou indirectement, de la survie de la musique de gamelan dans l’avenir.”

Together with the instrumental pieces articulated in the six pathet, this CD includes two pieces presenting the female voice in two quite different formal and emotional contexts. In one case the female voice takes up the role of the dhalang, the usually male master of wayang kulit (shadow-puppet theatre). In the other we have the quintessence of sindhenan, the female singing that, as the ancient origin of the word indicates, “touches the heart”.

For the sake of total transparency of what is being presented in this CD, the point of view of karawitan orthodoxy is provided in the critical review by Joko Purwanto, a musician and teacher at STSI Surakarta.


A Critical Review
by Joko Purwanto

Born in Surakarta in 1957, Joko Purwanto began studying gamelan at an early age. He gained his formal gamelan education at ASKI (now STSI) Surakarta, and later earned his M.A. from the University of York in England. Between 1985 and 1990, he taught gamelan at various universities and community groups throughout the UK. He also taught gamelan at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada and more recently at the University of Oregon (2002-2003). Since returning to Indonesia, he has continued with his job as a teacher in the Karawitan Department at STSI Surakarta, where he has taught since 1980.

Modes and Timbres is the theme presented in this CD. According to tradition, in Javanese klenengan (musical performance), a karawitan performance is usually arranged according to pathet, or mode. A performance in the slendro tuning system would begin with pathet nem, followed by pathet sanga, and finishing with pathet manyura. In the pelog tuning system, the order of a performance would be pathet lima, pathet nem, and pathet barang. In a performance using all six pathet in both tuning systems, pelog pathet lima would correspond to slendro pathet nem, pelog pathet nem would correspond to slendro pathet sanga, and pelog pathet barang would correspond to slendro pathet manyura. Each pathet uses different notes and has its own unique character, feeling, and musical vocabulary.

Although the order is not as in a live performance, this CD contains pieces in every pathet used in a performance of Surakarta style Javanese karawitan. This recording also presents examples of various different timbres found in Javanese karawitan. For this reason, the pieces (gendhing) performed on this CD are not played by all the instruments found in a complete gamelan ensemble, which would normally also include a male chorus (gerong) as well as a solo female vocalist (sinden). The idea behind this CD was to present clear examples of different timbres, by using groups of instruments with a similar character to perform and elaborate pieces in different pathet. Although the recording provides clear examples of different timbres, the true pathet of each piece is not always expressed to the full. Each piece has its own character and musical elements, such as timbre, tempo, rhythm, and tuning, all of which make up the true feeling of the pathet of the piece within the karawitan culture. By intentionally having only certain instruments, the listener is required to pay close attention to the detail in the pieces on this CD. On the other hand, this kind of recording is able to stimulate the imagination of the listener to a more serious and intense appreciation, which in turn will create a complete musical performance in the mind of the listener.

In the Javanese karawitan repertoire, there are two pieces with the same name and same form, namely Ketawang Langen Gita slendro sanga and Ketawang Langen Gita Srinarendra pelog barang. What distinguishes the two Ketawang Langen Gita is not only the different tuning systems but also the different texts used for the gerongan, or male chorus. Langen Gita slendro sanga was composed during the reign of Mangkunegara IV and uses a special text of around 20 verses, while Ketawang Langen Gita Srinarendra is taken from the accompaniment to the Anglir Mendung Srimpi dance, with a text of 12 verses. If we compare the skeleton melodies (balungan) of these two pieces, we find also differences, although the melodic lines are related.

Langen Gita Srinarendra pelog barang (the title means “Song for the King”) is a popular piece among gamelan musicians and listeners. On this CD it is not performed in its usual way, since it is played on the gender barung, gender penerus, gambang, and suling (elaborating instruments), the kendhang, kempul, and gong as punctuating instruments, and the saron barung as balungan instrument. In its traditional version, the gendhing should be played on the complete gamelan, which, in addition to the above instruments, comprises rebab, bonang barung, bonang penerus, slenthem, demung, saron penerus, kenong, kethuk kempyang, siter, as well as sindhen and gerong. This is in connection with the main theme of this CD, Modes and Timbres, in which the producer aims at separating the instruments into different timbral groupings. Although this recording uses one balungan instrument, the saron barung, the absence of the slenthem, which plays the most easily identifiable abstraction of the gendhing, and of the vocal parts (gerong and sindhen) make it somewhat difficult for some listeners to follow the piece. The melodic line of the gerongan, as well as the text used, are necessary for a complete aesthetical appreciation of smaller scale pieces such as the ketawang.

This CD is very useful to students of sindhen or gerongan because the absence of a vocal part enables the student to practise his/her singing along with the instrumental version here recorded. Another unique feature of this CD is the fact that the gender barung player is a female musician, Ibu Pringgo Hadiwiyono, who has many years of experience in the field of karawitan and wayang, both as a musician and sindhen. She began performing at a very early age. Her experience and wealth of musical vocabulary, in particular for the gender barung instrument, on which she shows a highly individual style of interpretation, can add a new dimension for students studying the musical patterns for the gender barung. The other players on this recording are all experienced musicians and teachers in the karawitan department at STSI Surakarta.

Worthy of note in this performance of Langen Gita Srinarendra, as well as in the performance of Puspowarna, is the interesting musical elaboration (garap) of the suling (bamboo flute), which is the only wind instrument in a Javanese gamelan ensemble. This is an embellishing instrument, both in metered and non-metered pieces (pathetan). There are no standardised patterns (cengkok or wiledan) for this instrument; it is up to the individual musician to interpret a piece, depending largely on his experience and ability. The suling player is free to decide when to start playing and when to end, but ,despite this freedom, this instrument is not present throughout an entire piece. A good suling player usually interacts with the vocal part sung by the sindhen as they complement one another, often playing at the same time. A suling player looks towards certain important points in the piece but does not necessarily arrive at these points melodically at the same time as the balungan instruments. On this recording, the suling player performs an excellent interpretation, and his ornamentations fit perfectly with the other instruments. The clarity of the suling part on this CD is very useful for the first-time listener in providing an attactive example of the instrument.

The second piece on this CD is Gendhing Ketawang Subakastawa slendro sanga, the title meaning “Highly Respected”. It is played on rebab, siter, slenthem, kendhang, kenong, kempul, and gong, while in its traditional version it should be played on the full gamelan. The prominent sound of the rebab and siter is intended to show another timbral mix found in Surakarta style Javanese gamelan. A Javanese gamelan ensemble has many different timbres, one of which is produced by the string instruments, of which there are unfortunately only two, the rebab, which is bowed, and the siter, which is plucked, and hence the two instruments have a completely different character. This is an attempt by the producer to show more clearly how these two instruments play according to their individual roles in a piece. However, this version does not manage to create a true reflection of the pathet or feeling of Ketawang Subakastawa, since the feeling of a piece is developed by all the instruments of a gamelan ensemble, including the vocalists, with their complex musical vocabulary.

Subakastawa is a popular piece in the Javanese gamelan community, and although there are many versions of the piece in the different tuning systems, they remain close to the original version of the gendhing. The version on this CD allows the first-time listener or beginner in gamelan to hear clearly the musical patterns played by the rebab and siter in pure pathet sanga.

Ladrang Golong (“United”) pelog lima is a piece in Yogyakarta style. In this piece, the prominent instruments are the bonang barung and bonang penerus, which are accompanied by the demung, which plays the balungan (skeleton) melody to show more clearly the relationship between this melody and the playing technique of the bonang. The kendhang, kenong japan, kempul, and gong are included as punctuating instruments. In its traditional version this piece should be played on a gamelan soran, which in addition to the instruments already mentioned includes slenthem, saron barung, saron penerus, and kethuk kempyang. The difference between Surakarta style and Yogya style is not only in the musical repertoire but also in the musical interpretation or vocabulary of the bonang family, as well as in the kendhang patterns and the use of kenong japan. The latter is a single kenong, tuned to a low 5, and it marks the kenong beat without following the melodic line of the piece. This piece is known as a soran (loud style) gendhing, in typical Yogya style; the kenong japan plays an important part in creating the strong aesthetical feel of the piece. The word japan here means large, in terms of size and tuning (low).

The fourth track on this CD presents examples of pathetan, namely pathetan wantah, pathetan jugag, and ada-ada greget saut srambahan, all of which are in the slendro sanga mode. In a performance of pathetan or ada-ada, there is usually a leader to follow. In a wayang or shadow puppet performance, the leader is the dhalang or puppeteer, who sings musical phrases known as suluk. In a klenengan performance, the rebab is usually the “leader”. What makes the pathetan and ada-ada on this CD special is that the vocal part (sulukan) is sung by the gender barung player, Ibu Pringgo Hadiwiyono. I have already mentioned Ibu Pringgo’s skills as a sindhen and musician. Her experience as a gender barung player, having accompanied many performances of wayang by different dhalang, has made her a highly skilled gender player. She can easily play the gender while singing the sulukan or sindhenan.

Pathetan slendro sanga wantah is usually played to mark the transition in a performance from slendro nem to slendro sanga. It can also be performed at the end of a piece in the same pathet, of course taking into consideration the feeling, character, and musical line of the piece. This is also the case for pathetan slendro sanga jugag, since this is a short version of pathetan wantah. Ada-ada greget saut srambahan slendro sanga is more commonly used in wayang performances, often to create an atmosphere of tension, anger, agility, enthusiasm, or masculinity.

The pathetan on this CD show clearly the relationship between the vocal part and the part played on the gender barung, showing when to transition to a different elaborating pattern, when to lengthen or shorten a phrase, according to the length of the vocal phrase. Hence, this recording is ideal for students of pathetan or ada-ada. It is interesting to note the unique patterns played on the gender by Ibu Pringgo Hadiwiyono. Such patterns are clear and precise in matching the melodic line of the vocal part.

Macapat Asmaradana, meaning “Fire of Love”, slendro miring is an example of the musical form of macapat, a Javanese form of sung poetry. There are eleven kinds of macapat that still exist, one of which is Asmaradana. The texts of macapat contain elements of education, information, history, and so on. Macapat may be sung in either slendro or pelog, and on this recording the two verses of Asmaradana are in the slendro miring tuning. In miring tuning, the pitch of certain notes is raised by a semitone so that the overall scale is similar to pelog. For example, in slendro pathet sanga, the pitches raised are notes 2 and 5, as heard on this CD. This tuning is often used by the sindhen or rebab player in a performance of klenengan to create different atmospheres or feelings, such as sorrow, empathy, pain, confusion, or pity.

The two verses of Asmaradana sung on this recording tell an episode of the Panji legend from wayang gedog (a more recent form of wayang). The story here tells of a battle between the two central characters in the Panji story, Damarwulan and Minakjingga. In this battle, Damarwulan is almost defeated and killed by Minakjingga, and in this tiring and hopeless situation, he asks of his beloved wife, Anjasmara, that she give her permission for him to die. He also begs Minakjingga to put an end to his suffering by killing him. One way in which the sad nature of this story can touch the heart of the listener is by using the alternative tuning of slendro miring.

Like Ketawang Langen Gita, Ketawang Puspowarna (which means “A Variety of Flowers”) was also composed during the reign of Mangkunegara IV. In this version, it is played by gender barung, gender penerus, gambang, suling, saron barung, kendhang, kempul, and gong. In its traditional version it should be played on a full gamelan. The listener may encounter a few problems due to the absence of the slenthem, a stronger balungan instrument, as the instruments used are virtually all elaborating instruments. These, in performance, usually refer to the balungan, normally played on the slenthem (on the saron in this recording) in a small (gadhon) ensemble. An experienced musician will hear a complete rendition of the piece, even with the absence of certain instruments.

This musical interpretation of Puspowarna is pure pathet manyura and is therefore a good reference for the interpretation of similar pieces in the same mode. Once again, vocal students can use this version of Puspowarna to practise their skills.

Ladrang Rajamanggala (“The King is a Leader”) pelog nem is played on rebab, siter, slenthem, kendhang, kethuk kempyang, kenong, kempul, and gong. Traditionally it is played on a full gamelan or soran gamelan. As mentioned at the beginning, a piece in pelog pathet nem corresponds to a piece in slendro pathet sanga (such as Ketawang Subakastawa). The producer decided to present the two modes using the same instruments so that the listener could compare the musical patterns played by the rebab and siter in slendro pathet sanga and pelog pathet nem. Once again, the timbre produced by these instruments is very distinct but, in terms of mood or feeling, these two instruments are not able to create the true character of the piece. Nevertheless, the listener is treated to a skilled, clear performance of rebab and siter elaboration in pelog pathet nem, providing a positive stimulation of the imagination to develop a more complete and complex aesthetical appreciation.

Ladrang Sobrang slendro pathet nem (the title referring to an earring covered with a thin layer of gold) is performed by the bonang barung, bonang penerus, demung, kendhang, kenong, kempul, and gong. In the Javanese musical repertoire, this piece can be performed in soran style (without the elaborating instruments) or with the full musical ensemble. On this recording, the bonang barung and bonang penerus are intentionally highlighted in order to make a comparison with the ensemble used for the piece whose mode corresponds to slendro pathet nem – Ladrang Golong pelog pathet lima. Ladrang Golong was played in Yogya style and, to provide a balance, Ladrang Sobrang is performed in Surakarta style. Once again, the listener is invited to observe the different treatment of the bonang instruments in these two pieces, each with its own style.

The overall result of this recording is very good, both in terms of sound quality and individual performance technique. It is important for the listener to remember that what can be heard on this CD was designed to meet the specific criteria to suit the theme proposed. In this context, the resulting product is something that has no comparison in recorded performances of Javanese gamelan music.


Pendhapa Gamelan of STSI Surakarta
Musicians of STSI Surakarta: Bambang Sosrodoro, Darsono, Djoko Santosa, Hadi Boediono, I Ketut Saba, I Nyoman Sukerna, Kuwat, Rusdyantoro, Rustopo, Sarno, Slamet Riyadi, Sugimin, Sukamso, Supardi, Suraji, Waridi
Musical Coordination: Joko Purwanto
Musical Design: John Noise Manis
Date of recording: July 23, 2003