Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis


IX. Songs of Wisdom and Love


A Commentary  by Sumarsam

Born in East Java, Bapak Sumarsam received formal gamelan education and grew up as musician in Surakarta (Central Java). He is Adjunct Professor and Chair of the Music Department 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.

This CD focuses on sung poetry, used in both accompanied and unaccompanied vocal works. The musicians are members of the faculty of STSI (Institute of the Arts, Solo), playing one of the finest of the STSI gamelan.


Track 1

The title of the first track, Kodhok Ngorek, does not tell us that the piece contains sung poetry. Kodhok Ngorek is an instrumental ensemble. It is an archaic ensemble, consisting of  (1) a pair of two-tone gong type instruments (one provides a repetitive two-note pattern, the other provides a simple counterpoint);  (2) different sizes of gongs, marking the structure of the piece;  (3) a pair of drums, providing simple rhythmic configurations; and (4) a gender playing four phrases (i.e., the length of four gongan). Creatively, the STSI musicians juxtapose this archaic, instrumental ensemble with two macapat songs: Asmaradana, sung by female singers in steady-pulsed melodic style, and Pangkur sung by a male singer in the original style of unaccompanied, un-pulsed macapat song. This is a new arrangement. The vocal addition to the instrumental ensemble has made possible for this piece to be included in this CD, which focuses on sung poetry. Other instruments are also added, perhaps gender panerus and saron, playing in the style of archaic gambang gangsa (a multiple-octave bronze xylophone); they trail the melody of the gender. I do not know the process by which the STSI musicians came up with this creation. But I know that juxtaposing different elements of traditional material/idioms is one of the common practices in creating new gamelan pieces or arrangements.


Tracks 2-11

These tracks present two forms of macapat sung poetry:  (1) macapat song in its original style, i.e., as monophonic, un-pulsed, and unaccompanied song;  and (2) macapat song in palaran style: the singing of a macapat song accompanied by a piece in srepegan structure. Srepegan refers to a structure of gendhing, in which kenong and kempul are played as both melodic instruments and markers in the gongan structure. The piece itself is also called srepegan.

In this palaran presentation, first, a srepegan is played. At a certain point, the drum cues the ensemble to switch to palaran. At this point, gender, gambang, kenong, kempul, kethuk, and gong continue to play in the srepegan structure, accompanying the macapat song, while other instruments drop out.

It is instructive to compare Megatruh in its original, unaccompanied song (track 2) and in palaran style (track 3), where the same melody is employed. One can compare the phrasing of un-pulsed, metric-free Megatruh and its transformation into un-pulsed song but accompanied by a metrically-fixed srepegan structure. Pangkur is also presented in a sequence of original macapat format and palaran style, but the former is in pelog, the latter in slendro—each has its own melody. (A macapat song may have different melodic versions).

One of the musical elements in a palaran is senggakan: a brief melodic interlude sung by male singers to make the piece more exciting. The text of senggakan can be rather humorous, such as dua lolo oooing (two is two, oooing); it can also contain words of praise, such as edi peni peni peni (so beautiful and priceless). Palaran Pangkur (track 5) is rich with senggakan; other palaran may have fewer senggakan, or not at all. In the present CD, senggakan is sung only in palaran Pangkur.

In the original form, macapat is performed by unaccompanied solo singer. The singer can choose whatever melodic register which he or she is comfortable with. This is also to say that macapat song is not constrained by pathet (modal category). But when more and more macapat songs were recomposed to become gamelan pieces, the relation of these poetic metres with the gamelan became closer; the application of pathet category became common practice. This CD goes further. Each of the macapat in track 6, 8, 9, 11 is accompanied by the gender, in the manner of bawa and sulukan (see below).

It is worth mentioning the scale used in Maskumambang and Durma (track 7 and 10). The gamelan accompaniment of the two palaran is in slendro, but the song is sung in a sub-scale called barang miring. This is constructed by flattening two tones of the five-tone slendro scale. The result is a pelog-like scale.


Track 12

Each gendhing has a brief melodic introduction played by one of the leading instruments, mostly by rebab or bonang. As an option, the introduction can be replaced by the singing of poetry; this is called bawa. It is sung by a male singer with gender accompaniment, insuring that the singer conform to the gamelan intonation. In a klenengan the bawa, performed in the second or third part, allows the singer to demonstrate his melodic dexterity.

A few bawa are taken from macapat songs, but most bawa are drawn from sekar tengahan and sekar ageng genres. The bawa in this CD is Pusparaga, pelog nem. It is a bawa that can be sung as introduction to any gendhing with gong-tone 6.


Track 13

Sulukan is a generic term for songs of the dhalang. There are three types of sulukan – pathetan, sendhon, and ada-ada. They are sung as a musical interlude and/or to heighten the mood of a scene in wayang kulit. A few texts of sulukan are taken from macapat sung poetry, but most of them are drawn from unaccompanied song-genres of sekar ageng and sekar tengahan. In a wayang performance, sulukan Pathet Nem Ageng (track 13) is sung at the end of the first scene. The text is taken from one of the oldest Javanese poems, Bharatayuda. It is a Javanese version of an episode of the Hindu Mahabharata epic, written in Sanskrit-based old Javanese language.

Commonly, pathetan is accompanied by an ensemble consisting of rebab, gender, gambang, and suling (optional). In this CD, it is accompanied by solo gender. The gender player is a female musician. Today, there are only a few female gender players (Sarah Weiss deals with this subject in her commentary of another Yantra production). Track 13 is a valuable case for study – the listener can hear clearly solo gender and appreciate female gender playing style, which is quite different than male gender style.


Track 14

I have provided a brief background about gendhing kemanak in my commentary to Volume VIII of this collection. What is special about gendhing kemanak Duradasih is the scale system used by the singers. The first part of the piece is sung in pelog. At a certain point, the singing changes to slendro, till the end of the piece. The gongan structure is ketawang, but in the last part it changes to ladrang. In a complete presentation, a piece called Ketawang Kinanthi Duradasih, played by the whole gamelan ensemble, follows the Gendhing Kemanak and completes what is normally a bedaya-style dance performance.


A note on translating from old Javanese

The desire to get glimpses of the world contained in old Javanese poetry prevails over the discouraging difficulties of a translation into a modern Western language.

One would like to find the precise words that express the meaning of a poetic verse, maintaining all the subtleties and complexities of the original text.

Unfortunately the exact words and the real meaning are about impossible to find. It was aptly said that defining the meaning of Javanese words is like aiming at a moving target.

The difficulties of translations have been authoritatively illustrated by, among others, A. L. Becker in the Preface (“Translating the Art of Music”) to Vol. 2 of  “Karawitan – Source Readings in Javanese Gamelan and Vocal Music”, Michigan Papers on South and Southeast Asia, 1987. The entire essay should be read by the interested reader, but it may be useful to extract here a couple of  passages.

Page XIII:  “Most words in any language are more like symbols than signs, more like metaphors than names, and a translator wants to savor the whole range of resonances that a word evokes. That is a great part of the power of a word – to evoke its own past in the varied word-memories of its readers. Words are multi-dimensional, and one would like to retain more than one dimension in a translation. The trouble is that the metaphors Javanese words make are seldom the metaphors English words make, and the memories they evoke are not our memories.”

Page XVIII:  “The definitions from dictionaries and the explanations by Javanese scholars are meant to suggest the resonance of words and to open the possibility of many translations, rich in sound and shape….  The aesthetic here, as in gamelan music, as in batik, as in shadow plays, is an aesthetic of overlays. Sound is superimposed on sound, design on design, event on event….  Each new reading is accepted as an enrichment of the last, not a correction of it.”

The above statements are illuminating, but I do not wish to use them to justify the result of my effort to translate the texts sung in this CD. To the reader/listener I say that he/she should consider these as instances of possible – in some parts refinable – translations. I wish to thank Bapak Sumarsam for his kind revision and the resulting decisive improvements to my work. The shortcomings that may be left must be debited to me only.

Rosella Balossino


Track 1 – Gendhing KODOK NGOREK

A)  Mantram

Sabdane kang mantram sakti
Om awignam mastunama
Rahayu sagung gumlare
Tumama sudamala
Mala temahan sirna
Mala sirna
Temah hayu
Rahayu sagung tumuwuh

The incantation of powerful prayer.
May there be no obstacle
Great blessings to the earth and its content
Sudamala [chant] strikes
At last the evil is wiped out
Evil wiped out
Creating tranquil peace
Great blessings to all creatures.

B)  Pangkur Gedhong Kuning

Singgah singgah kala singgah
Pan suminggah durga kala sumingkir
Singa sirah singa suku
Singa tan kasad mata
Sinnga tenggak singa wulu singa bahu
Kabeh padha sumingkira
Mring telenging jalanidhi

Move, move, evil spirits, move away,
The prayer to move evils away.
One resides in the head, one in the legs,
The invisible one,
One resides in the neck, one in body hair, one in the arms.
All must move away,
To the centre of the ocean.


Track 2 – Macapat MEGATRUH slendro sanga

Ing wurine yen ati durung tuwajuh
Aluwung aja angabdi
Becik angidunga rumuhun
Aja age age ngabdi
Yen durung eklasing batos

If your heart does not yet firmly consent
Do not be in servitude
It is better to precede singing a poem
Do not hastily surrender yourself
If you do not yet resign wholeheartedly.


Track 3 – Palaran MEGATRUH slendro sanga

Paribasan anganti kambanging watu
Kadya yen iku salami
Sela datan bisa timbul
Yen durung karseng Hyang Widhi
Pasti yen datan kelakon

Expecting a stone to float
It will never happen.
As stones cannot float,
If it is not the will of the god,
Aspirations will not be accomplished.


Track 4 – Macapat PANGKUR pelog nem

Jinejer neng Wedhatama
Mrih tan kemba kembengan ing pambudi
Mangka nadyan tuwa pikun
Yen tan mikani rasa
Yekti sepi asepa lir sepah samun
Samangsané pakumpulan
onyak ganyuk nglelingsemi

It is written in Wedhatama [the book of wisdom]
So as your behaviour will not be insipid;
Even old people
If they are not aware with rasa
They will be empty and tasteless as a chewed morsel,
An when in social gathering
They’ll behave awkwardly and shamefully.


Track 5 – Palaran PANGKUR with Dolanan PITIK TUKUNG slendro sanga

Sun anti-anti tan prapta
Puteg ing tyas kumembeng ngandhem  tangis
Bebeg sumpeg kumalawung
Rumangsa den niaya
Teka ndadak bisa temen gawe bingung
Titenana lamun prapta
Nora nedya sun sabari

I waited but you did not arrive,
My feelings in turmoil, crying withholding tears,
I lost my mind,
I feel being tortured.
How can you make me confused.
Be cautious when you arrive,
I will not be patient.


Aku duwe pitik pitik tukung
Saben dina tak pakani jagung
Petog gog gog petog petog
Ngendhog pitu tak ngremake netes telu
Kabeh trondhol ndhol tanpa wulu
Mondhol mondhol ndhol gawe guyu


I have a chicken without tail,
Every day I feed her corn,
Cackle cock cock cackle,
She laid seven eggs, I hatched them and got three chicks,
They are all featherless, no feathers at all,
Blubbery blubbery blub – they make you laugh.


Track 6 – Macapat DHANDHANGGULA slendro sanga

Pamedhare wasitaning ati
Cumanthaka aniru pujangga
Dahat mudha ing batine
Nanging kedah ginunggung
Dhatan wruh yen akeh ngesemi
Ameksa angrumpaka
Basa kang kalantur
Tutur kang katula tula
Tinalaten rinuruh kalawan ririh
Mrih padhang ing sasmita

Pronouncing wisdom
I [the author] dare to pretend to be a poet
My inner self is young.
But I wish to reveal my thought
I don’t know if many people will deride [my work].
I forced myself to write a poem
In copious language my pronouncement is winding around.
Patiently and carefully I proceed
To reveal my inner message clearly.


Track 7 – Palaran MASKUMAMBANG slendro sanga

Sambat-sambat dhuh babo sang kadi Ratih
Baya tan supena
Tangeh tukuwa pawarti
Dasihe anandhang brangta

I keep lamenting to the one who resembles Ratih [goddess of love],
You are not dreaming,
Not to hear news,
Your beloved is longing for love.


Track 8 – Macapat SINOM slendro sanga

Ambege kang wus utama
Tan ngendhak gunaning janmi
Amiguna ing aguna
Sasolahe kudu bathi
Pintere den alingi
Bodhone didokok ngayun
Pamrihe den inaha
Mring padha padhane janmi
Suka lila den hina sapadha-padha

Arrogance of a wise man
Ignorant of others’ perspectives
Taking advantage of his knowledge
His actions must benefit himself
He seals his intelligence
His stupidity is displayed upfront
His intention is only promise
From his fellowmen
He accepts gladly any insult directed to him.


Track 9 – Macapat KHINANTI slendro sanga

Padha gulangen ing kalbu
Ing sasmita amrih lantip
Aja pijer mangan nendra
Kaprawiran den kaesthi
Pesunen sariranira
Cegahen dhahar lan guling

To train your mind
Is to sharpen your inner message
Do not only eat and sleep.
Courageousness should be pursued
Search [to be familiar with] your body
Do not depend on bowl and pillow [eating and sleeping].


Track 10 – Palaran DURMA slendro sanga

Haywa age ngubungi karsa tan yogya
Saringen dipun wening
Pituturing jaman kuna manungsa tapa
Den temen sira memundhi
Brekahing bapa
Nabi Ratu myang Wali

Do not quickly encourage improper intentions,
Evaluate them carefully,
[Follow] the pronouncement of wise ancestors.
You should honour highly
The blessing of our holy elders,
The Prophet, the King, and the Wali [Saints].


Track 11 – Macapat GAMBUH pelog nem

Sekar Gambuh ping catur
Kang cinatur polah kang kalantur
Tanpa tutur katula-tula katali
Kadalu warsa katutuh
Kapatuh pan dadi awon

The fourth is Gambuh sung-poetry
Telling about bad behaviour
[Being] without guidance will make one’s world tangle up.
If you learn [the guidance] too late, you will be disdained,
Getting habits that produce bad results.


Track 12 – Bawa PUSPARAGA pelog nem

Marmanta praptanipun
Neng nagri Kedhiri
Ratu Nuswakancana
Sesandi sumiwi
Cinidra ing ngasmara
Dening Jayengsari
Yeku margantuk denn ya
Atandhing ajurit

It is told the arrival
In Kedhiri
Of the King of Nuswakancana
Making concealed appearance
Longing for love
To Jayengsari
Because of his triumph
In a battle.


Track 13 – SULUKAN – Pathetan Ageng slendro nem

(A dhalang song taken from the 10th century Bharatayuda poem in ancient Javanese language)

Leng leng ramyaningkang sasangka kumenyar ,  O….
Mangrengga ruming puri,  O….
Mangkin tanpa siring halep ingkang umah
Mas lir murub ring langit,  O….
Tekwan  sarwo manik,  O….
Tawingnya sinawung,  O….,  O….
Saksat sekar sinuji hunggyan Bhanuwati,  O….
Ywan amrem alangen lan nata Duryudana,  O….
Lan nata Duryudana,  O….

Entrancingly beautiful is the shining of the moon
Adorning the splendor of the queen’s palace.
There is no comparison
The extraordinary golden palace
Showing its beauty
The glow is reaching the sky
Curtains are decorated as flower arrangements
That is the abode of Bhanuwati
Where she makes love to Duryudana.


Track 14 – Gendhing kemanak bedhayan DURADASIH slendro manyura

(This is a text particularly difficult to translate)

Duradasih kadi sinawung asmara
Lameng guna  malu alam dalu arsa
Welas mara wewekase bari lunga
Balik ingsun tinilar tanna basuki
Angka warsa ranu mijil bomantara
Wus alawas kang kari among kunjana
Nadyan papa nanging ingsun maksih asih
Lu tan arsa tumibeng ambara
Puput pati tan kondur adarbe karsa.
Dalu kangen kang alalis raden
Dipa ripta jahnawi apraja Ima
Wus alawas kang tinilar kari edan.
Sira  lunga
Kawula kari kantaka
Asmayuda manyura kuda waskita
Sun gubela angrasa dudu sasama

Duradasih is a pronouncement of love.
Sword is used to nail the earth as night arrives.
Sorrow comes with the message of the parting,
I was left alone and vulnerable
In chronogram,  ‘Rain Water Appears in the Sky’
I have long been suffering,
But in spite of my misery, I am still in love,
At night I do not feel deserted
To the end of life, you do not return home for you have an aspiration.
At  night I am longing for the lost one, my prince,
Shining creation, the ocean is the palace of cloud.
Since a long time, only despair is left.
You depart,
Deserted, I faint,
The war of names peacock
Whatever I do, I do not feel the same.


Conceptual Cues on Javanese Music

Abstracted and translated from “La Memoria del Mondo e gli Orologi della Oregon Scientific” by Ilario Meandri


Why does this music fascinate us?

Two factions, at least, take a position on the subject. One – let’s call it the purist’s view – will uphold the argument of the cultural misunderstanding: we like this music because we do not understand it. Or: the interpretative keys that we use for that music have little to do with what that music has and is. For example, we tend to ‘see’ the complex vertical superimpositions generated in gamelan music as tonal-harmonic dimensions, which is what we are familiar with.

The other faction – nowadays we’d call it the globalist’s view – adheres to the concept of intercultural translatability, of the permeability of languages. Music, foremost among languages, would possess universals, which can cross cultures, go through language barriers. So: we like this music because we are capable of perceiving its beauty; beauty we do have direct access to.

We should be interested in both perspectives. I propose to use the pessimism of the former to sustain the arguments of the latter.

Let us think of the process of knowing a music ‘other’ as a journey with stages. At the starting end, the myth of the first listening, the first encounter with musical events which we ignore forms and language of. At the other end, the specialized knowledge. In between, the progressing stages of getting acquainted with the innumerable elements and characteristics of Javanese music, until we get close to the ideal and idealized end of bimusicality (but probably never of biperception).

We want to dwell on the first of those stages, and propose here a listening, as it were, programmatically uncultivated. And we shall ask ourselves questions.

We like this music because we do not understand it.


How, in what sublime way do we not understand this music? What does such incomprehension tell us?

Besides the fascination of the ‘other’ musicality, is there an attraction based on identification? That is, does this music resound also in spaces of our own world? May we listen to this music and perceive that it tells something of ourselves?
Is there an Aleph?

The Aleph is the title of a nice book by Borges – and a concept of the mystics. The sages used it when they had to answer very difficult questions – the existence of God, the definition of the universe, and similar trifles. Borges defines it as follows:

“Aleph is one of the points in space that contain all points. It is the locus where all loci of the earth gather, without mixing up, seen from all angles.”

I have the impression that this music tells us things about ourselves, things that are close to our world. And that draws us to a locus where all musics of the earth gather, without mixing up.

Consider the impact of minimalism in contemporary music. Consider specific – though relevant – instances such as the music used as background for weather forecasts in radio and TV. The point is not the likeness of such musics to gamelan, rather what these ‘sound carpets’ stand for, what they tell us, really. Strange. It’s as if from a secluded safe corner we had the desire of spying upon what the cosmos is up to. First control, next technology. Nothing new. It’s something that humans have been doing for a while, probably for some millennia. On the one side: nature. On the other: control, through technology. The weather forecasts could be the place where intercourse between man and cosmos is – laically, scientifically – celebrated. Science here appears to reassure regarding the control over natural phenomena, while evoking and suggesting an appeased relationship with the forces of nature. At a superficial level, the background music contributes, with its placid repetitivity, to sustain and reinforce the image of security and control. An imperturbable music, abstract in some way, and culturally quite close to the concepts of the early minimalism. If some being from Mars could tune-in to the weather forecasts, planet Earth, and wanted to make conjectures as to how these other beings (us) lived, he would probably think that they passed their time in some sort of perennial limbo, and that they have left the machines to sing for them.

It is here that gamelan music, especially the instrumental part, intercepts, with surprising precision, the contemporariness of our world – meant as a vision of the destiny of the world. A time of the Eden, where the relationship man-cosmos is pacified. An immutable, non-historic time. Because history, viewed from there, is nothing but the difficult route through which, finally, humanity found rest. The end of epos. Then the time of the end of time?

So, here is one of the points of interception that we were looking for.

The voice strays from the cyclic and repetitive time of the orchestra. It moves in a different space, freer with respect to the heterorhythmic movement of the orchestra. For the gamelan, that utopian time of the instrumental does not come by itself, as it happens in much of our music. It rather seems more like a pretext, a sort of horizon of the voice, a space that exists so that within it the voice may unfold itself.

As is the case with many other cultures, ours too entrusts to the voice a special role. Even through a language that we do not understand, a singing voice polarizes. As soon as it enters the auditive space, a barycentre is created. In the unfolding of a singing voice we recognize a gesture that profoundly belongs to our world. The voice evokes in ourselves a well-defined dimension – between two opposed motions that run through the entire history of our civilization, between mimetic participation and distance, between the dionysiac and the apollonian.

In gamelan music we seem to instinctively recognize an epic dimension, indipendently from the fact that the particular genre is actually the expression of an epos. Do we also recognize in this music a profound relationship between epic distance and memory?

“Only memory, no expression in your voices” was Benjamin Britten’s instruction to the singers during reharsals of his War Requiem. This seems to fit well with the gamelan. Do we perceive this music as a memory of the world? How is it that a music so distant – so diverse from ours – manages to illuminate ritual spaces so dense with meaning for us?

Normally we are ambivalent about ‘otherness’, but on the front of the sacred – in the vacuum of transcendence characterising our existences – we are quite ready to open ourselves to the sacred of others. Surprising is our pliability when encountering an unknown system. We are ready to accept, with that sacred, also everything else that, of that sacred, we do not understand. When listening to the gamelan music in this CD we are surprised by unusual durations, a ‘tactus’ which we are totally unable to recognise, different ways to produce – and to deny – a climax, sudden atmospheric disturbances caused and governed by the kendhang, unexpected tensions and relaxations which do not fit in our schemes of such things. We could get crossed at these quite different dramaturgic and expressive choices. And yet, within us, all that glides in free-and-easy, as if part of the game.

Are we ready to entrust to other cultures the awareness – the potential for experiencing – of the sacred? If so, what about the meaning that this sacred expresses? How can we commit the search for meaning to a sacred we do not know? Actually meaning may not be important. We get the form. We perceive the transparence. As in Palaran Megatruh, for instance, where the mantra is set in the cosmos of the voice as a primeval material, as a pearl.

A pearl – what is its meaning? It amounts to ask ourselves what is the meaning of the sacred.

If we assign a special language to the sacred (the language of the sacred, precisely, which needs to be different from the language of the ordinary), if we entrust our sacred to ‘other’ rituals, in the end it’s perfectly coherent that the sacred be, by its very nature, incognoscible, ‘other’. This is what we are looking for. Are we surprised by the durations of a tempo which we are unable to count? It’s part of the sacred, of the ‘dépaysement’ that the sacred causes. We listen to this music and within its ritual we allow to be guided by the motion of the sacred. As in an initiation, we explore, for the first time, its forms. We capture, for the first time, its….

Utopia of contemporariness and memory of the world. Does the collision of these two coordinates satisfactorily define the quality of our listening? It’s one of the possible ways to receive the gamelan in our world. With our exercise we have tried to sketch out the contour of a figure, the founding elements of a double movement – most delicate, elusive – which this music seems to evoke. A tension:

towards the origin of time, of humans, of things,

towards the end of time, of humans, of things.

Some of us know that these two are just one. At the end of time: the beginning of time.


Pesindhen (female singers): Nyi Cendaniraras (including all macapat), Nyi Suparsih
Gerong (male chorus): Darsono (also bawa), Rustopo, Waridi
Gender and sulukan singer: Ibu Pringgo Hadiwiyono
Musicians of STSI Surakarta: Darno, Djoko Santosa, Hadi Boediono, Kuwat, Nyoman Sukerna, Rusdiyantoro, Sarno, Slamet Riyadi, Sugimin, Sukamso, Supardi, Suraji.
Music Coordinator: Joko Purwanto
Recordings made 6-7 May, 2004, in the Studio of STSI, playing the “ancient” gamelan of STSI. Sound Engineer: Iwan Onone
Musical Design, Mastering, and Photos:  John Noise Manis