Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis

GAMELAN OF CENTRAL JAVA – The Meditative Gender


The gender is the most refined and difficult-to-play instrument of the gamelan. When playing in the large gendhings (gamelan compositions) that use the full gamelan, its soft voice may seem to be overwhelmed by the other – often louder – instruments. Yet, especially for the Javanese, a gamelan performance without the gender is decidedly less rich. While the untrained ear might not notice, a Javanese musician would instantly discern the lack of the murmuring mellifluousness and modal guidance of the gender. For this writer, the gender may be best appreciated in the small (reduced) gamelan gadhon, as an accompaniment to the voice in sung poetry (macapat or bawa), as an evocative background during certain parts of the narration of wayang kulit (leather puppet shadow-theatre), or even as a solo instrument in its own right. The gender lends itself beautifully to the expression of feelings. The result is a reflective type of playing – and listening.

As a physical object the gender is characterised by its slender bronze keys suspended over pitched resonators – these make the sound smooth and long-lasting. It is played with two soft-padded disc-shaped mallets, one for each hand. By supple movements of the wrists, each hand must simultaneously hit a note and damp the preceding one.

The gender family comprises three instruments: the gender proper, or gender barung, covering over two octaves; the gender panerus, covering the same span in a higher pitch range; the slenthem or gender panembung, a one-octave instrument in the lowest pitch range, played with one mallet only and employed in a musical role of its own (it plays the balungan or skeleton melody).

The musical content of the present CD was designed having in mind two important aspects of the gamelan music of Central Java: the “expression of feelings” and the “way to meditation”. So stated, the intent does not seem too complicated from our Western point of view. We understand and use these terms rather easily – possibly too easily. But, from the Javanese point of view, the context and the background are much deeper and far-reaching. We need here to bring-up and get closer to some notions that are fundamental to Javanese philosophy, religion, and aesthetics. Sounds quite engaging – and so it is. But let us try to report essential statements from people that have investigated these subjects. And if not enough clarifying, these notes could be a stimulus for further search on the part of the interested reader/listener.


Rasa and the inner world

Gamelan instruments, compositions, and music theory have all been implicated in mystical beliefs linked to Tantrism and Sufism. Certain pieces are believed to be spiritually powerful – even dangerous. Gamelan performances are at times used for meditation. Playing – or listening to – a gamelan is a spiritual discipline, not just mere amusement. There is much behind the Central Javanese theory and practice of traditional music. We need to add that, unfortunately, times are achanging there too.

The original religion of Java was animistic. Then the long Hindu-Buddhist period influenced the island from the second century down to the fifteenth century, when Islam gradually was introduced, cohabiting with the preceding spiritual worlds. For the Javanese still influenced by the Hindu-Buddhist world, subjective experience presents a microcosm of the universe. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz (“The Interpretation of Cultures – Selected Essays”, Basic Books, New York 1973) provides the following considerations.

In the depths of the interior fluid world of thought-and-emotion, they [the Javanese] see reflected ultimate reality itself. This inward-looking type of worldview is best expressed in a concept the Javanese have borrowed from India and peculiarly reinterpreted: rasa.

Rasa has two primary meanings: “feeling” and “meaning”. As “feeling” it is one of the traditional Javanese five senses – seeing, hearing, talking, smelling, and feeling. But feeling includes within itself three aspects of “feeling” that our view of the five senses separates: taste on the tongue, touch on the body, and emotion within the hearth.
As “meaning” rasa is applied to the words in a letter, in a poem, or even in common speech to indicate the between-the-lines type of indirection and allusive suggestion that is so important in Javanese communication and social intercourse.

Rasa is the same as life for the Javanese; whatever lives has rasa and whatever has rasa lives.
By taking rasa to mean both “feeling” and “meaning”, the more speculatively inclined among the Javanese have been able to develop a highly sophisticated phenomenological analysis of subjective experience to which everything else can be tied. Because fundamentally “feeling” and “meaning” are one, the ultimate religious experience taken subjectively is also the ultimate religious truth taken objectively – and empirical inward perception yields a metaphysical outward reality. In this context, the characteristic way in which human action comes to be considered, from either a moral or an aesthetic point of view, is in terms of the emotional life of the individual who experiences it. The more refined one’s feeling, then the more profound one’s understanding, the more elevated one’s moral character, and the more beautiful one’s external aspect, in behaviour, speech, and so on. The management of the individual’s emotions becomes, therefore, his primary concern. Both religion and ethics, both mysticism and politesse point to the same end: a detached tranquillity which is proof against disturbance from either within or without. A tranquillity that in India would be gained by a retreat from the world and from society, but in Java must be achieved while in it.

Rasa is a key term for understanding the particular emphasis on aesthetic appreciation and its meaning of “sense perception” according to Tantric teachings. The refinement of this perception can lead to a heightened state of consciousness and a dissolving of the boundaries between oneself and the thing perceived.
Judith Becker, renowned ethnomusicologist at the University of Michigan, in “Gamelan Stories: Tantrism, Islam, and Aesthetics in Central Java” (Arizona State Univ. Press, 1993), brings also the Islamic component into the artistic-gnosiological-religious picture. She writes as follows.

In Tantric thought and in Sufism religious knowledge is to be gained through the careful and systematic development of one’s spiritual faculties through meditation. The special Tantric emphasis lies in the formulations that the spiritual quest is individual and not congregational, meditative and not devotional, body-centered, inward, and immanent, not transcendent.By now completely intertwined, Tantric and Sufi mysticism are still a strong force in contemporary Javanese society. Although persisting without a label, Tantric ideas continue to inform not only kebatinan (mystical sect) practices, but also their reflexes and reflections in the stories told about the performing arts.

Judith Becker finds Tantric elements in gamelan and gamelan music. And reporting from a 1984 work by Sastrapustaka (“Knowledge of Gamelan Revealed”) she tells the esoteric meanings of the tones of the gamelan, their connections with cakra, the relevance of rasa. Also, from another work by Soerachman, she reports, on one hand, a Tantric doctrine advocating the use of gamelan music as a yantra for meditation and, on the other, a Sufi interpretation of the “sound of the gamelan touching the heart” in the context of sama, which is the focused listening for the purpose of attaining fana, or the experience of loss of self-hood in union with God.


Rasa and the playing of gender

In the context of gamelan music, rasa refers to the feelings of the playing musician(s) and to the communication of the emotive qualities of the music to the listener. In a Javanese gamelan performance – and of course this is also true in the case of a classical performance in India, where the notion originated – rasa is the element which cannot be defined, but which needs to be present for the satisfying completion of the event.

Although rasa rests essentially with the musical composition and the performer’s interpretation, this writer cannot help thinking that certain instruments of the gamelan are more “rasa-amenable” than others. The gender, the human voice, and the rebab (the two-stringed bowed instrument of Arab origin) are particularly “versed” in the expression of feelings. And when played solo, such instruments are especially inducive of an intimate type of meditative state. I should take here the opportunity to remark that this CD is not meant to be “a CD for meditation”, but rather a selection of examples of the more intimately reflective side of gamelan music.

Gender, voice, and rebab are all present in this CD, but the gender has a predominant place. It is presented both in solo and in small ensembles. The gender-solo pieces offer an interesting two-way presentation – some are performed by a male musician and others by a female musician.

The “gender” issue concerning gender playing has been the subject of a PhD Dissertation (“Female-style Genderan and the Aesthetics of Central Javanese Wayang”, New York University, 1998) by the ethnomusicologist Sarah Weiss (who is also providing a critical analysis in this booklet). From that source we shall draw some interesting observations and insights.

In her field notes dated years earlier than the final dissertation, Sarah Weiss writes:

“When Ibu Pringga plays the gender [….] she plays in what is known as the female style or gaya perempuan. This female style of gender performance tends to be associated with the old and/or village style of wayang performance. According to many Central Javanese musicians, the female style is different from what is commonly referred to as male style, gaya laki-laki, or, usually, simply genderan (that which is played on a gender). When I asked them to discuss the distinction between the male and female styles of gender performance, Central Javanese musicians often hypothesized that the differences stem from the simple fact that women are women and men are men.”

The traditional context in which the female style can be best characterised is the shadow-puppet theatre (wayang kulit), particularly when the gender provides a background music to the recitation of the master of the show, the dhalang. In this situation the gender plays a particular type of rather free “continuum” known as grimingan. This is somewhat different from pathetan, the highly expressive solo “recitativo” connected with the large gamelan compositions. And it is certainly different from the parts that the gender plays within gamelan compositions. Writes Sarah Weiss:

“Grimingan is the music which conveys the rasa of the words of the dhalang. In a sense grimingan is pure rasa, as yet unmitigated and untainted by articulated rules or theory.  [….] Grimingan melodies exist in the mind of the performer.  [….] Nearly every player I interviewed described grimingan as a process whereby the gender player merely followed the feeling of the scene [of the wayang theatre]. In response to a question asking her what she thought about when playing grimingan [the lady player] made the point that it sometimes felt that her hands were finding what to play by themselves. [….] Ibu Pringga described grimingan, functionally, as simply the melodies played on the gender to accompany the dhalang when he was speaking so that if he needed to sing he would not come in on the wrong note.”

This last description has the flavour of an ironical understatement on the part of Ibu Pringga, the lady player with a strong personality and outstanding artistry whose grimingan piece is included in this CD.


Male vs. female style of playing the gender

Now, it seems that male musicians are not that good at playing grimingan, while they can certainly be quite good at playing the gender in the context of gamelan compositions. Weiss elaborates extensively on the dichotomy male-female in gender playing, and it is unfortunate that we cannot report properly about her analysis – which is musical, historical, and sociological. Let us attempt to summarise schematically the two ways of playing the gender – male and female – which, in this CD, can be heard in the performances of, respectively, Bapak Djoko Raharjo and Ibu Pringga.

The male style of playing tends to be strong, relatively orderly, somewhat edgy, using interruptions. Female style, on the other hand, tends to be soft, apparently disorderly, fluid, flowing continuously. Male playing is viewed as an urban or court style; female playing is supposed to represent the village style. Men play with the mind (akal), refer to some codification of musical forms, may be seen as improvising within a mode (pathet). Women play with the spirit (jiva), their melodies and structures being determined by the performance context and their personal style.

To this two-way schematization derived from the work of Sarah Weiss, this writer would add a further labelling suggested by the performances included in this CD, and using two Western musical terms: toccata and fantasia. The Oxford Dictionary has the following definitions: toccata “is a composition intended to exhibit the touch and technique of the performer, and having the air of an improvisation” while fantasia “is a composition having the appearance of being extemporaneous; a composition in a style in which form is subservient to fancy”. The two terms seem to suit the perceivable musical result of the performances by Bapak Raharjo and Ibu Pringga, respectively.


A critical review
by Sarah Weiss

Sarah Weiss is Assistant Professor and Director of Gamelan Nyai Saraswati at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She has been living and engaging in research in Java since 1990. She is currently finishing a book on aesthetics and gender performance in Central Java entitled “Listening to an earlier Java”.

The gender is played in nearly every musical grouping heard in Central Java. It is, however, rarely used as a solo instrument, and that is one aspect that makes this CD unique.

While most gender players who perform today are male, the tradition of playing the gender during wayang performances is one that was once primarily the domain of female musicians. Often the wife or close family member of the dhalang performed as his primary accompanist on the gender. Traditionally, a dhalang’s gender player was his constant companion. Many dhalang today recount stories of their dhalang fathers and grandfathers who traveled around Java with their popular gender-playing wives or sisters often performing every night, in urban and village settings, during festival months and the dry season. These female players performed in a style that was felt to capture the spirit and mood or rasa of a dhalang’s words.

It is interesting that the style of gender performance now called the female style is also called village style or old style. Indeed, while many performers agree it used to be the case that all gender players performed in what is today known as the female style, the popularity of that style has declined in favor of what is now called male style or city style which, as the name suggests, is performed primarily by men and students trained in the court and conservatory schools. As Javanese performance traditions gradually came to be centered in the Javanese courts – and now the urban music conservatories – the status of the village and older traditions began to diminish. Although some Javanese rulers once insisted on having female gender players in their entourages, by the end of the twentieth century many female gender players perform only in the rural areas. In light of the decline of female performers and female-style genderan it is ironic that many true aficionados of wayang and gender performance still insist that it is only female performers playing in the old or female style who can evoke the true rasa of a wayang story in sound.

This CD offers the listener the opportunity to hear two of the best gender players, male or female, working in and around Surakarta today. Ibu Pringga is one of the most respected female players still performing. She is often asked to play in the Kraton palace and regularly performs with groups at the radio station in Surakarta as well as with many dhalang. Bapak Joko Raharjo is a dhalang himself and has worked with many gender players. He is well-respected as a gender player originally learned to play the gender from some of his female relatives. On this CD, Bapak Joko Raharjo and Ibu Pringga are each heard performing the piece Jineman Uler Kambang. Although they are in different scales, this pairing allows the listener to hear the same piece played in both the male and the female styles (tracks 6 pelog and 10 slendro, respectively). To help the listener discern the aesthetic differences, Javanese ears hear the female style as being more continuous, decorated, and flowing, while they hear the male style as being more precise with respect to modal interpretation because they tend to use fewer ornamental notes. There are more than a handful of pieces in the Javanese repertory that can be played in either scale and in several of the modes.

The aesthetics of Javanese singing are distinguished not only by gender but by also by affect – refined, flirtatious, sombre, contemplative, etc. The listener can sample female and male versions of refined singing on three tracks (3, 5, and 7). Two types of traditional Javanese singing are heard here: macapat (tracks 3 and 5) and bawa (track 7).  Macapat involves the singing of poetry in literary verse either with or without musical accompaniment. In this case, the listener has the opportunity to hear the extraordinary solo voice of Nyi Cendaniraras sing two verses of the poetic meter pangkur in the mode of pelog nem. Usually sung by a male vocalist, a bawa often introduces a full-ensemble piece. In this case, the velvety solo sung by Bapak Darsono begins a suite of selections in the slendro scale.

On this CD the listener will hear the gender played by itself and in a small, specialized ensemble of instruments called gadhon. The term gadhon comes from the Javanese verb ngado that means to nibble or snack on prepared food – meat or vegetables – without rice. The analogy compares the instruments that play the basic melody in a large gamelan ensemble to rice, and those that play the elaborating improvisatory parts – the instruments of the smaller gadhon ensemble – to the spicy, sweet delicacies that one eats with rice in Central Java.

The one traditional context in which the gender is heard alone is in the performance of grimingan, the music that is used to accompany the dhalang or puppeteer when there is no other music required during the eight hours of the performance of a wayang or shadow play. In this context the gender keeps the mood of the moment in the ear and heart of the audience and helps the dhalang maintain his sense of the flow of the story over the course of the night. The example of grimingan presented here (track 8) is from the middle section of an all-night wayang during the build up to the second major battle of the evening, the flower battle ( prang kembang). As in its usual performance context this grimingan flows into an ada-ada which is used just prior to emotional, often angry or threatening, conversations between warriors. The listener can hear Ibu Pringga move from the more improvisational grimingan to the ada-ada as the tempo becomes more regular with clearly defined melodic phrases.

On this CD the gender is heard playing both unmetered pathetan or mood songs (track 1) – often performed with several other instruments and a singer – and gendhing or pieces with fixed tempi and gong structure (2, 4, 6, 9, and 10) in which the full gamelan ensemble might be heard. The alternation between unmetered pathetan or vocal works and metered gendhing is usual when Javanese music is played in most performance contexts. Likewise an alternation between scales is usual. Both of the Javanese scales, the five-tone slendro (tracks 4, 7, 8, 9, 10) and the seven-tone pelog (tracks 1, 2, 3, 5, 6), are heard on this recording. Although it has seven tones, in practice pieces in pelog rarely use more than five or six tones.

The four gendhing offered here reveal both the contemplative and playful sides of the Javanese musical imagination.  Ketawang Pangkur Ngrenas (track 2) is a deceptively simple yet extremely refined work, the proper performance of which requires utmost concentration only attainable by the most mature and thoughtful of musicians.  Gendhing Lalermenggeng (track 9) is a song of remembrance and longing. In performance, the singer and rebab (two-stringed spiked fiddle) player borrow notes from another scale (miring). The sound of these alternative notes in the context of the slendro scale evokes an aural experience of loss and lamentation. The harmoniousness of these dissonances highlights the poignancy of the gradual acceptance of loss that is part of the human experience. Jineman Uler Kambang is a playful song that describes the life of a caterpillar while simultaneously giving advice to the human listener (tracks 6 and 10). Ladrang Gadhung Mlati has an interesting connection with the gender. The piece is a sacred song for the principle court of Surakarta and its coming to the court is intertwined 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 Bawana. 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 rulers 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 Bawana. 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 difficult piece, by all accounts rather quickly, and insisted once again that she be returned to the land of the Paku Bawana. 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 Bawana 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 and the possible dangerous ramifications of playing the piece without proper ceremony. 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.


Track 1 – 2:46Pathetan pelog lima Wantah. Gender Djoko Raharjo, well-known dhalang,narrator and puppeteer of traditional shadow-plays or wayang kulit.

Track 2 – 2:31 – Ketawang Pangkur Ngrenas, pelog lima. Gender Djoko Raharjo.

Track 3 – 1:55 – Macapat Pangkur, pelog nem (one strophe). Pesindhen (female vocalist) Nyi Cendaniraras. The macapat is a refined form of sung poetry, a whole world of humanand spiritual contents considered of the highest level of artistic expression. Macapat poems represent most Javanese literature written from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. Subject matters range from epic stories to religious teachings, to riddles, magic spells, and love songs. Here we hear single strophes of one of several existing compositions, as a sort of intermission in the gender program. A translation of the text of the strophe is as follows:

We set aside the needs of the self
For the pleasure of educating children
Through good songs,
Worded beautifully and with care,
So that they will learn the high knowledge
Prevailing on the island of Java
According to the religion of the Kings.

Track 4 – 11:15 – Ladrang Gadhung Mlati, slendro sanga. This sacred piece (the mythical story is recounted in the review by Sarah Weiss) is played here in a rarefied ensemble of only gender-type instruments, the ranges of which are cast in several octaves (gender barung, gender panerus, gender panembung or slenthem), and gong. The performers are faculty members of the Surakarta Conservatory (STSI).

Track 5 – 1:57 – Macapat Pangkur, pelog nem (one strophe). Nyi Cendaniraras. Translation of the text of this second strophe in pangkur meter is as follows:

It is written in the sacred text
So as to maintain sincerity in learning or seeking
Even old people
If they are not aware of rasa
They will be empty and tasteless as a chewed morsel
And when in social gathering
Their behaviour and words will be shameful.

Track 6 – 3:08 – Jineman Uler Kambang (the title literally means “the floating caterpillar”), pelog nem. Gender Djoko Raharjo.

Track 7 – 3:14 – Bawa Puspanjana, slendro sanga. Male vocal Darsono, gender Ibu Pringga. The bawa is a composition for solo male voice, often used as an introduction to large gendhings. This poetic form has ancient origins (tembang gedé or, literally,“large sung poems”) probably datable around the fifth century. It was used to communicate religious teachings and epics in Kawi, the ancestor language of modern Javanese. In present day bawa compositions, melodies and texts have changed to an indeterminable extent, and the language has been up-dated to modern Javanese, but mixed with a poetic language linked to old Javanese (which rather explains the difficulties of translations into another language). Anyway, a translation of the text of this rasa-filled bawa goes as follows:

O Lord, the object of my adoration is the most precious of women
The sweetest of flowers, the queen of the world;
Truly idolized, she is an example
For all women as the Flower of Mankind.

Track 8 – 5:02Grimingan and Ada-Ada, slendro sanga. Gender Ibu Pringga. The player is one of the outstanding living musicians embodying the female style of gender playing. We were fortunate to be able to record her performance and admire her strong personality and vitality, which seem unaffected by age. Grimingan is the somewhat improvised, beautifully flowing, deeply felt music already discussed in the notes. Ada-Ada is a more structured type of music for rather animated situations in a wayang performance.

Track 9 – 10:31 – Gendhing Lalermenggeng, slendro sanga. Gamelan gadhon (gender, rebab, female vocalist, kenong, gong). Players are faculty members of the Surakarta Conservatory (STSI), with Nyi Cendaniraras pesindhen. This gendhing is particularly revered by the Javanese as a remembrance piece. It has a particular characteristic in its intonation: although it is in the 5-tone slendro scale, it makes use of extra notes for the pesindhen and the rebab (miring) which change the tonal perception, adding elements of lament and longing.

Track 10 – 3:32 – Jineman Uler Kambang, slendro sanga. Gender Ibu Pringga. Another outstanding performance by the venerable lady of the gender. The piece is the same as the one played on track 6, but on a different laras (scale) and pathet.


Recordings made in Surakarta in 1998, 2001, and 2002
Musical Design, Notes, and Photographs: John Noise Manis