Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis

Gamelan of Central Java – V. Gaya Yogyakarta


The Yogyanese style of Radio Republic Indonesia (RRI) Yogyakarta


To illustrate the music included in the present CD, we had the opportunity of calling upon one of the world-renowned Javanese musicians, Bapak Hardja Susilo. Pak Sus, as he is affectionately called in the international gamelan community, was born in Yogyakarta on December 3, 1934, at kampung Gedhong Tengen. At age 3, the whole family moved to kampung Ngadisuryan, inside the Sultan’s beteng (walled compound). Up to the break of WW II and the invasion of the Japanese, the Dutch Radio Station (MAVRO) was broadcasting from just across the street, and young Pak Sus was introduced to authentic Yogyanese uyon-uyon (gamelan “concert”), kethoprak (Javanese folk theatre), dhagelan (Javanese situation comedy), langen mandra wanara (Yogyanese style opera), wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre), and, by means of recordings, other kinds of music, including jazz. He learned to play gamelan at Prince Hangabehi’s residence and learned to dance at Prince Pudjokusumo’s and Prince Tedjokusumo’s residences. In 1958 he received an assistantship that took him to the United States, at UCLA, to study Western music and research method in Ethnomusicology, while teaching gamelan. He studied Solonese style initially with Bpk Wiranto, the principle of Konservatory Karawitan Surakarta, and later with Bpk Martopangrawit. In 1993, Pak Sus received the “Hadiah Seni” (Art Prize) from the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Republic of Indonesia “for extraordinary achievements in the field of the art of Karawitan”.

Having the contribution of such an important musician, with experience and knowledge of both the Javanese and the Western contexts, we thought of enlarging the scope of these notes, touching on general aspects of music appreciation and aesthetics. The discourse took the form  of an interview, so we present it as such. Bapak Hardja Susilo (BHS) answers the questions of John Noise Manis (JNM).

JNM – Do you feel that karawitan  (classical music of the refined style) could be better known and appreciated in the Western world?
BHS – I think that it would broaden the artistic horizon of Western musicians and music lovers.

JNM – What are the factors that can be an obstacle to a wider appreciation of karawitan by Western music lovers?
BHS – The main obstacle may be the fact that gamelan music employs tuning systems which are very different, as to be considered out of tune by those who have been deeply involved in Western music. The Javanese gamelan has a sound organization – pitch, rhythmic and melodic structures, stratified polyphony, etc. – which is foreign to Western music culture. Balinese gamelan, on the other hand, although it has many of the characteristics of the Javanese gamelan, presents features  that seem to make it more appealing to Western listeners. This reflects two contrasting aesthetic goals of two neighboring, related gamelan cultures. One aspect that hits me at the moment is the fact that Balinese music always seems to bring a message of urgency, one which requires our immediate attention.

JNM – Eckart Rahn, the founder of an American label company, summarizes as follows a situation that is not often recognized:

“What we call [Western] classical music concerns about ten percent of the world’s population, over perhaps the last 500 years. Asian musical traditions concern far more people and are thousands of years old. Yet the person who studies Austrian music of the past few centuries is a musicologist, while someone who studies these other classical traditions is almost derogatorily called an ethnomusicologist.”

How do you see this situation?

BHS – If you consider that the written study of music includes Gregorian Chant or even early Greek music, Western music has had a long history, much longer than 500 years. It has the advantage of the obsession of historians who documented every musical event that elsewhere may be considered insignificant. Outside the Western world, East Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures too have recorded some of their musical history. Unfortunately, Southeast Asian, Polynesian, African people were not as diligent when it comes to documenting their music. For this reason the study of their music is more akin to that of an ethnologist studying another culture. As for the term “ethnomusicology”, ethnomusicologists themselves are not satisfied with it, but they haven’t found one that is satisfactory.

JNM – Is it possible that the tendency by Western “gamelanists” to consider gamelan as something that needs to be played, and not just listened to, somehow keeps off lovers of music in general, in two ways — in the way that the general public may get the impression of an amateurish sort of activity, and in the way that a first-time listener in the West most likely will hear performances not quite authentically Javanese.
BHS – As you know, not everyone in Java can play gamelan. It is something to listen to, to enjoy. I think gamelan students would benefit more if they were less concerned with the “mechanics” of playing, and would listen more to the rasa of good gamelan ensembles.

JNM – In your essay “Toward an Appreciation of Javanese Gamelan” you state:  “….Thus, performing artists do not express personal feelings, but, rather, perform their personal interpretation of the tradition. “   Could you expand on this concept and possibly connect it to the crucial and elusive notion of rasa?
BHS – In other words, barring today’s practice of using gamelan for individual artistic expression, in performing their parts, Javanese musicians traditionally do not only consider whether they like them or do not like them, but also whether what they are doing would be acceptable to the tradition, to their fellow musicians, as well as to their teachers.

JNM – Martopangrawit, the musician and theorist who influenced the Javanese musical culture of the second half of the last century, stated: “Karawitan is a finished product”.  Does that mean that — while it is all right to write new compositions in the classical style (kreasi baru), and Western-style experimental music (gamelan kontemporer) — new renderings and modifications of classical pieces (gendhing rekreasi, for example changing the “orchestration” of a piece) should not be allowed?
BHS – I don’t know what he meant by that, as karawitan, properly performed, always changes. It is in fact a contemporary music, as it takes shape at that point in time. You improvise, “improve”, rearrange, and edit pieces as they go along. Rarely would two professional gamelan groups play the same piece exactly the same way. I would say it is a contemporary musical product. Gamelan already has the practice of changing instrumentation, some pieces may be performed soran (loud playing), klenengan (soft playing), klenyitan (using delicate instruments only), cokekan (street music employing whatever instruments are available), siteran (using primarily plucked string instruments), etc.  With regard to the present scene, I am very much hopeful in Mas Panggah’s [Rahayu Supanggah] generation. They are very competent traditional musicians, at the same time they are quite daring experimenters. Their strong traditional background, in their case, enhances their creativity. Their experiments lean more toward “good taste”.

JNM – Getting closer to the music of the present CD, which considerations does the programme bring to your mind?
BHS – For 20 years I lived across the street from the manor (Dalem Ngabehan) of Pangeran Hangebehi. The Prince was the older half brother of  the Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX. His gamelan was one of the best in Yogya. Even after the Radio Station was moved from Dalem Ngabehan, for many years RRI did their broadcasting of Uyon-uyon Monosuko on location, at Prince Hangabehi’s residence until his passing and the division of his wealth (in the late 70’s, or early 80’s?). Two of my younger brothers, Habib Bari and Mohamad Suhud, used to be RRI Yogya announcers. They both have hosted Uyon-uyon Monosuko for several years. The name of this radio programme (“Mana yang kamu suka”, or “whichever you like”, “by request”) triggers all kinds of memories.

Monosuko was one of the important venues to introduce new short fun compositions which were too short to be played alone. They would be connected to the end of some big pieces as parts of a medley. One of the steady menues and favourite items in the program was “Pangkur Jenggleng”, in which Pak Basiyo, the RRI comedian, would sing solo the song Pangkur. At the end of his phrasing the drummer would signal the saron to hit the last pitch of his phrase in the style of Sekaten, that is practically smashing the keys. Pak Basiyo would try to conform by ending his phrasing at the stroke of the saron. But the drummer with dead pan serious face would create a long, complicated and somewhat unpredictable drum cadence, frustrating Pak Basiyo and forcing him to gasp for breath, and messing up the phrasing of the song. The musicians and the audience would laugh at his frustration. In response he would roast the musicians, individually and collectively. In turn the audience and the other musicians would laugh at the butt of his jokes. Many times my brother Suhud would act as the straight man. Now Pak Basiyo would not only be frustrated by the musicians, but also by the announcer who intentionally would misunderstand him.

JNM – How would you describe the style of playing of RRI Yogya?
BHS – RRI Yogya musicians originated from three sources: the eight best Yogyanese court musicians, with strict Yogyanese style, headed by the great drummer Raden Wedono Larassumbogo, eight Pakualaman palace musicians, who performed in Solonese style, headed by Raden Ngabehi Tjokrowasito (Pak Tjokro), and eight musicians from Kepatihan of Yogyakarta. The latter was the residence of the Patih, the Sultan’s Prime Minister. Like the Kraton, Kepatihan too had their own musicians. One might say that their style is less uptight than the Yogya Kraton and Pakualaman. So, the RRI Yogya style is hybrid, particularly when they play klenengan, or soft style uyon-uyon. In addition, each karawitan center contributed two waranggono/pesinden and gerong (male singers).

JNM – How could we identify the essential differences in the musical styles of the two Courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, and of the two Palaces of Pakualaman and Mangkunegaran?
BHS – Musical styles change. The difference between uyon-uyon or klenengan style of RRI Yogya, Pakualaman, Mangkunegaran, Kasunanan in the late 20th century is at best vague. Yogya Kraton attempts to maintain what they think as Yogyanese style. I think what they are doing is attempting to perform Yogyanese style as it was before WWII, emphasizing the elegance and majestic quality, while de-emphasizing the flirtatious, playful, and rowdy aspects of gamelan playing.  Even so, their current gender and rebab style seems to be Solonese based. The influence is not one way. According to Pak Wiranto, the Solonese kendhangan for ladrang irama one (that is, the drumming of a particular “tempo” in a particular musical form) is Yogya derived. According to Pak Marto, Solonese musicians often salvage Yogyanese inventions involving treatments and dynamics which the Yogyanese musicians don’t remember of having. Today the difference between Yogya-Solo style is still clear when they accompany dance and wayang kulit. One particular stylistical feature has become increasingly evident: the delay of the ensemble after the last stroke of the gong has become farther and farther away.  This is particularly true in the Solonese style, the RRI Yogya style, and any gamelan  clubs which emulate this practice. This is perhaps an attempt to give an impression of refinement, but it has gone quite a bit farther than I would prefer.

JNM – As you know, the programme of the RRI Yogya performance had to be heavily reduced from its original two-hour duration, and the cuts I made reflect my own (Western biased) aesthetics. You or another Javanese might have made different choices. Such fact being given, would you let us have your comments on the single pieces included in the present CD.
BHS – The PEMBUKA is the signature music of RRI Yogya, especially for cultural programmes which are accompanied by the ensemble Kesenian Jawa RRI Yogyakarta. The sung text greets the listeners that are pleased to hear RRI Yogya and includes the motto “Sekali di Udara Tetap di Udara” (in Javanese: Sepisanan ngantariksa tetep mantep ing wiyati). In English it could be translated as: “For long on the air, for ever on the air”.

I have never heard Gendhing soran UNDUK performed. This is the first time. The style of the bonang barung, bonang panerus, and bonang panembung, are Yogyanese, carefully avoiding some of the typically Solonese patterns. The ketipung (small drum) part in irama one is typically Solonese. The more orthodox Yogyanese style would be on the off beat, like the kethuk (punctuating instrument) in lancaran form.

Track 3 of the CD is curious, as we actually barely hear the main item, Madyaratri. We just hear the tail end of it, to be continued to the ladrang. This then continues without transition to the last two lines of rambangan Pangkur Paripurna before continuing to rambangan Pangkur Dhudha Kasmaran in slendro miring. At the end of which it proceeds to Playon slendro sanga. This portion is a fragment of Langen Mandra Wanara, in which Rahwana demands that the messenger Gohmuka hand the letter to prime minister Prahastha. But obviously the drummer did not pay attention to the content of the lyrics. So at the end of the song the drummer led the ensemble to an agitated Playon, as if to accompany a fight scene.

The Yogyanese TUKUNG is interesting. I like it. Another way of distinguishing Yogyanese from Solonese performance is from the wiled level (detailed realization) of a piece of music on the balungan (“skeleton” melody). For example, one gaya (style) might use the gatra (measure) with notes 6 5 6 3, while the other plays 6 5 2 3; one gaya plays 6 5 3 2, the other 3 2 3 2; one plays – 7 6 -, the other 7 6 7 6; etc.  In the case of this recording, the gaya is further distinguished by the use of the panembung bonang, an obsolescent instrument in Yogya, which has been obsolete in Solo (Surakarta) for a long time, except in Sekaten ensemble. The panembung plays the abstraction of the gendhing (composition). Playing this abstraction was termed mbalung. This is done by striking on the even beats of the gatra, beat two and beat four. On beat four the panembung  would play the balungan note, on beat two the upper or lower neighbour note of the balungan note on beat four, avoiding repetitions and with no rests throughout.

PANGKUR JENGGLENG.  Jenggleng is an onomatopoeic adjective referring to the way the saron  play, resembling the clonk created by two train cars as they are connected. After the passing of Pak Basiyo, the comedian, Pak Ngabdul, one of the second generation Yogya RRI actors, takes over the assignment as the roasted comedian, with Mbok (“Ma”) Beruk as the straight person. Content of the dialogue: essentially thanking the fact that there is someone — i.e. you — who is showing interest in gamelan. They are hoping that the voice of the pesindhen would raise curiosity as to how she looks. The jenggleng hopefully would wake you up in case you fall asleep during the uyon-uyon. This is followed by PENUTUP, or closing. The text says, essentially: “Ladies and Gentlemen, farewell. We can only pray that Indonesia remain independent, prosperous, without dangerous interference.”

Bonang and music coordinator – Murwanto
Kendhang – Murjono
Gender – Pujo
Saron – Sutomo
Pesindhen – Nyi Mugini, Nyi Sri Rahayu, Nyi Kasilah
Bowo singer – Tumijan
Gerong – Pratiwibowo, Sukardi

Recording made 17 May, 2004, in the Studio of RRI Yogyakarta, using the Studio’s equipment
Musical Design, Mastering, and Photographs: John Noise Manis