Collections of themed recordings curated by John Noise Manis

GAMELAN OF CENTRAL JAVA  –  XIV.  Ritual Sounds of Sekaten


Islam came to Indonesia from South India, brought by merchants. Because its original sense for the external conditions of life had been weakened and turned inward by Indian mysticism, Islam did not clash with the mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism which had been the religious context of the Indonesians for almost fifteen centuries.

Sumarsam in his book ‘Gamelan – Cultural Integration and Musical Development in Central Java‘ (1995) writes (p. 6):  “Sufism dominated the early Islamization of Java. This helped older Javanese traditional performing arts to endure and develop, since Sufism believes in the power of music as a conduit for the union of man with God. This positive stance of Sufism toward music encouraged the development of Javanese and Islamic music. There is even evidence that these two musics interacted, contributing to the development of Javanese gamelan and to the Javanization of Islamic terbang (frame drum) music.”

Further insights and correlations are brought by Judith Becker in her book  ‘Gamelan Stories: Tantrism, Islam, and Aesthetics in Central Java‘ (1993) (p. 3):

“The Tantric way of thinking about and using music and dance in ritual and meditation was widely known and practiced in medieval Java (eighth through sixteenth centuries). On looking closely at the verses about gamelan music in the 19th century Central Javanese court poem Serat Centini, it occurred to me that it was possible to interpret those passages either as an extention of medieval Tantric aesthetics or as an example of the Sufi Muslim practice sama, attainment of union with Allah through the use of music. Either the Tantric lens or the Sufi lens brought coherence and cogency to an otherwise obscure passage.  Another twentieth-century document, Larasing Gendhing by Soerachman, likewise lent itself to either a Tantric or a Sufi interpretation. It began to appear that in regard to aesthetic beliefs, particularly in regard to the role of gamelan music and religion, the Tantrics and the Sufis held similar beliefs and that the gradual replacement of Sufi Islam for the earlier Tantric Shaivism and Tantric Buddhism would, as far as beliefs concerning gamelan music were concerned, have been relatively untraumatic. The aesthetic discourse of the medieval Tantrics and the later Sufis becomes inseparable in some nineteenth- and twentieth-century stories, while in others either the Muslim or the Tantric emphasis is more clear. [….]  Although Islamic terminology is often found in gamelan stories today, and Islamic doctrines, particularly Sufi doctrines, have become an important part of contemporary aesthetic dialogue, the influence of Islam alone cannot account for the religious ethos of Javanese court arts. In the continuing dialogue and interpenetration between Islam and Javanese performance traditions, many pre-Islamic genres in Java (such as the gamelan sekati) have been reinterpreted and incorporated into the realm of Javanese Islamic music.”

Sekaten is a week-long religious Islamic festivity falling in the month of Mulud of the Javanese calendar (the Javanese year is eleven days shorter than the Western one). Ceremonies in Surakarta, Yogyakarta, and Cirebon (on the north coast) celebrate the birth and death of the Prophet Mohammed. And in Central Java the gamelan takes a very special sound – the powerful and mystical sound of the four gamelan sekati – two each in the courts of Surakarta and Yogyakarta. The liner notes of two other volumes in the present series of recordings – Vol. II ‘Ceremonial Music’ and Vol. IV ‘Spiritual Music’ – have general information and details related to the sekaten gendhings that are included in those CDs.
In his article ‘The Musical Practice of Gamelan Sekaten‘ (Asian Music, XI-2, 1981, p. 54) Sumarsam writes:

“Javanese sources attribute the origin of Gamelan Sekaten to the nine holy men (Wali Sanga), advisors to the first Sultan of Demak, the 16th century Islamic kingdom. However Kunst [the renowned Dutch ethnomusicologist] suggests that the sekaten ensemble had already existed for Hindu ceremonial music before the arrival of Islam in Java. Consistent with its important function of accompanying the holy religious week, the sekaten ensemble is considered sacred, a pusaka (heirloom). A procession must be made when the instruments are moved from the Kraton to the courtyard of the Mosque. Offerings must be provided and flowers are often sprinkled on the instruments. During the performances, incense is constantly burnt before the gong ageng.  The sekaten ensemble consists only of loud sounding instruments which are suitable for playing in open halls and for being heard from afar. The size of the instruments is about three times bigger than that of the regular gamelan. Mallets and hammers are consequently big and heavy, including buffalo horns weighted on the striking head with lead. The tuning of the sekaten ensemble is the seven-tone pelog, and the pitches are much lower than those of usual ensembles. There are only two compositions, ‘Rambu’ and ‘Rangkung’, that are believed to have been composed especially for the sekaten ensemble.”

The pieces in the Sekaten repertoire generally last from 13 to 18 minutes and have a constant musical pattern. They start rather softly and extremely slowly in a free tempo style (racikan), with special punctuation provided by the loud strokes of the bedhug (double-barrel drum). At various points the music increasingly picks-up speed and loudness and eventually gets to the greatest fortissimo imaginable. After the climax, both tempo and sound subside to the final gong strike. The energy generated during the crescendo produces a total experience – musical, physical, spiritual. It is also a challenge to the ears (and to microphones), particularly if you sit inside the pavilion. The playing is very demanding on the musicians. These are usually the best from the Kraton: they carry out the task as a religious and honourable service. At the end of the long sekaten day (from 10 a.m. to midnight) these men maintain solemn postures and gratified expressions, with eyes often closed. It would be difficult to distinguish spiritual ecstasy from physical exhaustion.

In this CD the sekaten gendhing ‘Rangkung’ (from Rokhun, Great Soul) is played twice. Once in the performance of the gamelan sekati Guntur Madu (Honeyed Thunder) of Kraton Surakarta, the other in the quite different and much longer performance on gamelan sekati Guntur Madu of Kraton Yogyakarta. The composition is understood to have been composed by Sunan Kalijaga himself. Musically, it has the interesting feature of presenting the first appearance of a playing technique called imbal – two instruments (demung) playing one on the beat, the other off the beat (metaphorically heard as two spirits, jim Rambu and jim Rangkung, talking to each other).

We then turn to the third and last piece included in the present CD. Let us refer to the Wédha Pradangga (Sacred Knowledge about Gamelan). This ‘massive work’ was written around 1972-79 by R. T. Warsodiningrat, translated by Susan Pratt Walton and included in the three-volume ‘Karawitan – Source Readings in Javanese Gamelan and Vocal Music’ (1987) edited by Judith Becker. In the refreshing review of this fundamental three-volume resource made by Ben Brinner (Ethnomusicology, Winter 1990), Warsodiningrat’s work is presented as  “essentially a chronologically ordered list of lists […] on composition and recomposition of gamelan music, song, and dance accompaniment. A conservative work based largely on the orally transmitted histories of Solonese palace circles […] it offers an excellent opportunity to study the conceptualization of the past among Javanese musicians in the early 20th century. The historical validity and utility of the information would appear to become less problematic as the book leaves the mists of  the distant past and approaches the period of the author’s own extensive life experience, but those who read this text will need to come to terms with the internal contradictions and with the problem of evaluating the writings of a court servant aiming to glorify his patron.”

The Wédha Pradangga (Karawitan II, p. 37):  “In the year 555 Saka [633 A.D.] Prabu Basukèsthi of Wiratha decided to create a rebana ensemble to imitate the musical instruments played by holy men who meditate. The holy men Resi, Sewa, Sogata [Shaivites and Buddhists] were ordered to create this ensemble, which consisted of six instruments: bendhé, gentha, kekelèng, terbang, kenthongan, angklung. This was the origin of the angklung [ensemble].”

Further on (Karawitan II, p. 125 and following) we read that Sinuhun Paku Buwana V (ruler of Surakarta, 1820-23) composed many gendhings and among them 70 (!) gendhing terbang.  Then the author of Wédha Pradangga continues:  “Still more gendhing terbang were composed. Only the most important gendhing appear here. Eventually the gendhing terbang mentioned above disappeared and were almost lost. Then, during the time and under the auspices of Susuhunan Paku Buwana X (1893-1939), Kangjeng Ngéndra Prastha [Sastradiningrat IV, prime minister and a great sponsor and revitalizer of the arts] planned to revive these gendhing terbang.”

Only certain musicians and court servants retained a certain knowledge of the gendhing terbang. They constituted a study group, made researches in various directions, and rehearsed assiduously (around the beginning of the 20th century)  “until they were able to play them. They then performed these gendhing in the kepatihan [prime minister’s residence], where they were told that a kemanak should be added to enhance their beauty and to provide steadiness for the irama. Then these gendhing terbang were called santi swara. Not only were they revived as santi swara but sekar ageng and tengahan were revived as well, because gendhing santi swara were preceded by buka using sekar ageng and tengahan. The plan to revive gendhing terbang worked well. Gendhing santi swara and their associated sekar [solo vocal introduction] are flourishing to this day and can be heard everywhere.”  Together with santi swara, another type of gendhing terbang was created, called laras madya, where melodies and texts are sekar macapat verses taken from the book Wulang Rèh, written by Paku Buwana IV (1788-1820).


The Sweetness of Thunder, the Power of Honey
by Philip Corner

Philip Corner, a composer born in the Bronx in 1933 from where he escaped to frequent the cultural scene of downtown Manhattan to which he made notable contributions from the late 50s until his voluntary removal to Italy in 1972.  An open-mindedness, evidenced early in his music studies, led him to participate in the formation of the new-music gamelan ensemble “Son Of Lion” (1975) when he was a professor at Rutgers University.  Many subsequent trips to Indonesia saw numerous concerts and collaborations in Java, Bali, Sumatera Utara, and Timor Timur.  There are several recordings of some of the hundreds of compositions in the gamelan series, as well as numerous transcriptions for piano which he has performed himself.  All such scores are available from the American Gamelan Institute.

Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach dedicated his sonatas to Conoisseurs and Music-lovers. In that spirit I approach this music of which I know nothing but love a lot, hoping that that is a sort of understanding.
Gamelan! From the first note you know what world we are in. Wonderful yet somewhat weird, these melodies played by metal. They cannot make a legato and yet there is effective continuity. Of course one knows what to expect after that first bong on the gong that opens the buka (I leave it to some expert to explain the technical terms).
One Note Once would be enough. (I have done that. Full disclosure: I am a composer and have been given not only permission to mention my work but the charge to do so.)
Yet it will go on… you can be sure that the world will too, that life will continue. And you too.
So while we wait that single tone tones away into its silence––our silence.

A drum goes with that. A big one. It too is percussion, of course; and so in-the-family, but still poles apart. Not nearly so long in resonance yet nevertheless a grand thud, impressive for a piece of stretched skin. Unlike familiar rhythm sections it does not serve propulsion through time, preferring to stop it at a point. Which however does not cancel it for our ears––it goes forward by suspended expectation. And so, like the big gongs, no matter the duration of these silences, they are infinite.
All this exceptionally clear in the second cut of this new record.

This text is hard! Like the extra-heavy mallets coming down on outsized keys.
Sekaten. Sacred ensembles. (Well taken. But could they be more so than Music itself?)
Not, surely, just because dedicated to the Muslim rite. You do not have to be a Lutheran to like Bach; nor is Palestrina only for Roman Catholics.
It is rather the fact of dedication.
And it may go on all day!
You can hear it even if you do not listen.
And it helps that it is reserved only for this.

Now, after that initial tone-of-eternity. Where to go on.
Well they could just stay on it, as in Gangsaran––not going anywhere!
How I used to love to ‘gamel’ away in our group on that piece of transcendental violence; but which is only an all-purpose introduction.

The Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi seems to have become the avatar of a new music which renounces the distractions of motion in melody-space, in favor of a concentrated penetration into the interiority of a tone itself. (I am with him there.)
Not that such has been completely unknown to us here in Europe…: the endless pealing of a bell at noon in Paris, for instance––seemingly to no purpose other than affirming its millenial existence––a sonic parallel to the abstract art existing for centuries in marble and mosaic, parts of walls or floors in cathedral and palaces, and equally so insufficiently appreciated as a fully æsthetic quality.

Two notes alternating is another way forward. Like frogs do, imitated in Kodok Ngorek. Which even has a jazzy syncopation.
Carabalen (my favorite) starts off orthodox enough:––its 4 notes positively Baroque in this context. But wait…. the melody settles down to two notes; alternation in regular rhythm.
A slow trill, in effect. But do listen to the soft part behind it. There are the four notes still there, as an ostinato (where you might be attentive to subtle changings).
Yes professor, there is counterpoint.
What a great idea! An orchestra whose entire repertoire is one piece.
And that piece is only played on those instruments. Which are never moved.
And maybe only once a year.
Munggang (not “Moon Gang”, please) actually plays three notes. In a four-note pattern curiously similar to the “Alberti bass” familiar from the classical period in the West.
This modestly sensuous music can be taken out of the palace; I have a recording where it preludes a wedding ceremony. In which case the pitch-intervals are changed; the identical pattern though keeps it recognizable. I might even here confess my preference for that other version, closer to the way we played it in the New York gamelan ensemble “Son Of Lion”, and what I may––I want to some day––use as the basis for a modest improvisation.
Many years ago, as a young musician, one of my compositions was praised for its “sovereign slowness”. But I never wrote anything like this!
But when a fortunate opportunity came to actually be able to write for the gamelan instruments themselves, because Barbara Benary had come to Livingston College of Rutgers University to build a set and form the Asian Music Performing Group, my first piece did share in such profound seriousness that it came to be called, in Java, “that long slow piece”.

There was no attempt to be derivative. The instruments themselves showed the way.
A wonderful concept, this of a tuning so permittedly variable that each particular gamelan group may be recognized for its own special flavor, by its own individual tuning. A good corrective for our factory produced uniformities. Something a little bit similar used to be, even with us, in the varieties of tuning systems co-existing in the past; or the different tuning standard in different cities. (From this perspective, Bach did us no favors.)
To be sure, the invention of 12-tone gamelans might make some kinds of new music possible; imagine a 12-tone kreasi baru! ––a “Dodecaphonism of the Islands”. (Or Amsterdam).
But for me (as for Lou Harrison) the existence of these anomalous world-unique tunings are precisely among the things which can save our own music. After the revolutionary opening to the whole world of sound (attributed primarily to John Cage) we do still have to have a need sometimes for some limits, like scales to continue knowing what we are singing. But––to fall back simply and complacently as “post-modern” composers have done, into the same old patterns we had once transcended! This bespeaks of complacency, cowardice even, which does not bode well for the future of culture.
What am I doing talking about these pieces which are not even on this CD? I’d like to make some publicity for Volume II of Johnny Sweetsound’s Gamelan of Central Java series for Felmay Records. There are two Sekaten pieces on it too, and everything marvelous.

Take a look now at the material from which these tones are made. Or, better, listen to them. Such fascinating simplicity could never have come from a dull thud. Metal! That is what it is, and innate vibrancy so rich that it permits––rather, requires––the stretching of time inherent in this style. I wonder, is it cause or effect of the spirituality innate in this culture?
A similar phenomenon might be noticed in music for harpsichord: a general tendency to be comprised of simpler textures than that of the piano, respecting the greater resonant fullness within plucked strings.
That applies too to the tuning itself, the scales. The system (if that it can be called, given that every gamelan set has, and is prized for, its special quality which is in part provided by its tuning––within a broad agreement of types, of course: the slendro and pelog, always in a pair) has no counterpart anywhere in the world. It in no way conforms to the acoustics of vibrating strings and air-columns to which we are accustomed. Because metal just does not vibrate that way. (Listen closely to any church bell.) And that is why translations from other media, like the Dutch practice of playing 4-voice chorales from their carilons, sound ridiculous.

I had a good experience of the reverse when my concerto for harpsichord and gamelan was premiered at the Western music conservatory, in Yogyakarta. The harpsichord is carefully accorded with the pitches of the gamelan instruments. But from the moment it starts playing, solo, the notes seem odd. But then the ensemble enters, doubling in unison, and all sounds perfectly natural.
They say that the melodies, from one piece to the next, are difficult to distinguish. At least to the “Western ear”. Maybe so––but it doesn’t matter. Constancy is also a virtue. Was it in Africa (?) where a famous American string quartet was told, after playing the hell out of Beethoven, “We feel so sorry for you; because you have not found your note yet.”

If the same exact thing were played you would surely notice it. So a minimal variety is called for.
When I visited the Batak people in Northern Sumatra it seemed that every piece was the same. Not only the tunes but the rhythm and the instrumentation over and over again. This was confirmed by buying some recordings. A whole culture content with its one thing! I do not find that so bad.

Here is the antidote to a Pierre Boulez who can say, “For me, music is something more complex”.
Probably recent stylistic changes in modern music (some of it at least) with its extreme limitation of means and the consequent repetitiveness, have made this music more easily appreciated. But let none call it minimalism! (Better if no one called anything “minimalism”.)
And yet there can indeed be found in the music literature of the West some rare and precious examples of such things, even from hundreds of years ago. In this light you absolutely must listen to the Canzone Sacra sulla Nina Nonna by Tarquinio Merula .
Henceforth let them be exposed as closed-minded know-nothings those who still would reduce the 840 repetitions of Erik Satie’s Vexations to some kind of a joke.

A certain rhythmic regularity may have been noticed as well.
But do not say that I have told to listen for it! So in-being that it feels without any need to count. This “cradle of time” (irama) rocks unknowingly (to you; but not to it)….in a soft certainty. An unrelenting regularity that still feels like freedom.
Endlessly multiplying twos, it harmonizes dualities. It proves that the world in itself is order; so there goes the need to give orders.
Eventually we will be brought to the end (if there is ever to be one).
And here we meet the silence again. That same silence we heard at the beginning, which followed the first presence of sound. Here reversed. It comes first––after having finished the melody…. and we wait we know for what––and such certain expectation does not make us impatient––even if endured an eternity––which it seems to.

Comes the Gong. And all the other instruments next. On the same note. In what John Cage calls a “Korean unison” (only because he came to know it lately).
Actually you have been hearing it all along. This non-simultaneity is willed, wanted, a quality in all the music of Java. It makes a precision of imprecision, an exactitude of inexactitude, but necessarily within very strict conditions…, within a very narrow window of time.
And also a very great strictness of consciousness.
Good preparation for a Bruckner symphony.

This text is coming out of me slow as the music I am writing about. Let us see whether they too come to a climax.
Do not be afraid of crescendos! (There was––really!––a time when modern composers were.)
After all it cannot always stay in the same place; even if it is the same place. Levels will change anyway, Loud and soft, as things do––in any way. So, so must sounds. It would be the deliberate holding back which is a willful inhibition.

There is another thing which would have made such music “avant garde” at the beginning of the 20th Century––if it had not been existing long before––and that is its conception of harmony. One hears many vertical combinations of tones, but unlike in the West, these are not added out of an independent theoretical procedure; nor are they ever the determinant factor in the musical evolution. All simultaneously sounding quasi-chords are strictly derived from the melody’s progression, by either anticipating a note to come or prolonging one already past. The consequence is that any combination permitted by the system is possible, in equal measure. Nothing has to “resolve”, in the academic sense, but everything simply proceeds as the melody goes. Although this cannot count as “freedom” it does constitute a true “liberation of the system”.
We will find its sonic aspect closer to the French impressionist manner than to central European chromaticism and serialism. However, this does not mean (I do not believe it) that Debussy was actually influenced by his hearing of a gamelan.

The basic structural pattern, which in Bali is called “pokok” and “balungan” in Java, seems to be––but is not really––analagous to the European “cantus firmus”. Remember that the cantus was first a chant, Gregorian or whatever, and sung as autonomous unaccompanied melody. The added parts, as they accreted through history, were new melodic lines, conceived of as independent, which began to form those complicated webs we know as counter-point.

The oriental conception is other: true, that melodic structuring element, properly known as “bones”, may be conveniently taught as the start of learning a composition, and written down. Nowadays even in Indonesia they tend to teach that way. But that is really not where the essential tune is. Rather, it is part of an organism, a living entity whose bones have not grown independently but as part of the whole. Therefore it is inseparable, meaningless by itself, until completed by all the other body parts, until the “flowers”. Of course, these are all inter-related in a complex way, being variants of a single basic form, which the musicologists have called “heterophony”. This allows our cultural chauvinists to claim that they have no real counterpoint there. But to set against that, remember that Claude Debussy called it more subtle, more sophisticated than our own.

Dr. I Made Bandem, when he was director of the school (STSI) in Denpasar, said to me that the big difference between our cultures is that, after having performed, their artists go back into the audience.

No applause then at the end of these Sekaten revelations.

A quiet and profound attentiveness will do.

Reggio Emilia, April, 2010



1- Gendhing Sekaten RANGKUNG,  Gamelan Sekati Guntur Madu of Kraton Surakarta   13:58
2- Gendhing Sekaten RANGKUNG,  Gamelan Sekati Guntur Madu of Kraton Yogyakarta   27:08
3- Bawa and Gendhing Terbang (Rebana),  players and singers of Kraton Surakarta   12:16


All recordings made during the Sekaten celebrations of (end April) 2004

Recording, mastering, and photos: John Noise Manis

Cover photo: Terbang (rebana) drums over Parangtritis seashore