GAMELAN: part 1 (BEFORE)

Wahoooooooooo! I am SO out of here! An evening flight to Auckland, dawn flight to Sydney (ug!) & then on to Denpasar, Bali. Mission 1: Avoid Australian tourists! Mission 2: Experience Gamelan in context. Mission 3. Chill out! Somehow, I have a feeling part 1 is going to be harder than part 2 or 3, especially considering that goddamn stopover….. but I try to keep an open mind, or at least I am prepared to turn up my ipod (heh heh, whats that saying? Every time someone leaves New Zealand to live in Australia they increase the average IQ of both countries)

So for me, in my naivete, I think of Gamelan in two context, so please consider this rant to be the BEFORE phase, and after this trip I sincerely hope I will have a bit more of an understanding to share…

1. the SOUND
Gamelan, as I understand it is, is not an instrument – its a collective, much like saying an orchestra isnt an instrument because in reality its an organised collection of instruments. Dear old wikipedia describes Gamelan as a “kind of musical ensemble of Indonesia typically featuring a variety of instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, drums, and gongs; bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings, and vocalists may also be included…”
Hmmmm seems a bit vague, but their lingual derivation provides a clearer idea: “The word “gamelan” comes from the Javanese word “gamel”, meaning to strike or hammer, and the suffix “an”, which makes the root a collective noun.” Ahar! Collective hammering, now we’re getting somewhere! Hammering what exactly?

The percussion instruments of a central Javanese gamelan ensemble include:
– metallophones, such as the saron, gendar, gangsa, and ugal (sets of metals bars laid out in a single row and struck like a glockenspiel) cradled gong chimes called bonang and kenong (sets of large, drum-shaped gongs laid out horizontally on stands)
– hanging gongs called kempul and the large gong ageng
Рxylophone-like instruments called gambang (similar to saron and gend̩r but with wooden bars instead of metal ones)
– drums called kendhang

Not coincidentally the recent release of a Gamelan sample library provides some insight – i mean just try sampling anything, and if you are as obsessive as most samplists you will instantly be obliged to find out about & perform all the permutations that exist, and document them: “The majority of Gamelan instruments are percussive, and most of these are bronze. They include xylophone-like metallophones of different sizes and pitch, tuned gong chimes, very large pitched gongs, and an assortment of drums and percussion. There are many types of Gamelan ensembles, but the two dominant types are Javanese and Balinese. Balinese Gamelan has a characteristic ’shimmering’ sound which is due to the detuning of paired instruments playing the same musical part….. Gamelan music is very much about the collective – it has been described as ‘a negotiation between musicians’. Many of the musicians play interlocking parts, in which alternate notes are shared between two instruments. This technique enables the ensemble to play incredibly fast passages.”

Hmmm, ok that second to last word is my next aspect to study, and I am going to try to refrain from commenting about the demo “compositions” on their website, arg! sheesh… I am a firm believer world music equates to someone with a recorder documenting ethnic music in situ, as opposed to… that… ug! THATS why i am going to Bali, to wash that bad taste out of my ears…

The beautiful photo above is from this site, which provides a nicely hyper-linked decription of each section.

2. the TEMPO
The impression I get (& I am keen to learn why) is that Gamelan music is played fast – I am yet to hear minimalist Gamelan at like 10bpm, and that may well be the subject of my next trip to Bali, but again I aim to keep an open mind… but why so fast? During research for this trip I downloaded a bunch of Gamelan music from emusic and tapped the tempos into my Kaossilator, the results: 153, 130, 160, 146, 166, 136, 162, 95, 154,
129…
Why so fast? My vague theory is because its dance music, but I will know more in a week… Meanwhile watch this video to appreciate the beautiful sync of these two players (its like having two very good drummers in your band and neither of them are drunk!) appropriately titled “interlocking madness” & the simultaneous laugh @1.36 the two musicians give is more telling than anything anyone does or doesnt actually say… and meanwhile watch the dampening thumb/s as much as the hammer….

So where to learn more? Well… I will update this bit after my trip, but heres a few links i found for actually getting to learn about Gamelan hands/hammers on, while in Bali, as in take a course (along with my h2 recorder) & get to join in & listen… ARMA Cultural Workshops and Mekar Bhuana lessons and Balinese Culture Lesson Tours – take your pick! I’ll tell you which one worked out best for me…

Meanwhile heres some ensemble playing:

If you aren’t tired of reading about Gamelan by now, and I sure as hell
aren’t, heres a few more well worthy links;

THERE IS NO THEY THERE
“If “world music” means all music except Western music, it perpetuates a hierarchy of knowledge. It separates Western culture as reality from Other culture as an exotic variation to be observed….. There is no they there.”

Architecture of carved rhythm

A community orchestra (with mp3s)

The gamelan pelog scale of Central Java as an example of a non-harmonic musical scale

UC Berkeley’s set of Javanese instruments

Balinese Gamelan rhythms (including MIDI files)

“Terima kasih” (thank you)

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