The word gamelan refers to any one of several types of instrumental ensembles found on the islands of Indonesia. Our gamelan comes from central Java. Gamelan music constitutes a major vehicle for the culture's most profound beliefs, idea and feelings. In nineteenth century Java, the gamelan assumed an extremely important role in court life, and in this century, it is popular at all levels of society. The Javanese regard gamelan instruments as spiritually potent and they revere the bronze smiths who cast the gongs. In accord with their status as living spiritual entities, many gamelan ensembles have names. Ours is called Kyai Telaga Madu, "the Venerable Lake of Honey".
The instruments of the gamelan fall into three categories according to their musical functions. Some instruments mark time, some play simple melodies, and others play simultaneous elaborations of the melodies. Gamelan music operates on the principle of cyclic time. Time cycles are marked off by a stroke of the largest gong. The kenong, kempul, kethuk, and kepyang also play time-keeping roles by subdividing the strokes of the gong. The saron and slenthem play the melody, and the bonag, gender (metalophone), gambang (xylophone), rebab (bowed fiddle) and pesindhen (female vocalist) elaborate on this melody. The drummer acts as the rhythmic leader, indicating transitions and tempo changes.
Gamelan ensembles play in two different sound styles and tuning systems. "Loud-playing" pieces originated for noisy outdoor events and they feature the drums and loudest metal instruments. "Soft -playing" pieces originated for more intimate, indoor gatherings and feature vocalists and delicate instruments such as the gender and rebab. The gamelan also uses two separate tuning systems, slendro and pelog. The slendro system divides the octave into five relatively equal parts. In contrast, the intervals of the pelong system vary greatly in size.
The title of a composition reveals many key characteristics of the piece. The first word refers to the number of beats in a given cycle, marked by the stroke of the largest gong. For instance, the term lancaran describes an 8 beat cycle and the term ladrang means 32 beats per gong cycle. The second word in the the title refers to the composition's proper name, and third word indicates the tuning system, slendro or pelog. The last two words identify a specific tonal emphasis within the given tuning system.
There are several approaches one can take to listening to gamelan music. An experienced Javanese musician can follow all of the parts at once and knows immediately if someone has made a mistake. However, one can also concentrate on one or two parts at a time. The more parts one can perceive and follow, the more rewarding the experience, since the music is in a sense "about" the relations between simultaneous melodies. On the other hand, you may want to take in the general mood of a composition, or simply bask in the luxuriant timbres.
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