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The Sights and Sounds of Gamelan

Arts & Expression, South Asian, Music

By Nur Intan Murtadza

Imagine entering a room and seeing a pair of ornately carved teak stands joined by a horizontal pole with golden sea serpents sitting sinuously on top. Beneath it, bronze gongs hang heavily. These gongs are of various sizes with raised knobs in their center. When struck, the room is filled with a deep resonating sound that lingers on in our memories long after. The largest of these hanging gongs is the gong ageng (great/grand/big). It has a commanding presence and is the site where offerings of flowers and incense are placed. As our eyes move about the room, we see other bronze instruments such as the family of tuned bronze metallophones (sarons, demung, peking), the set of genders and slenthem (instruments with tuned keys suspended over tubular resonators), various assortment of pot gongs horizontally suspended over a wooden cavity, gambang (wooden xylophone), rebab (spiked two-stringed fiddle), kendangs (two-headed hand drums), plucked zither and bamboo duct flute. This is the gamelan orchestra and the instruments described above come from Indonesia and more specifically from Central Java.

Every gamelan is given a name in a ritual ceremony called selamatan. Most names begin with the honorific Javanese title Kyai (Venerable). For example, Gamelan Kyai Mendung (Venerable Dark Cloud) was arranged by Ki Mantle Hood (1918 - 2005), a renowned pioneer in the field of ethnomusicology, to be brought to UCLA's Institute of Ethnomusicology. Gamelan Kyai Mendung is one of the earliest gamelans to be founded in a North American academic institution. York University's gamelan has been conferred the female honorific title of Nyai Mirah Kencana ("Lady Brilliant Vermillion"). The instruments were made in the royal Javanese cities of Surakarta and Yogyakarta. Brilliantly coloured in red, blue and gold, the gamelan is as beautiful to the eyes as it is to the ears. It has been generously loaned to the Department of Music at York for teaching purposes by the Consulate General of Indonesia, Toronto. York's gamelan is tuned in laras slendro, one of the two traditional Javanese tuning systems.

The process of gamelan tuning is a fascinating ethnographic subject. A complete Central Javanese gamelan consists of two tuning systems -- laras slendro and laras pelog. Laras slendro is an anhemitonic five-note system and laras pelog is a hemitonic seven-note system. Both Central Javanese tuning systems do not correspond exactly to the Western twelve-tone chromatic scale. While the instruments in a gamelan ensemble are tuned to each other, a comparison between different gamelan ensembles exhibits subtle degrees of variation. Perhaps the variability in tuning is part of the Javanese aesthetic, which values the individual soundscapes of particular ensembles. Nevertheless, these variations do not go beyond certain acceptable ranges and are confined within the socio-cultural constructs of taste and rasa of the Javanese world.

How is gamelan played? One sits on the ground with folded legs and shoes off, facing the instruments. The practice of avoiding stepping over the instruments is reinforced very early on as such an act would be considered a breach of respect. Tabuhs (mallets) of various sizes are used to strike the metallophones and gongs. Traditionally, the music is learned aurally and the process involves much time listening to and observing gamelan performances. While cipher notation (using numbers to represent each pitch of the tuning system) is prevalent today, the exercise of listening to each other is vital as the character of gamelan music is based on communal expression. No melody of a single instrument can be conceived as separable from the whole sound of the ensemble.

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