The Javenese Gamelan: Ancient Music with Contemporary Appeal

By Kathryn M. Duda

When he heard gamelan music for the first time on late-1920s recordings, Canadian composer Colin McPhee (1900–1964) was so affected that he ever afterward infused his own music with Asian influences. He recorded this turning point in his career:

“The clear, metallic sounds…were like the stirring of a thousand bells, delicate, confused, with a sensuous charm, a mystery that was quite overpowering. I begged to keep the records for a few days, and as I played them over and over I became more and more enchanted with the sound. Who were the musicians? I wondered. How had this music come about? Above all, how was it possible, in this late day, for such a music to have been able to survive?… The effect of the music was deeper than I suspected…my imagination took fire, and the day came when I determined to make a trip to the East to see them for myself.” (A House in Bali, 1946, by Colin McPhee)

Western audiences still respond to the haunting and chant-like sounds of the ancient gamelan, while recognizing how far removed it is from the music that they hear every day. Many people find the sound to be spiritually inspiring. In fact, the gamelan’s spiritual nature is deeply embedded in the culture of Indonesia, where each gamelan is thought to possess mystical powers, and is even considered an animate being with its own identity.

“A Means to Make Music”

By definition, a gamelan is an Indonesian orchestra of mainly percussive instruments, with occasional winds, strings, voices and even dancers. But the instruments, all arranged on the floor in a specific pattern, are unfamiliar. Many appear to be variations on the xylophone, but instead of wood, they are crafted mainly of metal. Other instruments resemble pots arranged in rows, and still others are gongs of various sizes. All of these parts are housed in, or hang from, impressive, ornately carved black wooden racks embellished with gold leaf detail. In addition, there are three types of double-sided drums and an unusual two-stringed fiddle. Thirty of these beautiful pieces in a room is a remarkable sight.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word gamelan is derived from the Javanese gamel, “to make music,” and -an, a suffix indicating a means. The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments disagrees, saying the word is “probably related to low Javanese gamel, ‘to handle,’ and high Javanese gangsa, ‘bronze’.” Regardless of the word’s derivation, the best thing about gamelan from a layperson’s point of view is that anyone with a sense of rhythm can participate at a basic level.

An authentic Javanese gamelan was purchased in 1995–96 by the University of Pittsburgh Department of Music. According to Don Franklin, then-department chair, the gamelan was acquired to support the newest component of the department’s internationally recognized program in world music.

“We view performance as an outgrowth and enrichment of our curriculum,” he says, “and we hope that the ensemble will serve as a resource for the entire university community.”

Pitt’s gamelan also reflects the expertise of former Pitt associate professor René Lysloff, the group’s first leader. He placed the order for the gamelan during a 1994 trip to Java to further his research on the island’s indigenous music. Over the next year the instruments were hand-crafted according to Lysloff’s specifications, then shipped to Florida and finally trucked to Pittsburgh.

Once on campus, the gamelan required days of unpacking and assembly, as many of the ensemble’s instruments contain scores of parts. The assembled gamelan was finally ready for action in early January 1996, and a group of interested and curious players, including myself, formed immediately. The inaugural concert took place three months later.

Up to 25 or so musicians play in a gamelan, but the group has no conductor. The players instead depend on the drummer to control the tempo and to rhythmically signal the conclusion of the piece. A western musician, therefore, accustomed to watching a conductor for direction, instead must learn to listen to the drum for the same information.

A gamelan contains four types of xylophones and metallophones. The keys of wood, iron and brass are suspended over a common trough resonator or suspended on cords over individual resonating tubes made of bamboo.

What look like pots are really “boxed” or horizontal gongs suspended on cords in their wooden frames. These rounded gongs are of thin, hand-forged iron, and each is topped with a brass knob, or “boss,” that the player strikes. The vertically suspended set of gongs is the granddaddy of the gamelan and contains large, flatter gongs hanging from a rack that is topped with mammoth carved serpents.

The Javanese name these instruments onomatopoetically, so that the name sounds much like the tone produced by the instrument that bears that name. Note the resonance in the words “kempul” and “kenong,” as compared with the clipped ending of the word “ketuk.”

Pitt’s gamelan is “complete,” meaning it contains two of each instrument, one in each of the two tuning systems: the five-tone slendro and the seven-tone pelog. Each of the two sets has a total range of seven octaves and is complete in itself, with some musical pieces played on the slendro set and others on the pelog. The two versions of each instrument sit at right angles to one another, with the player in between. Never are instruments from both sets used in the same piece. To perform a piece written in slendro, all players face the audience; for pelog, they face stage right.

A Long, Colorful History

While teaching us to play these unusual instruments, Lysloff often interwove details of Indonesian culture and history. Having this knowledge is helpful, even necessary, in giving the performance an authentic sound.

Incense permeated the room before each rehearsal, hinting at the gamelan’s mystical quality. The supernatural, charismatic power that a gamelan is believed to have is said to be felt through the sound, and burning incense represents making an offering to the gamelan. Other signs of humility and reverence on the players’ part include stepping around—not over—the instruments, bowing to more senior players and holding a name-giving ceremony for the gamelan. Pitt’s ensemble was named by F.X. Widaryanto, a master drummer and guest artist at the first concert. Tradition says the name comes to the name-giver in a dream, and it tends to evoke a geographic element relevant to the gamelan’s home. Appropriately, the Pitt gamelan was christened “Venerable Rivers of Gold” or, in Javanese, Kyai Tirta Rukmi.

In Java, some gamelans are thought to have so much supernatural power that playing them can influence nature, such as causing rainfall or arousing human emotions. Others may be touched only by ritually qualified people, or be played only for certain occasions. The elite in Java and Bali amass gamelans, since tradition holds that the more ensembles one has, the stronger are his supernatural powers.

This idea of the gamelan as an animate object consisting of various parts is one reason that the individual instruments cannot be mixed and matched with those from another ensemble. It would, in that sense, be akin to dismemberment. Another reason, which is more understandable to a Westerner, is that each gamelan is handmade, and its individual instruments are tuned to one another. A gender from one gamelan, for instance, would not sound the same as a gender from the gamelan next door.

Gamelan history reaches back to the third and second centuries BC, when the Bronze-Iron Age reached Indonesia. Primarily in Java, that period produced a variety of bronze and iron weapons and other objects such as a “bronze kettledrum,” the first known gong. Horizontally suspended, these gongs were carried into war—the smaller ones slung over the backs of mounted soldiers, and the larger carried by two warriors and played by a third. The first known Javanese gamelan consisting of multiple instruments appeared in the fourth century AD.

Over the following centuries, the gamelan spread from Central Java to other parts of Southeast Asia, resulting in a wide variety of styles now indigenous to specific geographic areas. A Central Javanese gamelan, such as the one at Pitt, is unlike a typical ensemble in East Java. Likewise, Bali alone contains 22 to 25 distinct types of gamelan. These variations are apparent in the sound, the shapes of the instruments, the way they are combined, and the style in which they are played.

In contemporary Java, gamelans are owned by puppeteers and other individuals, communal organizations, government offices, radio and television stations, theaters, museums and palaces. Consistent with centuries of tradition, the ensemble’s main function is to accompany religious or ceremonial rituals, including rain-inducing ceremonies in the Central Javanese ricefields, trance ceremonies and weddings. Other popular uses include accompaniment for dance dramas and shadow puppet theater, and concerts. Performances are less formal than they might be in the West, and there is no room for stardom among gamelan players—all are equally valued.

Seddon Bennington, director of Carnegie Science Center, spent several weeks in Java and Bali with his family in the early 1980s and has vivid memories of the sights and sounds of the gamelan.

“In Indonesia, you hear gamelan groups in both formal and informal situations,” he says. “They’re played in villages, usually in pavilions where the musicians are playing for enjoyment and for education. But you see them as well in palaces, where more formal programs are presented for tourists.” The haunting sound of the gamelan affected him the way it affects many people. “There’s a quality about it, I don’t know what it is exactly, but the sound seems right for the setting. It reminds me of the bells in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. It evokes the same sort of feeling.”

At a pavilion on the palace grounds in Yogyakarta, Java’s cultural center, Bennington saw a presentation of shadow puppet theater, with gamelan accompaniment. “These performances—with no electric lights, and the spots of light and shadow created by candles—it’s absolute magic, a wonderful experience.”

While gamelan has a long tradition in Indonesia, it was not exported until the 1950s, when it quickly attracted the attention of academics and lay people alike. Today, the University of Pittsburgh joins the list of some 15 American universities that own one.

Learning about cultures other than our own is always refreshing, but studying mystical cultures often transforms people—the aforementioned composer Colin McPhee, for instance. McPhee moved to Bali soon after being so moved by the gamelan recordings, and he spent most of the 1930s there, chronicling that country’s musical culture. His only symphony, Tabuh-tabuhan, is reminiscent of gamelan music, and his other compositions bear an Asian influence as well. Likewise, after only one semester of playing gamelan, one Pitt undergraduate decided to move to Java and study the culture.

Judging by the interest in participating in this local group, and by the size of the audience at its first concert, it is clear that the Pitt Gamelan Ensemble is on its way to developing a following.

Kathryn M. Duda is associate editor of Carnegie Magazine.