Overview- The gamelan is a traditional musical ensemble from Java and Bali, islands in the Indonesian chain. In the Javanese language, the word meaning bronze instrument. The word gamelan includes several different types of instruments, and has come to mean more of a traditional style and use of instrumentation, including at times vocals. The traditional gamelan orchestra includes instruments like xylophones, kendang drums, gongs, metallophones, bamboo flutes, and bowed and plucked strings. The term also refers more to the set of instruments that are used in the orchestra, as opposed to the players. In the concept of Indonesian culture, a gamelan is a district set of instruments meant to be built, tuned and played together. Unlike Western musicians, the gamelan stays together as a unit and the players are replaced, instead of the instruments travelling with players (Prikosusilo).
In reference to playing the gamelan instruments, Indonesians use the term karawitan -- the words rawit (intricate or finely works) and pangrawit, a person with the sense of elegance and ideal musical quality. In addition, The Indonesian language has a number of contextually appropriate words that describe the proportion and use of metals in the instruments; all a part of the manner in which the gamelan is viewed in society (Gold).
Geographically, Indonesia is an island nation, consisting of over 13,000 islands, with about 3,000 still unpopulated. There are over 100 divergent ethnic groups in the nation, speaking over 300 different dialects. However, one thing tying the nation together is the gamelan tradition; something they can relate to culturally and historically. While every generation adds some tradition and technique to the field, the rituals and cultural meaning of gamelan span generations. Gamelan has always existed in its instrumental form, as well as in its supportive role when combined with dance, wayang kulit [shadow puppetry], or dance drama (wayang orang)...Today gamelan exists both as instrumental music, which incorporates elements of poetry, dance, and wayang, and as an integral part of those art forms themselves" (Peterman).
History- The gamelan is an ancient part of Indonesia, even before the Hindu or Buddhist culture; but more from the Ancient Sanskrit Empire that dominated the Indian subcontinent and beyond. This is especially apparent with the vocal style of the gamelan, which is very much like Indian singing (Lentz). Scholars think that much of this tradition flowed into Indonesia between the 9th and 14th centuries. There, the Balinese, in particular, adopted it to their own personality and style, making it very distinctive. Even during Dutch colonialism, the gamelan became one of the ways Indonesians were able to retain their unique cultural identity -- with Javanese gamelan more restrained, and Balinese more active and vibrant (Tenzer).
Cultural Context- Not only is the gamelan orchestra venerated as part of the Indonesian culture, there are a number of sets (compositional styles/devices, like movement forms) with specific cultural references "Foremost and Venerable Honey Thunder" or "Foremost and Venerable Harmonious Dragon." Indonesians believe that these particular orchestral sets have the power to pledge their loyalty to God -- particularly the syahadatain, the witness of Muslims, "there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet" (Prikosusilo).
From an ancient tradition, though, some of the rhythms and tonality is said to have come from the early 3rd century AD from a God who ruled Java (modern Indonesia) as a king from his mountain palace in Mount Lawu. This God needed a way to summon the gods, so invented the gong. However, as more complex communication became necessary, he invented other gongs, then other instruments, thus forming the original gamelan set. These early instruments included bamboo flutes, drums of various sizes and pitch, the lute, and other stringed and plucked instruments (Sumarsam). These issues with communication led to different styles: loud and intense and then soft and melodic, more poetic. In contemporary Indonesia, though, the modern style of gamelan mixes the two; but the theoretical conception of the instruments, tonality, timbre and technique are shared in all gamelan styles (Balinese and Javanese Gamelan).
Balinese Gamelan- More traditional, appears to be focused on the dialog between the different layers; question/answer, etc. The music has a frenzy to it, almost violent at times in the sense that it changes tempo, rhythm, and volume intensity drastically.
Javanese Gamelan -- Lower in pitch, slower, and has more emphasis on overlapping patterns at varying levels of speed. Vocals are more important, but there is much room within the structure for improvisation and melodic interpretations.
Sudanese Gamelan -- Emphasis on rhythm as opposed to melody; used more gong tones with percussion variations (Kirman).
Musical Issues- Each particular set of instruments in the orchestra are arranged in six different categories, all based on the musical responsibility within the orchestra. These are not listed in layers of importance, but in layers of rhythm, timbre and harmony:
The colotonic layer -- typically gongs that mark the cycles, keep time, or emphasize certain passages.
The drum layer -- more of a rhythmic pattern that interlocks with the melody or passages (melodic variations called kotekan).
Miscellaneous percussion -- cymbals, more rhythmic emphasis
Fixed melody layer -- what Western music might call the ostinoto, or basic underlying musical structure
Elaborating layer -- the various, interlocking melodies and scales
Vocal tone layer -- paraphrasing (the variations of the theme -- variations on the fixed layer) (Spiller).
These are arranged from the largest instruments (gongs, etc.) in the colotonic layer to the smaller (vocal) if used. They tend to build from the start of the composition. The colotonic instruments punctuate musical sections that repeat, the drums interlock rhythmic patterns and also signal the rest of the gamelan, the fixed melody produces a slow moving theme, and then are elaborated upon in the higher levels. The musical scale is either a 4, 5 or sometimes rarely a 7 tone scale; chromatics are often bent to and from the note, and sometimes the instruments that can generate quarter and half tones, do so; thus making this sound eerie to a Western ear, largely because of a lack of what we hear as finality in the IV-I or V-I cadence (Spiller).
Influences on Western Music- As travel to the Indonesian area became more common in 19th century Europe, several Western composers either used some of the tones and rhythms of the ensemble within their compositions; or simply learned how to score for the gamelan and incorporated that into their own compositions. For example, Claude Debussy heard a gamelon at the 1889 Paris Exposition and his use of the whole tone gamelan scale appears in works like Estampes and La Mer. Erik Satie used the hypnotic rhytms of the gamelan while a number of 21st century compositions have either written music including the gamelan or composed pieces for the ensemble (John Cage, Bela Bartok, Fransis Poulenc, Phillip Glass, and more. 1960s pop music often included gamelan techniques, and a number of contemporary artists incorporate gamelan into their performances (Xiu, The Raincoats, Mouse on Mars, etc.) (Martin)
Influences on Contemporary Music- In Indonesia, the gamelan remains an important part of their cultural heritage. The gamelan is historical; it fits with the traditions of ethnic music, and is a tie to the archetypes of the past based on the way the instruments communicate. The singer Anggun incorporates traditional gamelan tunes and even singing techniques into her works (Brown). American audiences became more familiar with the gamelan tradition through the popular anime film Akira; in which gamelan is used to underscore the fight scenes and well as establish the theme for the hero (Akira Fan Site). Indeed, the gamelan is becoming so popular that it is regularly used in contemporary music and movie soundtracks: Battlestar Gallactica (TV), The Girl With the Painted Earring, Golden Compass, and Atlantis: The Lose Empire (The Gamelan in Contemporary Music).
The Gamelan Orchestra Outside Indonesia -- Possibly due to the popularity of the rhythm sceme, or the soothing notes of the 4 and 5 tone scales, the gamelan has been expanding in global musical tradition. In Australia and New Seakan, for example, there are town gamelan concerts; in the Netherlands (because e of Dutch colonialism) there are a number of Balinese cultural groups quite active. In the United States, though, a number of universities have gamelan societies that also serve to preserve and protect indigenous music; there are over 50 different gamelans in the United Kingdom; and even a well-known gamelan in Ireland's Brothers of Charity group, at which time the gamelan is used as both outreach and therapy (For example: Susilo).
Personal Impressions of Music- Like listening to Gregorian Chant and some of the more contemporary composers of the late 20th century; listening to the gamelan is a unique experience. Western ears do not often realize the whole tone scales, bending of notes (1/2 or 1/4 tone), or complete percussiveness. It is both enticing and odd to listen to the gamelan; typically through recordings since it is so hard to attend live performance. Knowing that gamelan must…