Brief Notes on Balinese Gamelan

A gong collection in a Gamelan ensemble of ins...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ll be very brief here, because you can get most of this from a simple google search, however I do have a few notes toward the bottom about my initial observations pertaining to my own current gamelan participation –

The  [Balinese] Gamelan I participate in here contains a variety of instruments –metallophones, drums, gongs, and flutes.  Of its etymology, wikipedia says:

The word “gamelan” comes from the Javanese word “gamels”, meaning to strike or hammer, and the suffix “an”, which makes the root a collective noun. Real hammers are not used to play these instruments as heavy iron hammers would break the delicate instruments.

This is true – we use wooden hammers. On the other hand,  last week I saw photos of a rare iron Gamelan, which has a completely different timbre.  We wear ear plugs already – I can’t imagine how loud the iron gangsas would be!

Interesting tidbits:

  • Instruments from gamelan are not generally interchangeable. The instruments are a set, and are tuned as a set.  The community owns the gamelan – there is no individual ownership of instruments.
  • Gamelan performances are usually accompanying leather puppet performances, rituals, or ceremonies.
  • Some gamelans are associated with specific courts or specific rituals.
  • Gamelan is used in the Catholic church in Indonesia (though it is a Hindu-Buddhist  nation)
  • Gamelan is frequently played on the radio in Indonesia.
  • Men and women perform in separate groups.
  • The instruments are gendered.

Balinese Gamelan is: virtuosic, with rapid tempo & dynamic changes, containing interlocking rhythms/melodies.

Genres include: Gamelan gong kebyar (most popular), and kecak (monkey chant, musical drama).** It definitely appears that Bali is the source for more modern gamelan (as opposed to Javanese or Sundanese)

Tuning:

**slendro: 5 notes to each octave, evenly spaced (1, 2, 3, 5, 6 – notice the 4 omission)

pelog: 7 notes to each octave, unevenly spaced

*In Balinese gamelan, the instruments are played in pairs and tuned slightly apart to create waves/beat frequencies.  This causes the sound to “shimmer” .

Instruments:

Metallophones: Gangsa, Ugal, Calung, Jegogan

Gongs: gong, kempur, klentong

Kettle Gongs: Reyong, Kajar, Kelinang

Rhythm: Ceng Ceng (cymbals) , Kendang (drum)

Wind/String: Suling (flute), Rebab (fiddle played w/ bow)

Initial Notes:

The Gamelan is an interesting entity. With my western background, it’s difficult for me to grasp the lack of notation and the ear training involved.  I greatly enjoy the interlocking parts. Even the simplest seeming parts have to interlock correctly with everyone else in the room, or it sounds wrong.  The rhythms are much more complex than anything orchestral (Western) I’ve done. This is a creative and unique way of unifying people, both musically and socially.

Considering Indonesia uses a caste system, I’m interested in learning more about whether different castes interact in gamelan, or in any part of the ritual (instrumental, dance, or even as audience). The only bit I know so far is that it isn’t as strict as the Indian caste system.

There are marching gamelans (beleganjur) for funeral processions. The manner in which they carry this out is similar to a New Orleans second-line, in which you include both celebratory music in addition to meditative/hypnotic and somber music.  Similarly, the closer you proceed to the destination, the faster the tempo.

Bali includes an interesting mix of Hindu-Buddhist practice, Islam, and ancient indigenous rituals to create a unique cultural fusion.  So much of this permeates the gamelan, and I feel like learning as much I can about it will help put me in the mindset to perform more “authentically” (I know – an evil word according to most ethnomusicologists).

Anyway, that’s all for now..

Gamelan Resources:

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for the notes, Im an amateur gamelan studier and
    performer, i play a saxophone, synth drums, homemade xylophones,
    and others, that we’ve specifically tuned. I read a lot on it, and
    your site is helpful. Just curious if you know which instruments
    represent which gender?

    1. Hi John! Sorry I’m just getting back to you as I’ve been out of town for several weeks. As an amateur player, do you have access to instruments at all? I’m planning to to several Gamelan posts soon (including one that references gender/caste and instruments), so stay tuned! 🙂

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