Out of the many musics created and performed on the populous island of Java, we have focused on Javanese gamelan music from the courts.



Our primary interpretive focus for courtly Javanese gamelan music is musical: CYCLIC ORGANIZATION OF MUSIC IN LAYERS


Components of Javanese Gamelan Sound-Culture [Music of the Courts in Central Java; there is variation within region and court v. village in Java itself]

I. Musical Specifics

A.    Pitch –

1.     scales:  the seven note pelog scale and the five-note slendro scale are tuned uniquely in each gamelan

2.     melodic tendencies:  instrumental structuring melodies are based on repeated cells; vocal melodies tend to be long and drawn out and very lyrical in comparison. The ambitus of gamelan melodies tends to be narrow. 

B.  Rhythm -- tempo tends to be varied with gradual increases and decreases; meter is duple, as is the subdivision.  The degree of rhythmic coordination [NOTE CORRECTION] is a bit more flexible than what we find in Bali. 

C.  Form -- how is the music organized?  CYCLIC on several layers:  middle register, the structuring melody (melodic skeleton or balungan)

D.  Texture – layered, with some sense of blend among all the layers

E.  Timbre --

1.   instrumental preferences: tuned metallophones with a shimmering quality over a clear pitch.  This is in contrast to the rather nasal sounding flute and the bowed single string chordophone (rebab).  The nasality of these soft instruments allows them to be heard through the haze of the metallophones, which tend to blend strongly.  The large GONG is conceptually the most important instrument in the gamelan, although it is the one that plays the least number of notes.  Follow this link for a picture of the large gong, or Gong Ageng, from a Javanese gamelan. 

2.   vocal preferences, techniques:  a nasal quality to the singing helps it cut through the blend of the metallophones.

F.  Sound intensity -- "loud" and "soft" are names of the two playing styles; these refer to the instruments used as much as to the volume level; dynamic range is not varied much

II.  Social Organization of Music

A.  Who can participate (play, listen, make instruments) in this music?  Who is excluded?  All musical roles are traditionally open to men, with women limited to singing, but this has changed to some extent, as some women are instrumentalists now.

B.  How many musicians are appropriate for an ensemble?  Gamelans can range in size from a few players to many tens of players; 20-25 would be normal at court. 

C.  Transmission -- Music conservatories, formal institutions of learning, now play a vital role in the support and continuation of this music.

D.  Social status of musicians -- leading musicians in the 20th century have become very respected in Indonesian society

III.  Ideas about Music

A.  Music and the belief system – An interesting term for a Javanese aesthetic preference is "ramé,” which translates as both "tangled" and "beautiful," reflecting a Javanese taste for complexity.

B.  Contexts for use of music -- This being a mostly Islamic society, this music has been used for political ceremonies and not religious ones, although events such as a wayang kulit performance have many contributions from the pre-Islamic religious history of Java.  While this music did not evolve as a concert music for purely for aesthetic enjoyment, that role is becoming more common for it.  It also has been held up as a sort of symbolic national music to help unify Java and Indonesia as a whole.

C.  History of music -- we did not discuss the historical evolution of gamelan music, although there is plenty of information about this.

D.  Composition -- what is a "piece" and how does it come to be?  What is the role/status/awareness of a composer?  The title, “Gendhing Bubaran Kembang Pacar pelog patet nem” tells us a lot about the piece, but not about the composer!

E.  What is the contribution or role of improvisation?  Vocals – yes; instrumental, generally no, but the links or transitions from piece to piece can be indicated spontaneously by the ensemble leader, a drummer.

F.   Genres – what categories exist? What defines them? What maintains them?  The genre of courtly gamelan is in a way [NOTE CORRECTION] maintained by the instruments themselves -- because of their unique tuning, they are not going to branch out into playing Beethoven or the Beatles.  Additionally, official government support and the existence of formal conservatories will tend to maintain genre borders and distinctions.

G.  Theory –  Javanese theory, which has names for notes and instruments, was stimulated by the Dutch presence, and evolved several systems of notation.  The list of numbers we saw and sang in class, cipher notation, is in use today.  There is greater and greater interest in writing about gamelan music within Javanese music conservatories, but in general, theorizing has not played a significant role in Javanese musicking.

IV.  Allied Arts

A.  Texts – Texts sung in vocal performance tend to be very sophisticated poetry, with elaborate schemes of allusion and substitution of homonyms and synonyms.  Texts are not associated with specific melodies, and can be used in improvisatory manner by a singer.

B.   Movement – dance – not covered.  L

C.  Theater – wayang kulit.  Genre of shadow puppet theater.  Follow this link for more info. 

V.  Listening & Personal Response

A.  1st hearing reaction

B.  After repeated hearings and discussion?

C.  What would the “ideal” trained & sympathetic listener-participant find in this music?