The word gamelan simply means ‘musical group’ and may refer to 20 different kinds of xylophones, percussion-type music ansembles. Just as the Balinese share the planting of rice and the upkeep of their temples, traditional orchestra clubs, ‘sekaha’, are a communal organization in which everyone shares an equal interest and pride.
Scholars believe gamelan music may derive from the sound of priestly bells. Another theory holds that the percussive component of gamelan developed from workers using heavy pounding-poles to beat out music as they beat the husks off rice grains, perhaps lifting the trough off the ground and laying it on crossbeams to enhance the resonance.
The gamelan is likely indigenous to Indonesia and probably consisted of bamboo instruments. The royal courts of Bali emulated the pomp and ritual of the Javanese Majapahit Kingdom of ancient Java, and Balinese courtly music was no exception.
Mentioned of gamelan orchestras have been found in chronicles dating back as far as the 14th century. With the Dutch seizure of power in 1908, Balinese court culture began to undergo a drastic transformation.
Their power and sources of revenues sharply curtailed, the ‘puri’ ceased to function as cultural centers. By the 1930s the ceremonial glitter of the courts had faded and most of the courts gamelan were in storage, gathering dust.
Unable to afford their traditional role as patrons of the arts, many courts sold their gamelan to village musicians, thus passing the domination and fostering of the arts into the hands of common villagers.
Whole orchestras were melted down and recast in forms that better suited the flamboyant and frolicsome tastes of the masses. From the moment the music left the courts and filtered into the villages, its development accelerated and took on a life of its own, becoming louder, faster, more earthy, and available to a much wider audience.
Today, the village gamelan is played with more vigor and passion than the slower, haunting Javanese-style orchestra, which remained the prerogative of the courts on Bali until well into the 20th century.
Sudden changes, displaced accents, bursts of rapid, precise, highly syncopated playing, increases and decreases of volume, and a highly developed counterpoint based on simple melodies give many Westerners the impression that gamelan music is improvised like jazz, but this is untrue. If an orchestra musician started hammering out his own tune, he’d be immediately expelled from the troupe.
Alternately playful, blaring, with a frenetic, vibrant sound, gamelan is Balinese music like no other you have ever heard. The assorted drums, gongs, and cymbals carry a wide variation of pitch and timbre.
What might be called octaves are not exact octaves and may sound off-pitch or dissonant to Western ears.
Instruments with a high range of notes are struck with more frequency than those with lower ranges, so there’s a greater proportion of high harmonics over fundamental harmonics. Half and quarter notes are employed to a considerable extent.
There are five or seven tones in Balinese music, just as in Java. The instruments are tuned when they’re made to either the pentatonic (five-tone) ‘pelog’ scale or the septatonic (seven-tone) slendro scale.
All the instruments have fixed pitches, with the exception of the wistful, viola-like rebab and wailing suling (flutes).
Each gong-like instrument is tuned to its neighbor, making the whole gamelan a self-contained, coherent musical unit, played as a single instrument rather than a collection.
Each instrument is tuned to its partner in a slightly higher tone, producing the shimmering, and ‘tremolo’, so characteristic of Balinese gamelan. Even on an individual instrument, the octave notes may be tuned slightly higher than the matching lower tones. Played together they produce rich, throbbing sound.
A Balinese gamelan piece usually consists of four or five movements, each divided into four phases: a solo to introduce the piece, the introductory theme, followed by central body and then the clashing, thunderous finale.
Typically, compositions are named after animal actions or temperaments: Crow Stealing Eggs, Fighting Cats, Toad Climbing Pawpaw, Golden Butterfly, or Snapping Crocodile.
Composers are selected from the orchestra’s best players. In everyday life they could be waiters at a restaurant, artisans, or field laborers. It’s difficult to make out who controls the orchestra so perfectly and precisely because the gamelan has no real conductor. Instead, the orchestra is lead by the two drummers, often the most accomplished musicians of the group.
They link the instruments together, control the tempo, and underline the accents. With their knowledge of both dance and music, the drummers signal other musicians to play the proper musical gesture to accompany a specific dance.
The music itself is played from memory, which is extraordinary when you consider how lengthy and complex some pieces are.
The Balinese have worked out a system of notation, but the orchestration of the melody is fixed so notation is seldom used. Learning by repetition, the Balinese say when a piece is practiced long enough ‘it enters the musician’s liver and he plays without thinking.’
Musicologists marvel at the way two musicians play interlocking parts as fast as possible, beating out alternate notes at top speed and in perfect coordination, resulting in a faster performance than one player is capable of.
The Balinese like their music very loud and dramatic, with sharp changes in the tempo and volume. A piece always seems to end unexpectedly-as if in mid-song. In the south, the playing style is more refined and fluid, radically different from the violent, rhapsodically styles of the north.
The Balinese themselves refer to their orchestra simply as gong, as in ‘gong gede’ or ‘gong kebyar’, and each set of instruments is given names such as ‘Sea of Honey’ or ‘Floating Cloud’.
There’s a gong for almost every occasion-weddings, cremations, cultural performances, birthdays. Special music accompanies long processions to the sea, or lures the gods from their celestial heights. Other melodies induce a trance, entertain the masses with musical comedy, or accompany all-night operas for the elite.
Ensemble size ranges from the huge 40 member gamelan gong to the mini-xylophonic quintets carried on multistoried pyres in funeral processions.
In between you’ll find 30-piece bronze percussion orchestras, small angklung, bamboo gamelan, orchestras entirely of lutes and mouth-harps, and small quartets playing the accompanying music for choral symphonies composed of chants and grunts.
Each ensemble differs in the instruments that make it up, the scale used, and the sonority. Many types of orchestras can be pared down so that they can be played by marching bands.
Since the 1960s, credit goes to tourists for keeping alive some forms of gamelan which might otherwise have succumbed to the pervasive influence of modernism, though experimentation with new styles never ceases.
The Western music inundating Bali is now looked upon as a stimulus rather than a threat, but youthful composers also look to older traditional Balinese forms for inspiration, and forms are always coming in and out of style.
The seven-tone ‘semar pegulingan’ orchestra in which some instruments are played with two hands has now become the most sought-after ensemble for the creations of contemporary Balinese composers.
The archaic and rare ‘gong selonding’ features metallophones with iron keys and very simple trough resonators. The highly distinctive, classical ‘tektekan’ orchestra of Krambitan in Tabanan is made up of men carrying split bamboo drums and giant cowbells around their necks. Exorcising malignant spirits when pestilence strikes the village, this is the only orchestra of its type in Bali.
The refined ‘gong gede’ and ‘gong pelegongan’ prevalent in the early years of this century, essentially as temple orchestras, were superseded in the 1920s and 30s by more up-tempo ‘gong kebyar’, which started catching on in northern Bali in 1915.
Until recently, it was the most popular and widespread type of orchestra, but has reached a state of saturation both in numbers and style. A few older ensembles are coming back in popularity.
Revived in the past five years is the spectacular ‘gamelan jegog’ of the western Jembrana Regency which consists of mammoth tubes of bamboo, the largest measuring up to 30 cm in diameter and over two meters in length. When struck with a big, padded mallet, the sound made by the resonating ‘jegog’ tubes can be heard over a great distance.
Bali’s consummate gamelan instrument craftsmen live and work in the villages of Tihingan, Sawan, and Blahbatuh. These highly respected artisans have a profound knowledge of metallurgy, bronze-smithing, instrument-tuning, and woodworking.
The tone of each bronze key is matched against a wooden tuning stick, then laboriously filed to acquire just the right pitch. Similar instruments are slightly out of tune with each other to make a shimmering, more appealing sound.
Although all ensembles are tuned to roughly the same scale, there is no universally accepted reference. This is very much in keeping with the belief that each gamelan has its own spirit. For a Balinese, it’s unthinkable to step over an instrument lest the unique spirit residing in it be offended.
The largest and most famous gong foundry (pabrik gong) is I Made Gabeleran’s in Blahbatuh. After melting an alloy of tin and copper with hot coconut charcoal fires stoked with bamboo plungers, Pak Gabeleran’s smiths forge magnificent sets of ‘trompong’ or cast ‘reyong’ in molds.
He has big room displaying completed instruments of an impressive small ‘kendang batel’ or glittering ‘gangsa giing’. Specialists carve the ornate wooden frames and stands for the instruments in a rear courtyard.
The workshop complex, Sidha Karya-Kerajinan Gong, which produces five or six complete gamelan ensembles a year, is a must-see for the lover of gamelan.
In the Northern village of Sawan live four generations of gamelan-instrument makers. Workshops here turn out gender, ‘gangsa’, ‘cengceng’, and other instruments.
Of all the instrument-makers on Bali, Widandra gives the best explanation of the entire process. Or check out the poster in the showroom with photos and explanations of the steps involved. Instruments and small, carved, gilded stands are also for sale. If you don’t buy anything, please leave a donation in appreciation of Widandra’s time and effort.
To achieve the rich sonic complexity and subtlety of Balinese music-without a notational system-requires long hours of rehearsal.
Depending on the orchestra, rehearsals are held as infrequently as once every six months or as often as five days a week. In preparation for an upcoming festival, temple anniversary, or to provide music for a dance troupe, incessant rehearsals take place.
You have an excellent chance of happening upon a gamelan rehearsal, usually after sunset when villagers gather around the ‘bale banjar’ where the orchestra is kept. Follow your ears-you can’t miss the metallic, jangle energy and deep, reverberating gongs. Sit near the musicians so you can feel the power of the music.
Rehearsals are casual, open-air affairs with dogs prancing across the dance floor, old men playing flutes in the background, and babies falling asleep amidst the clashing of drums, gongs, and cymbals.
If not preparing for a performance a musician might even hand over his mallets to a spectator during a session. Entry is free. The instruments remain in the ‘bale banjar’ for anyone who wishes to practice. Training starts at a very early age; when the musicians take a break, a mob of little boys descend on the instruments (it’s almost impossible to damage them) and start improvising a melody, often quite deftly. They learn the various parts of the composition by imitation.
A great number of villages offer commercial daily or weekly performances in the bale banjar-outfitted with a ticket table, rows of chairs, and lighting.
A temple performance is one of the best places to see the gamelan perform. Temple anniversary ceremonies, ‘odalans’, are always taking place somewhere on Bali and visitors are always welcome. Ask the local tourist office, your hotel proprietor, driver, or guide. Go in the late afternoon or early evening when spectators are arriving with their offerings.
A group of interested people may also commission a performance. The fee is very reasonable, depending upon the size and elaborateness of the orchestra and dance troupe, and the length of the program. Go up to the head of the music club, the ‘ketua sekaha gong’, and make arrangements for your group to be seated in the ‘bale banjar’ or other community space.
The camaraderie and interplay such an event fosters between visitors and villagers are unforgettable.
At the Denpasar Arts Center on Jl. Nusa Indah in Abiankapas (a 15-minute walk east of Kereneng Station) visitors can see dance and music rehearsals as well as public dances.
The art center also features two magnificent open-air amphitheaters with modern lighting and hosts a Bali Arts Festival. Each year from mid-June to mid-July musical and ‘sendratari’ competitions, as well as diverse classical and modern music performances, are held daily. If it’s the high season, book your hotel early so that you don’t miss it.
Though the wide varieties of Balinese compositions are generally attractive to Western ears, some formidable obstacles face Western students.
The rhythm defies Western music notation. Indeed, the whole Western concept of scales and keys, as well as the terminology, is alien to Balinese music. While a Westerner may discern two separate five-tone scales, a Balinese can recognize at least seven.
Learning to appreciate the music requires great concentration and ear training. Students are started off kindergarten style with big charts, and audible counting games accustom the class to the role of each instrument before they kneel behind the real thing.
Singing their parts along with the music, Westerners must adjust to rhythms that can’t be wrestled into four beats per measure. Although the instruments appear simple, a number of tricks go into playing them. One of the most difficult to learn is the mallet technique-the knack of striking the keys with a mallet in the right hand while dampening the keys with the fingers of the left a millisecond later.
This split-second timing at very high speeds sometimes takes years to master. Decide first on the style of music you want to study. The most popular choices for Westerners are the ‘tingklik’, ‘gong kebyar’, and gender ‘wayang’. Michael Tenzer, author of ‘Balinese Music’, advises students to learn the basic melodies on the gangsa first, as other instruments like the reyong and kendang are too abstract for the beginner.
Bring a tape recorder so that you can hear the lesson and practice later.
Determining payment is awkward for a Balinese teacher because their instruction is usually given to a group and payment is made in favors or obligations rather than in coin. Ask other students what the going rate is-about Rp10,000 per lesson in 1995.