The music of Indonesia can be considered some of the most spiritual and beautiful music, created specifically for cultural and religious ceremonies throughout its nation. The many islands of this country are home to a vast amount of art, dance, and music. Deriving from the islands Java and Bali, the performance of “gamelan” or ensemble is Indonesia’s signature sound. Gamelan consists of professionally built and tunable ingots, gongs, and pots of bronze. Although these instruments seem like they wouldn’t require much skill, an immense amount of syncopation and timing is involved in this music.
When observing a professional Indonesian Gamelan, one may find it difficult to grasp each individual instrument as each has its own unique look and sound. The instruments are laid out in a very specific order to increase the communication between players, and the overall mix of sounds presented. Mainly consisting of metallophones or metal/bronze instruments, gamelan instruments can range from deep and dark tones to high rings. The saron or “peking” family has the highest pitch of the gamelan instruments. The player will sit before it and strike its seven bronze bars with a mallet made from wood or buffalo horn. These metallophones are placed in the front and center of the ensemble, as these are the instruments that provide the main melody. In the back, small knobbed gongs are hung and played with soft mallets to delicately compliment the melody while a large gong provides a final punctuation for the melody. No matter what tone is being produced, the sounds will always be heard in syncopation with one another. In the center of the ensemble, many diverse instruments sit in rows, one of them being the “kendang”. This double-sided drum sits low to the ground and is played with bare hands, as opposed to mallets or sticks. Similar to a drum in modern western music, this drum is needed to keep time and provide a pulse for the ensemble. This drummer can also control the dynamics of the ensemble through his playing.
Although Gamelan is mainly associated with percussion, other instruments including flutes, stringed instruments, and vocals are also often incorporated into the music. When observing Gamelan, just the sight alone is enough to captivate an audience. Mallet instruments are enclosed with Indonesian designs made of bronze. These can be many things including cultural flowers, animals, and even people. The ensemble will often be in the presence of incense and flowers, as Gamelan is considered a very spiritual power in its culture. In fact, it is considered forbidden to ever step over a Gamelan instrument, as its surrounding spirit may be offended. An average ensemble will have up to forty different instruments. Similar to a modern western percussion ensemble, Gamelan are set up according to the dynamic of the instrument being played. The louder instruments will be placed in the back, and softer in front.
In Javanese society, the Gamelan is played mainly at social events such as weddings and birthdays as a form of entertainment and a mood setter for people. While in western culture people generally sit and watch a performance, guests of Gamelan are free to socialize and enjoy the peaceful music as they please. Often times a performance will be accompanied by spiritual dances. The performers will wear beautiful and elegant matching gowns as to keep with tradition.
In Gamelan music, there is no room for improvisation or individual playing, as it is always performed as a group effort. As tradition, the music is taught to the performers orally, as opposed to being read with sheet music. However, specific notations have been developed for Gamelan throughout time for the purpose of preserving the beautiful and sacred compositions. Many Gamelan arrangements aren’t as simple as they may seem. They can often be full of fast and complex rhythms and melodies that take true skill to achieve. Similar to European and western music, Gamelan applies specific counts to each beat of a song. Traditionally, a Gamelan piece will consist of a melody being played by a Saron instrument. This creates a basis in which the other instruments can interpret and alter the original melody as the song progresses.
Specialty craftsmen create Gamelan instruments as complete sets. It is vital that the instruments are built with very specific pitches in mind, as the instruments are designed to slightly clash in pitch. The sound waves produced from each instrument will travel at slightly different rates, creating a very unique and spiritual sound. If one were to place a specific gamelan instrument in a different ensemble, it would sound and look completely different. Unlike western music, the music of Indonesia focuses on two main scales that their instruments are designed for. The pentatonic scale or “slendro” consisting of five notes, and the heptatonic or “pelog” with seven. The metallic instruments of Indonesia are built keeping these specific scales in mind. I find it especially interesting that the interval system in this country does not match up in pitch with our western music. What this means is that the distance in pitch from note to note is slightly smaller in this scale system, making it impossible to play western music through Gamelan.
Not only does Gamelan provide a chain of work for Indonesian musicians, it also provides a livelihood for Indonesian craftsmen. Unlike almost all western instruments, the creation of Gamelan instruments requires a vast amount of religious preparation. Craftsmen must perform very specific rituals and proper meditation before molding the iron and bronze. In fact, after an Indonesian craftsmen finishes a set of Gamelan instruments, he or she will be given the title “Panji”, similar to a knight of the medieval ages. But it is not just enough to mold the instruments into their various shapes. One must be willing to sit with the hot bronze and hammer the instruments until the reach their destined pitches. This is a very tedious process that can take years to complete. Because of its bronze properties, Gamelan instruments can change pitch throughout a time period. The settling time of the bronze can take up to thirty years.
While Gamelan is almost only found in Indonesia as it is sacred to the culture, today this eerie, yet peaceful music has made its way to Hollywood, California. In December of 2013, Gamelan made perhaps its most international appearance in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”. The music fits perfectly as the protagonist Bilbo is destined to sneak into the dragon’s lair and steal a precious jewel lost among a nearly endless pile of gold. While Bilbo quietly wonders through the treasure room hoping not to wake the dragon, an ancient Gamelan sound rings, conjuring up feelings of intensity and skepticism.
Even today, this music is being played and studied in universities and private institutions in Europe and America. I was lucky enough to travel with the University of Nevada Percussion Ensemble to Sacramento State University, where they have a room devoted to Gamelan. There is truly no other sound in the world that can compare. In its homeland, the music of Gamelan is played in hopes to connect with God, as a rite of passage for children, and most importantly to bring the people of Indonesia together. The music of Indonesia has been very influential across the globe. The synchronized sound of these metallic instruments to my ears brings feelings of mantra, love, and relaxation.
Nettl, Bruno. “Indonesia.” Excursions In World Music. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2011. 160-89. Print.
“Gamelan.” Batikncraft. N.p., n.d. Web.