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The Gamelan: Gambits & East-West exchanges

How gamelan music took on the world


Published: 17 Jul 2017

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Garin Nugroho’s Setan Jawa, which opens at the Esplanade in July 2017 following its much-feted world premiere at the Asia Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts in Melbourne in February, marks an interesting first: this is the Indonesian director’s maiden helming of a black-and-white movie in tribute to both Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the broader traditional Indonesian genre of wayang kulit shadow theatre.

With Nugroho’s inclination for storylines that verge on the allegorical and surreal, this story is a mystical one featuring a hero, Setio, who sells his soul to the devil, Setan, in exchange for riches that will win him his leading lady, Asih.

Literally underscoring this would-be Faustian Indonesian fable is another East-West pairing that plays with a whole new dimension of time and legend in Javanese composer Rahayu Supanggah’s collaboration with Iain Grandage of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. At the heart of this is a gamelan orchestra, featuring a solo pesindhen female singer, working in tandem with instruments from the genre of Western art music.

Rahayu Supanggah’s gambit of a collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra reopens particularly interesting questions today about how we think about culture flows, cultural institutions and the ‘classical.’

Southeast Asia ‘making its mark’

In today’s contemporary climes, intercultural and East-meets-West musical partnerships remain a tricky terrain.

Throw a bit of Indian dance with flamenco over a Chinese erhu playing to the beat of a kompang frame drum, and you’ll probably get a cheesy hodgepodge made under stymied, Singapore state-endorsed agenda of ‘multicultural fusion’. Play some Beatles on the koto, and you create elevator music fit for suburban Japanese hotels (not!). And yet, the myth that culture can be pure, or that it originates from a stationary starting point, is clearly untenable.

Whether you’re talking about the organic fusions of Afro-Cuban beats in Latin dance, or about K-pop – undeniably and recognisably Korean even if its ‘pop’ musical vocabularies borrow heavily from Anglo-American (or really, one should say ‘global’) strands – artists and musicians continue to create their own new paths from the old.

Rahayu Supanggah’s gambit of a collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra reopens particularly interesting questions today about how we think about culture flows, cultural institutions and the ‘classical.’

Collaborations between gamelan ensembles and Western art musicians are not new, and hark all the way back to the 1970s, through the works of Lou Harrison and the more recent workshop-based endeavours by Evan Ziporyn and Suppangah – a well-known old hand at the game – himself. But this particular partnership, made in the name of providing a live score to a brand new silent movie, marks important milestones in terms of scale, and in the active involvement of a composer who is also a cultural insider, working from the heart of the Asia Pacific.

What the collaboration in itself pushes forward—quite apart from the score giving the film its pivotal sonic atmosphere and emotional heart—is a recalibration of the loci and standards of cultural exchange, in an age of economically unevenly-developed but culturally-rich Southeast Asia making its mark in long-held institutionalised and internationalised practices of the colonial and postcolonial West.

Raffles, Debussy and the Hippie movement

As far as a link to Singapore is concerned, perhaps we can begin the story even earlier, to the time of our (sic) very own Stamford Raffles. In 1816, the would-be founder of modern Singapore, making his survey of Southeast Asia on behalf of the fabled East India Company, picked up a random assortment of (incomplete) gamelan instruments from the island of Java. Enamoured by their configurations and the sounds they produced, he shipped off his hoard to Great Britain, eventually donating the (now unplayable) instruments to the British Museum, where they still reside as relics to the cultural gains of British colonialism.

83 years later, a more famous encounter of the gamelan was made at the 1889 Paris Exhibition, this time by the French composer Claude Debussy. The Impressionist was so taken with the set of gongs and chimes – apparently on exhibition from a kampong village – that he went on to write several piano works, including Pagodes, in inspiration of its muted, pentatonic tones.

Another five decades later in 1941 – under the near-impossible regime of Nazi occupation – a group of Dutch teenagers created their own hand-forged gamelan ensemble called the Baba Layar, playing together as a sustained unit past the end of the Second World War for more than a decade. This group would go on to inspire the late Mantle Hood, a game-changing ethnomusicologist active in the United States in the 1950s until his death in 2005. Hood, who spent years conducting fieldwork in Indonesia, together with his mentor Jaap Kunst, brought the first gamelan orchestra to the UCLA in United States in 1954, where the instrument was used as a means to teach students about cultures outside of America and Europe.

This milestone event, which caught the attention of an increasingly-multicultural Californian public and a new generation of adventurous American composers swept up in Beat and Hippie movements to come, eventually spurred on a mini-boom in the export of gamelan instruments to academic institutions in the United States and, eventually the United Kingdom.

The Gamelan 02 Balinese Court Gamelan Music Tapestry 2009

Balinese Court Gamelan Music, <em>A Tapestry of Sacred Music</em>, 2009

The Gamelan 03 Gamelan Sekar Sersan Myriad Of Flowers Pesta 2015

<em>Myriad of Flowers</em> by Gamelan Sekar Sersan, <em>Pesta Raya</em>, 2015

Oiling village interaction, cultural diplomacy

Outside of Indonesia today, gamelan music—while central to village life and ritual across many parts of Southeast Asia—is primarily practised within the context of universities and academic institutions around the world.

Indeed, no self-respecting university’s music department would find itself without a gamelan ensemble, and this includes, ironically, both the National University of Singapore and the Lasalle College of the Arts, where commitment to this ‘exotic instrument’—in an urbanite Singaporean’s eyes anyway—is as much by way of claims to politically-correct international academic and institutional prestige as gong-chime ensembles are endemic to the region in which Singapore is located.

And yet, the gamelan ensemble remains important in its institutional role throughout time, history and culture – whether one is speaking of the traditional or modern. In villages through Southeast Asia, gamelan ensembles and their musicians were witnesses to important public ceremonies, religious rituals, sacred and secular dances and shadow puppet displays – the last of which functioned as socio-political commentary masked as folk entertainment.

The physical space in which the gamelan was housed and where musicians rehearsed—a semi-open air roofed terrace known as the pendopo—was often a meeting place for village folk and exchange ground for news and gossip.

In bigger cities, gamelan ensembles were the icons of royal courts and performing arts academies, and symbolised the pinnacle of cultural development made on behalf of a specific king’s, city’s, or indeed Indonesia’s wider, global identity and cultural power.

This last symbolic aspect of the gamelan became crucial to how the instrument became adopted outside Indonesia. Some of the earliest gamelan ensembles functioned as wares of cultural diplomacy. They were gifted to different foreign institutions by various Indonesian embassies around the world: indeed, the nurturing of wayang kulit as a genre in the UK was heavily encouraged by a former Indonesian ambassador to the UK who was also an amateur dhalang, or shadow puppeteer.

In their setups as mid-scale orchestras which could involve team musicians of 20 or more people, gamelans provided convenient infrastructure in conservatories that wanted to groom ‘bi-musical’ musicians who could prove reasonable dexterity in an ‘Other’ kind of orchestral music, while remaining fundamentally trained in Mozart and Mahler. In terms of its size, affiliations to deeper history, relative cost and transportability, the gamelan was the convenient world music equivalent of a ‘classical’ tradition that forward-thinking academies embraced.

Improvising from a skeletal melody

How did gamelans and gamelan musicians musically interact with the wider world – ‘Western’ or otherwise, then? In the 19th century, Debussy was enraptured by the ‘exoticism’ of the instrument’s pentatonic scale, but really, such a technical musical term is but a big under-representation of the instrument’s bigger sonic qualities.

The truth is that gamelan music employs two scales: a five-note slendro and the more distinctive seven-note pelog. What is more interesting is that gamelan ensembles—almost always hand-forged to specific tuning requirements of village heads and courts—are only ever in tune within the individual instruments that form its setup; no two gamelans in the world are in tune with each other.

As one can imagine, this makes collaboration with ‘standardised’ symphony orchestras extremely tricky, requiring musicians to work extremely closely with particular sets of instruments and their particular communities of musician-guardians. Crucially, the musical sociability of gamelan ensembles does not function in a straightforward composer-score-conductor-performer-audience channel of command; musicians are frequently improvisers who may not necessarily consider themselves composers but performers who realise a skeletal melody known as a balungan in their unique and individual ways.

A gamelan musician has an intimate and specific relationship with every bronze key and gong of his ensemble. He listens to texture, aural space and sonic worlds in ways that are dramatically different from the linear, harmonic impetus and dynamism characterising much of Western art music.

This brings us next to the issue of time and temporality: traditional gamelan music is cyclical, and its rhythmic stability culminates—somewhat unnaturally for the Western-trained musician—in the final beat of a balungan cycle. To untrained ears, this contextually counter-intuitive experience of rhythm can be disturbing.

However, to initiated listeners, the listening endeavour can open up different worlds in a whole new way of experiencing the complex passing of time and, often, interlocked aural space and textures, particularly when musicians go into time-lapsed half-speeds. In the hands of practised and connected performers who respond quickly and innately to one another within the ensemble, the soft, shimmering gongs can sound cosmic and spiritual.

Over the past few decades, composers who are both cultural insiders and cultural outsiders alike have written pieces for the gamelan in collaboration with different instruments, bridging the proverbial ‘East’ with the proverbial ‘West’.

The routes of cultural exchange, however, are not always balanced.

Some composers take the timbral qualities of the gamelan at face value, likening the instruments to mere percussive resources or ‘special-effects’ sections that are systematically bent to the will to the would-be creative genius of the composer.

Daniel Goode, for example, avowed that he was compositionally not really interested in traditional gamelan music, preferring to understand them as a collection of metal objects that literally functioned as instruments of his individual creative impetus; the music he wrote for the ensemble would have to be unadulterated by preconceptions of Indonesian culture and should ‘come out of myself.’ Yet other composers, from Lou Harrison to Christopher Miller, Michael Tenzer and cultural insiders including Rahayu Supanggah, I Wayan Sinti, I Wayan Satra and I Nyoman Rembang, have taken the approach of grounding their new works in years of fieldwork or semi-professional study and training in more ‘traditional’ gamelan settings.

And even for some of these composers, the goal may not always be organic synthesis; some composers employ mosaic-style musical collages to make specific points about culture juxtaposition and confrontation; others transplant techniques or ideas and deliberately allow them to sit uncomfortably next to each other.

Going ‘global’

A discourse that has been hinted at so far in this article’s discussion of the gamelan in interaction with other musical genres is the problematic East to West cultural flow: the gamelan ‘internationalised’ into foreign American and European postcolonial settings; the gamelan being incorporated into the canons of Western Art music practice.

The cultural flows, however, have not always been unidirectional, or only to the ‘West.’ During the Dutch and British eras in Indonesia, instruments from Western wind band were occasionally incorporated into court and folk ensembles in Indonesia itself to signify militaristic sounds – here, one could say that ‘Western’ culture was being quoted or even parodied.

Over the past several hundred years of its development within Indonesia (and many parts of Southeast Asia), the gamelan has been developing – not just in terms of the diversification of regional styles (Balinese vs Javanese being a well-known example), but also in its incorporation of new techniques and new materials from bamboo to electro-acoustics.

One also has to remember that gong-chime ensembles are endemic not just to Indonesia but the whole of Southeast Asia, and gamelan-based genres and repertoires have developed in many cross-cultural exchanges within Southeast Asia itself, including exchanges with modern-day Malaysia, Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

In November 2017, as part of Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts in Singapore, Indian classical bharatanatyam and Javanese classical dance will be twinned in Apsaras Arts’ production of Anjaneyam, along with Indian and Javanese musical elements such as gamelan. Indeed, engagement with ‘Western’ culture (however this clumsy label is defined) is not the only way the gamelan and its musicians have learnt to be ‘creative'.

Today, as the scholar-composer Christopher Miller writes, modern gamelan fusions perhaps do not so much parallel popular music’s appropriation of African or Indian music (in genres from ska to salsa), but mirror a reverse flow – of the adoption of a grand classical tradition on a global level, such as of Western Art Music in East Asia and internationally.

One might argue that there is gamelan practised in Indonesia, and there is gamelan which is now not so much made ‘outside of Indonesia’ as it is ‘international.’

Gamelan music, you could say, has transcended Indonesia and Southeast Asia to become a cosmopolitan and international practice: this remains as much a testament to Indonesia’s claim to global citizenship by way of musical participation as any other diplomatic campaign.

Breaking down gamelan music

Gamelan—or the gamelan orchestra—is a collection of 10-20 individual hand-forged bronze instruments shaped as gongs, chimes and metallic xylophones. Known as the traditional music of Java and Bali, gamelan music has been played in the region since the 3rd century, and variations of the genre in the form of gong-chime ensembles (known by other names such as kulintang in the Philippines or the hsaing waing in Burma) can be found throughout Southeast Asia.

While gamelans are classified as percussion instruments, their range of expression is wide. Javanese gamelans are usually played with soft, padded mallets (with the exception of some instruments such as the small metallophones, saron and peking), while Balinese gamelans are struck with harder mallets in rapid-fire passages of interlocking, visually exciting displays.

The standard structure of a traditional gamelan piece is underpinned by a skeletal melody known as the balungan. After its initial ‘bare bones’ rendition this melody is elaborated in complex repetitions – sometimes going to half and quarter-speed, in combinations of different textures, playing with time-space relationships, by different instruments of the ensemble.

Gamelan music is almost always cyclical, and the end of each cycle is marked by the quiet, gentle boom of the large gong agung. Throughout an entire gamelan piece, a double-barrelled drum played by the hand known as the kendhang keeps time and leads the ensemble into different time-phases. All gamelan performers have to learn how to play every instrument in the ensemble, although many performers have their own specialisms. Gamelan orchestras can also sometimes work with a male chorus or a female singer known as a pesindhen in pieces that incorporate Javanese poetry.

Contributed by:

Tan Shzr Ee

Tan Shzr Ee is an ethnomusicologist and Senior Lecturer at the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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