Indonesian Gamelan

HistoryIndonesian Gamelan
Gamelan (gah-meh-lan) now formally means "an Indonesian orchestra," but it generally refers to the traditional form of Indonesian music involving an orchestra comprising various percussion instruments. The percussion instruments are wood, iron, bronze, or bamboo bars, bronze or iron gongs, cymbals, drums, and bells. In addition, flutes and even human voices are used in certain types of gamelan music, depending on the geographical variant or the venue of the music. The word "gamelan" is derived from a word meaning to play (or strike in the context of a musical instrument). As is suggested by its official definition, the word gamelan used to refer to all Indonesian music, but the word began to refer to a specific style when foreign music and terminology entered Indonesia.
The gamelan orchestra has a large variety of instruments. Within the category of gongs, there are suspended gongs, of which there are multiple varieties each of bass gongs, middle voice gongs, and treble gongs. The other category of gongs is the horizontal gongs, of which there are various gong racks and handheld gongs. There are (many varieties of) metal, wood, and bamboo bar instruments ("xylophones"). There are cymbals, drums, flutes, and stringed instruments (bowed & plucked). The two usual scales used in gamelan music are slendro (pentatonic) and pelog (heptatonic-pentatonic). The full gamelan has pairs of instruments with one tuned in each scale. Both scales are often used simultaneously in the music. Tuning on a gamelan is distinct from the tuning on another gamelan. Indonesian music is often organized such that the lower registers provide the form, the middle registers are the melody, and embellishment is done through the higher registers.
As is suggested by the description as orchestral, gamelan music is an amalgamation of the efforts of many individual artists. The style of music is very formal; it was played at special community functions, ceremonies, and for the royal court. The music was also played as an accompaniment to dances during ceremonies and the like. Gamelan music is evidenced to be at least 1200 years old. Borobudur, Prambanan, and Candi Sari are Javanese temples depicting instruments of the gamelan, such as lutes, harps, "xylophones," and flutes. Oddly, gongs are missing from the historical record, and most of the species of instruments represented no longer exist in Indonesia. Nevertheless, the types of instruments are indicative of gamelan. Newer historical sites (~1300's) show the incorporation of gongs and the technological advancement of xylophone-type instruments (eg. The use of bamboo to amplify sound). Gongs don't seem native to Indonesia; they seem to appear in a refined state probably developed on the mainland. Some instruments resembling Indian instruments (eg. Sitar) were depicted as well, but there is no evidence these instruments ever existed in Indonesia. They could have been just relics of Indian influence, one of many foreign influences incorporated into Indonesian culture, in the region.
When Islamic influence came to the region, Hindus were converted or exiled to Bali; thus the gamelan music of Bali is "purer" than that of Java. Of course, indigenous changes in individual artistic style and overall culture had an effect on even Balinese gamelan. Gamelan music, all variations, continues to evolve today. In the last hundred years, Balinese gamelan has seen an increase in tempo while Javanese venues have become less grand. The kebyar style of Balinese gamelan is a product of the last century as are the bonang imbal and kembangan styles of Javanese playing.
The gamelan was regarded highly spiritually as well as purely musically. Each instrument was believed to have a spirit that must be respected. For example, shoes must be taken off when playing an instrument in gamelan.
Gamelan orchestras are present throughout Southeast Asia in some form. Even in Indonesia, because of the variety of cultures within the country, there are variations in gamelan tradition.
The major two within Indonesia are Javanese and Balinese. The Javanese gamelan has, in addition to the main percussion base, a bow-stringed instrument known as the rebab. The rebab and gender (xylophone) serve as the main melodic instruments of a Javanese gamelan. The spiritually leading instrument is the Gong Ageng, the biggest gong of the ensemble. Musically and rhythmically, the group is led by the drummer.
Balinese gamelan's most distinctive characteristic is the kotek. It is the sharing of a melody by trading notes of different pitches. Splitting up a melody into interlocking segments can create a fast tempo. One interesting fact is that one instrument (of the pair in gamelan) is tuned true while the other is tuned flat so that a shimmering/beat effect is attained. Balinese gamelan music can be split up into the venue for which it is being performed-temple music, Legong dance music, chamber music, processional music, and more. Javanese music is more influenced by the Islamic occupiers, and it is designed more for the royal family in palaces and other royal events.

Today gamelan music continues to change and incorporate elements from other types of music of the world as Indonesian music and culture has always done. Ensembles have been formed here in the United States as well.


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