Gamelan Besi (Iron) from Central Java
On the Indonesian islands of Java, Bali, and Lombok, one finds a staggering variety of indigenous instrumental ensembles that all fall under the general designation of gamelan. Although the instrumentation of these ensembles varies greatly from island to island, district to district, and even within any given localized area, in general they have at their core tuned percussion instruments. These instruments are often xylophone-like with their keys made from bamboo, wood, or metal (bronze, iron, or brass). Another variety of instrument that is found in nearly every type of gamelan is the gong. Gamelan gongs are precisely tuned and often used in sets for melodic play. The Javanese (an ethnic group of some 80 million living on the island of Java) are renowned for their hand-forged bronze gongs, the largest of which measure a yard or more in diameter and produce a sonorous and sustained tone.
The iron (besi) gamelan pictured here is representative of ensembles from the central part of the island of Java, more specifically from the two historically significant court centers of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. It was commissioned and constructed in the city of Yogyakarta in 1983, with additional instruments (also manufactured in Yogyakarta) added in 2000. The materials of construction are steel, iron, and wood for the various keyed instruments and gongs, with casings from teak and jackfruit wood.
This gamelan, like many gamelans, has a personal name--Kyahi Biwara (‘The Venerable Herald’). Each gamelan is a unique entity, a set of instruments belonging to itself. Although Central Javanese gamelans are tuned to two types of scales (called sléndro and pélog), the scales themselves are not standardized. Each gamelan is given unique versions of the tuning concepts, and thus no two gamelan sets are tuned alike. Additionally, the design, ornamentation, and painting of each gamelan is unique. Primarily for the above reasons instruments cannot be switched from one gamelan to another--they would neither look nor sound compatible. Consequently, gamelan musicians do not own their own instruments like a typical Western orchestral player, but meet at the place where a gamelan is more or less permanently housed. Because each gamelan has a unique visual and sonic identity, just as each human being's appearance, vocal quality and personality set her or him apart as an individual, gamelan are personified by being given personal names and by being treated with respect. For more information on this cultural practice, see the website The Gamelans of the Kraton Yogyakarta by Roger Vetter (link provided in the Bibliography to follow).
Gamelan performance, like so many activities in Javanese society, is a communal endeavor. Social harmony is the ideal state sought in the performance of gamelan. There are no stars or soloists, and the requisite skill and training needed to perform as part of a group vary tremendously according to the instrument being played or the vocal style being sung. Although there are professional groups of gamelan performers, there are a far greater number of amateur groups that provide outlets for social interaction through music for neighborhoods, villages, offices, and schools. The celebration of a life-cycle event such as a circumcision or marriage, the marking of an important anniversary, or the exorcism of some undesirable or dangerous situation are the sorts of situations that might call for a performance involving gamelan music, dance, and/or theatre. Concert hall recitals of traditional music simply do not exist, although programs of gamelan music began to be broadcast live over radio as early as the 1930s, and this practice continues up to the present. Increasingly, performances of gamelan and traditional dance are arranged for the convenience of tourists.
Gamelan performers realize musical works, called gendhing, that are part of an oral tradition of substantial proportions. Gendhing are flexible entities that can be adapted to a variety of performance contexts, sometimes used for the accompaniment of dance or theatre forms, at other times for listening pleasure or ceremonial use. A gendhing can be performed at a number of different tempi, at different dynamic levels, in different tuning systems, and for different lengths of time--all these factors being shaped by the context of a given performance and the particular musicians performing.
The individual parts that contribute to the overall complex, filled-in fabric of sound one hears in a performance result from the musicians carrying out specific musical functions associated with the instruments on which they are performing. Gamelan musicians do not memorize parts for hundreds of pieces. Rather, they learn the technique and a vocabulary of patterns for each instrument, and then how to apply that knowledge to various musical situations that regularly occur in performance. For this reason gamelan performance can be very spontaneous, while at the same time involving almost no improvisation.
Two recordings of music being played by the Grinnell College Javanese Music Ensemble on the gamelan pictured on this page can be selected. The first is an excerpt from the piece Ladrang Srikaton performed in the sléndro (five-tone) tuning system. This style of performance, which includes male and female vocal parts in addition to the full array of instruments listed below, is referred to by the Javanese as lirehan (soft style). In contrast, the second performance, which uses the instruments in the set tuned to the pélog (seven-tone) scale, is presented in the more robust soran (loud) style. This style incorporates only the instruments through the three kendhang in the gallery below, and excludes voices and the softer-voiced instruments gender barung, gambang, rebab, celempung and suling. The piece being performed is Ladrang Tedhaksaking.
Follow these links for detailed charts showing: for the sléndro instruments of Kyahi Biwara, their ranges and tuning pattern; and, for the pélog instruments of Kyahi Biwara, their ranges and tuning pattern.
Brinner, Benjamin. 2008. Music in Central Java. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kunst, Jaap. 1973. Music in Java. 3rd ed. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Lindsay, Jennifer. 1992. Javanese Gamelan: Traditional Orchestra of Indonesia. 2nd ed. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
Pickvance, Richard. 2005. A Gamelan Manual. London: Jaman Mas Books.
Sorrell, Neil. 1990. A Guide to the Gamelan. London: Amadeus Press.
Vetter, Roger. 2003. The Gamelans of the Kraton Yogyakarta, website accessed February 21, 2015: https://vetter.sites.grinnell.edu/gamelan/
(by Roger Vetter)