Balinese Gamelan: The Collaboration of a Collective Humanity

(This post is an edited version of a paper I wrote for one of my classes at UCLA that was 1)an ethnography focusing on the ensemble of Balinese Gamelan music at the university and 2)an in-depth look at the historical and cultural aspects of gamelan music from the Indonesian island of Bali. Enjoy.-Derek)

“Ok let’s try that again, from the top, remember, the gong comes in on the 5.” This seems like a typical night in the UCLA Music of Bali ensemble. Everybody in the ensemble is doing their best to keep time, but this particular song, Topeng Keras, is presenting a certain amount of difficulty, mainly due to the confusion regarding the particularly challenging interlocking patterns on this piece. The more the ensemble works at this song, though, the easier it becomes as this group of 20 people is tight-knit, and understands all of the subtle nuances that each player brings to these Tuesday night sessions. As a member of this gamelan ensemble, I play many roles. As an Ethnomusicology major, I play the role of observer, attempting to find the deepest cultural influences within the music being played. As a musician, I try to accurately interpret the music presented to me in the form of both oral tradition and notation. In both cases, both as student and musician, I have found one certain truth about this music. In trying to understand Balinese gamelan music, you not only gain a greater understanding of the culture of the people of Bali, but a greater understanding of yourself in the process.

There are numerous forms of gamelan in Indonesia, each influenced by regional factors, but with relation to the island of Bali, the most popular form (and the type that is played in the UCLA Music of Bali Ensemble) is gamelan Gong Kebyar. The style originates in the aftermath of the collapse of the court system in 1908. When the Dutch assumed governmental control, they proceeded to melt down any form of gamelan into a new form known as Gong Kebyar. What resulted following this was a playing style that consisted of interlocking parts (known as kotekan) and rapid rhythmic patterns. In comparison to other gamelan styles (such as the Javanese soft-playing and loud-playing styles), the Balinese Gong Kebyar is truly one that requires finesse and virtuosity that is unparalleled.

I had no inclination of what to expect when I joined this ensemble. Despite my major being Ethnomusicology, I had little prior interaction with this music, in turn causing slight trepidation as to what I would be doing, especially because I enrolled directly in the advanced ensemble. The warmth of the people, however, both from the director Nyoman Wenten and the actual instrumentalists, gave me a sense of peace as I eased into this type of performance ensemble. The director understands that not every individual has training in music that is primarily oral tradition; in turn he writes many songs played in the ensemble in cipher notation for ease of use. It is important to state however, that the ultimate intention, as stated by Dr. Wenten himself, is to have entire ensemble memorize the pieces for performance purposes. It possibly comes from the performance philosophy that states a memorized piece allows for greater expression, but more likely it is to create a more authentic experience that is practiced in Bali (i.e. the end-result of learning music via oral tradition). There is a certain thread of continuity that gamelan holds with other Southeast Asian styles of music, most notably heterophonic interaction among the instruments. Theoretically speaking, Balinese gamelan Gong Kebyar utilizes the pentatonic Pelog Selisir scale, which is a succession of tones found in the heptatonic Pelog scale of the gamelan music of Java. An integral structural aspect of gamelan music is that it is colotomic in nature, meaning that it follows cycles (most comparable to repeat bars in western classical music). The cyclical nature of the music highlights a grander cultural concept of the Balinese people, that there is a natural cycle of life that pervades the island and its inhabitants. This life cycle philosophy of the Balinese people most likely draws from the Agama Hindu Dharma sect of Hinduism practiced on the island. In the Agama Hindu Dharma rituals, the cyclical nature of life is given respect to through various celebrations including marriage, coming-of-age rites, and cremation at the end of a person’s life. It is important to state, however, that there are differences with this particular sect of Hinduism when compared against the religion practiced in other regions of the world. The main difference of the Agama Hindu Dharma sect is that there is less actual emphasis on reincarnation, and more emphasis on the hyang, or ancestral and divine spirits. The fact remains though that there is still significance of reincarnation in the sense of the life cycle, hence the reason why Agama Hindu Dharma is so essential to the culture of Bali.

To the western ear, gamelan’s cyclical structure may sound, and I use this term without intention of disrespect to the people of Bali, simplistic in nature. I am reminded in some ways when I listen and play gamelan music of the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and how their music was perceived by the academic community of the 1960’s as “simple,” whereas in actuality the complexity arose from the minimal materials and the repetitive structure. As with minimalism, what those untrained in this music fail to realize with gamelan, is that playing this music is extremely intricate and the cyclical nature actually makes it more difficult to perform it correctly. Every single instrument in the ensemble must be exactly within time and know exactly where their individual parts begin and end. What happens if this is not closely watched by the musicians is, quite frankly, a disastrous outcome. Each instrument sounds as though it is playing in a totally different time signature, mimicking the aleatoric music of John Cage  rather than the intended audio result of rapid, cyclical pentatonic metallophone music.

As I have observed in the ensemble, the melodic leaders have a difficult task of playing intricate melodies that require a high degree of technical ability. The term “melodic leaders,” is perhaps misleading with relation to the ensemble. With western classical music, the “melodic leaders” such as first violin, first cello etc., are deemed to be of a heightened importance with other instruments playing a lesser role. This is not the case with gamelan music, for while from a theoretician’s point of view there may in fact be a lead melody, the ensemble itself is truly egalitarian in nature. Each and every instrument is an integral component that adds unique color and perspective to the piece in question. The instrument I play, the Calung, holds what would be the equivalent of a bass line in western music. It provides the melodic foundation for the other instruments to play off of, often times serving as one of the instruments the holds the tempo for the rest of the ensemble. Playing this instrument, despite the fact that its instrumental passages are not as rhythmically complex as the other keyed instruments such as the Gangsa Katilan, makes the instrumentalist feel as though they are truly playing an integral component to the ensemble. This is an important, encouraging component to this music that would be beneficial for musicians of any tradition to learn. Especially in the competitive musical environment of the United States, it would be a wonderful addition to the consciousness of the composers of the modern era to create music that showcases the individual talents of musicians in an egalitarian manner.

The greatest privilege in doing Ethnomusicological research is the deepened perspective of music you receive when studying other cultures. Through the study of Balinese gamelan music I experience in Nyoman Wenten’s Music of Bali ensemble, I received, and continue to receive, truly a rewarding, and enlightening experience. The culture of the Balinese people is beautiful, with a philosophy on life that could change the world if followed. It was my intent with this ethnographic paper to present the historical and theoretical context that the people of Bali construct their music with, but more importantly, to highlight the beautiful ideas that give them a unique perspective on how life operates. In seeking to understand those who are not like us, we slowly begin to more intuitively who we are as a collective humanity, and how we ought to progress in relation to each-other. Music, among all else, is the greatest transmitter of such progress, as it transcends every boundary mentionable, and the gamelan music of Bali is no exception to such an idea.

(Sources: Titon, Jeff Todd, et al. “Worlds of Music, 3rd. ed.” New York: Schirmer, 1996. Print.;Reader, Lesley and Lucy Ridout. “The Rough Guide to Bali and Lombok.” London: Rough Guides, 2002. Print.)


5 thoughts on “Balinese Gamelan: The Collaboration of a Collective Humanity

  1. beautifully written, being Indian I have an interest in ethnomusicology personally and professionally. I would love to read some of the sources you write from in your world music blogs to find out more, any chance you have a reference list for your articles?

  2. I have it somewhere in my computer haha, I can take a look and point you to some resources, usually when I write my articles I just leave the sources off for readability, but I would be happy to show you some of my sources in this comment section. I will comment with it fairly soon.-Derek

  3. Ok, here are some of my sources:Titon, Jeff Todd, et al. “Worlds of Music, 3rd. ed.” New York: Schirmer, 1996. Print.;Reader, Lesley and Lucy Ridout. “The Rough Guide to Bali and Lombok.” London: Rough Guides, 2002. Print.;”The Algorithmic Composer” and “Virtual Music: Computer Synthesis of Musical Style” by David Cope; “The Yellow Bell: A Brief Sketch of the History of Chinese Music” By Chao Mei Pa, and finally multiple works by Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy that I cannot seem to find on the internet specifically relating to Indian Classical music. Hope this helps-Derek

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