Central Javanese Gamelan

Indonesia is a big country, consisting of many cultures with many musical traditions. The biggest culture, with the most highly refined musical tradition, is that of the Javanese. The island of Bali also supports a distinct classical tradition. The music of other cultures has also been recorded, but I will not be dealing with that, as it has more the character of folk art.

Since many readers are apparently less familiar with the Javanese cultural setting (as opposed to India, China or Iran), I will discuss this background before proceeding to the list of recordings. The language we call Javanese is spoken in the central and eastern parts of the island of Java. The western part is Sundanese (from which there are also a few recordings, not to be discussed). Javanese is a very complicated language, consisting of three distinct vocabularies and grammars to be used with those in superior, equal, or inferior social positions with respect to the speaker. The national language of Indonesia is a modern construction, designed for simplicity and easy use by the wide array of different cultures within its boundaries.

Prior to the European period, Javanese was the dominant culture of the region, at times holding hegemony in parts of the Asian mainland. For instance, in the early-medieval history of what is now Cambodia, a restoration of the traditional monarchy was heralded by the arrival of a prince from Java to take the kingship. During the Mongol era, a large invasion fleet (much larger than that sent to Japan) was sent to Java, only to be soundly thrashed at sea, without a landing. This will give the reader some idea of the Javanese strength, but it should also be noted that this hegemony was generally not expressed through military means (at least insofar as we understand it), but rather as cultural and trading superiority. Of course, this situation was drastically modified by the arrival of the Arab traders.

Indonesia is counted as the most populous Muslim nation in the world, but this is somewhat misleading. Islam is not a "state religion" as it is in many Islamic countries, and there is quite a bit of variety, although the majority of inhabitants do profess Islamic beliefs. Among the larger cultures, North Sumatra is the "most" Muslim; in fact, it was home to a major Islamic University (known, for instance, in China) during the later medieval era. Java is also Islamic, in the sense that the people believe in many of the tenets of Islam and identify themselves as Muslims, but there are also other simultaneous belief systems. Prior to Islam, Java was alternately Hindu and Buddhist (and Bali remains Hindu), and these beliefs continue to be important for Muslim people. There is also an older layer of native religious practice which is still alive and well. Javanese religion is termed "syncretistic" (i.e., combining various influences), and it is generally only our tendency to give priority to the monotheistic religions which yields the Javanese the designation of "Islamic" per se. Of course, the influence of Islam should not be understated either.

The above discussion of syncretism should not give the impression that Java is an area of religious conflict. The different belief systems have been molded into a coherent whole, and the various public rituals (like the calendar with its simultaneous cycles of five and seven days, i.e. these coincide every thirty-five days) are thoroughly ingrained throughout the Javanese population (of course, as we know, the "Europeanized elite" frequently have different ideas). The Sanskrit classic epic Mahabharata continues to be a huge cultural influence on Java (it is easily apparent from the simple fact that many personal names are taken from that text, etc.) and the shadow puppet theater based on episodes from this epic is one of the most distinctive and wide-spread Javanese cultural practices. The gamelan is always used to accompany these plays (wayang kulit). The classical dance forms of Indonesia are also attaining some level of popularity in the USA (you could have seen them regularly in the Rose Bowl Parade, for instance), and much of the court music was written to accompany dance. There is also a large and impressive body of surviving classical literature on various topics, usually written in verse (including a verse encyclopedia, if you can imagine...).

The gamelan orchestra, based on metallic percussion with some wooden xylophones and drums, is well-known to many readers. In various forms, it is ubiquitous to Southeast Asia. In Java, the full gamelan also adds a bowed-string instrument (the rebab, a name illustrative of Islamic influence), a bamboo flute (suling) and voices. The rebab is one of the main melodic instruments, together with the bronze xylophone "gender," and is often played by the senior musician to lead the ensemble. Voices consist of male (and sometimes female) choruses called gerong, together with female soloists called pesindhen. However, the voices are not used as "lead" instruments in court gamelan (as opposed to wayang kulit, shadow puppet theater) and blend with or complement the sound. More specifically, the chorus is very much a part of the texture, whereas the soloist has an almost-separate improvisatory role, including the use of notes outside of the mode of the piece. In these abstract pieces, mostly "gendhing" on the current list, the words are largely secondary to the music.

This list of recordings is devoted to court gamelan. There are four royal courts (kratons) in Central Java, two each in Surakarta (Solo) and Yogyakarta. Returning briefly to history... when the Dutch took over the Southeast Asian trade and established themselves in Java (Sunda, actually), their policy was not to destroy the royal court, but to isolate it. In other words, they did everything they could to remove any political influence from the sultans, but allowed the court to remain as a cultural institution (which had always been a large part of its role, perhaps analogous to the Chinese Emperor). Much later, the court (originally in Solo) divided into four, due to philosophical differences (of aesthetic) in the royal house, and with encouragement from the Dutch. The kratons continue to serve as cultural and educational institutions, and house the classical music tradition of Java. Each court has a huge roster of musicians and an extensive collection of historical instruments. Today many of these musicians also have jobs outside their kraton, but this was not true in the recent past. Despite what any of this discussion might imply, the music itself is extremely coherent. It shows no sign of mixed objectives, but is rather a "pure" style. The repertory is vast.

There are two scales in Javanese gamelan music, "slendro" (pentatonic) and "pelog" (heptatonic-pentatonic). Tuning is not standard, rather each gamelan set will have a distinctive tuning. A complete gamelan consists of a pair of sets, one tuned in each of the scales and intended to be played together in many instances. Different gamelan sets have different sonorities, and are used for different pieces of music; many are very old, and used for only one specific piece. Musical forms are defined by the rhythmic cycles. These consist of major cycles subdivided by smaller cycles, each marked by the striking of successively smaller gongs. The melodic interplay takes place within this framework (technically called "colotomic"). There are also distinct melodic modes ("pathet") within the division of scale, three for each of the scales. The modes are defined according to which notes of the scale are emphasized, much like the vadi/samvadi concept in Indian classical music.

I hope this discussion has not been too tedious. On to the recommended recording list....

I had been buying every recording of Javanese court gamelan that I found, although they tended to appear in relative explosions followed by years of nothing. When I first wrote this list, there were only three, none with as much scope as some of what is available now. Then there were more, followed by another lull, and now it seems that the releases are hidden away and I miss them too often. So I must be more selective and the following list consists of highlights only.

In each case, the CD production quality is good. Note that I generally favor recordings with some pared down textures, because putting together all of the parts that might occur in a full gamelan performance does not make for very good clarity on recordings. Comments will follow the recordings to which they apply.

The most recent major series of gamelan recordings is being produced by John Noise Manis, and features many items which include a didactic intent. This can be found from the first Felmay disc and through the series, and especially in a similarly constituted set for Arion.

Gamelan of Central Java
VI. Kraton Surakarta
Musicians of STSI and Kraton Surakarta
Felmay / Dunya 8103
Gamelan of Central Java
VIII. Court Music Treaures
Musicians of STSI and Kraton Surakarta
Felmay / Dunya 8119

The above two are probably the most directly aesthetic and satisfying recordings of regular court gamelan in the Felmay series, building as they do upon classic repertory with leading musicians. The "gendhing" is the most serious genre of abstract music in Javanese gamelan, and is featured here. Since this series is more recent than the others, the sound is generally better, and gamelan music benefits from the best possible sound.

Gamelan of Central Java
XII. Pangkur One
Gerong & Ensemble ISI Surakarta
Felmay / Dunya 8166
Gamelan of Central Java
XIII. Pangkur Two
Gadhon Ensemble ISI
Felmay / Dunya 8167

This pair of recordings represents another distinct high point in the Felmay series. Here it concentrates on many versions of a single piece, illustrating just how varied the Javanese conception of a single piece of music really is. The second disc in particular, featuring smaller ensembles and smaller-scale settings, including performances of classical poetry (macapat) emphasizing the solo voice, has become an immediate favorite. Originally, including some performances of these types of settings here was more a nod to completeness, but now it is a definite strength. This disc cannot be recommended highly enough.

It is anticipated that other interesting items will continue to appear in this series.

And to prove that he is rewriting the Javanese gamelan discography on all fronts, there is also a series on Lyrichord by John Noise Manis.

What had been the most impressive series of Central Javanese Court Gamelan recordings was on the World Music Library label (King Records, Japan). There are several quality recordings in this series, and a sense that more would appear, but the label's productions seemed to have ceased entirely. The main series is devoted to the court in Surakarta (Solo), and includes separate sub-series for the two kratons as well as related ensembles. The most appealing recordings here:

Gêndhing Bonang
Court Music of Kraton Surakarta, III
Pawiyatan Kraton Surakarta - G.R.A. Koes Murtiyah
World Music Library 5238

This is the last of a series of three recordings devoted to the senior court in Solo, the Kraton Surakarta. It is also the one recording in this group to consist of the abstract gendhing format and so is especially appealing. There is a remarkable flow and energy to this performance, giving it a big impact. It consists of a relatively smaller all-instrumental ensemble, but is of the "strong" style of music.

Music of Mangkunêgaran Solo, I
Langen Praja, Istana Mangkunêgaran Solo - R.M.Ng. Rana Suripta
World Music Library 5184

This is another recording of abstract pieces by a small gamelan ensemble, also without singers. The Istana Mangkunegaran is the junior kraton of Surakarta. The shimmering sonorities of this recording are particularly exquisite, making it a nicely subtle example of the Javanese style.

Chamber Music of Central Java
Sarasehan Krawitan Surakarta
World Music Library 5152

The style of chamber music featured here is called "gadhon", and is performed by a small court gamelan ensemble without vocalists (in this case, seven performers). The bowed-string rebab is featured here, and provides a very compelling lyricism. Overall, the open texture highlights the musical modes quite nicely.

In general, the Solo (Surakarta) kratons are known for their refinement and restraint, as opposed to the robust vigor of the Yogyakarta kratons. A series devoted to the Yogyakarta style has begun on the Ocora label. These are older recordings, and feature musicians who grew up in the court atmosphere. Many of the newer recordings (as per above) use conservatory-trained musicians because of the changing economics of the kratons.

Java: Palais Royal de Yogyakarta
Volume 4 - La musique de concert
Kraton Yogyakarta - KRT Madukusumo
Ocora (Radio France) C 560087

This is a full gamelan performance, including voices, with vigorous textures and full sonic variety. There is not the characteristic smoothness of both Solo & modern musical training. There is a certain "rawness" to this performance which makes it essential.

Java: Palais Royal de Yogyakarta
Volume 2 - La musique instrumentale
Kraton Yogyakarta - KRT Madukusumo
Ocora (Radio France) C 560068

This is another appealing recording, roughly analogous to the "Gendhing Bonang" disc above, but again with a more varied texture. This is a particularly fine example of combining suppleness of line with angular phrasing.

An earlier, unusual recording on Ocora:

Java: Langen Mandra Wanara
Opera by Danuredjo VII
Kyuahi Tunjung Sari Gamelan
Ocora (Radio France) C 559014/15 (2 CDs)

This set is a complete performance of an opera style "Langen Mandra Wanara" developed at the end of the 19th century in Yogyakarta. It is innovative in that, as opposed to the ordinary theater, the entire libretto is sung, giving voices a more prominent & forward role here than in ordinary court gamelan. The story is taken from the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. The length of this program is more representative of a gamelan performance in Java, rather than the more truncated programs above.

Something rather different....

The music of K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat
Gamelan Sekar Tunjung
CMP Records 3007

K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat was the music director at Paku Alaman Kraton Yogyakarta, where he was born and where he succeeded his father in that position. He also directed the gamelan of the Yogyakarta radio station, beginning in 1934. He has since retired and moved to Los Angeles, where he was on the world music faculty of the California Institute of the Arts, and then moved back to Java. As such, his credentials are unparalleled for an "innovative" composer. This disc consists of eight of Wasitodiningrat's compositions for full gamelan. These were composed on various commissions (including one from American composer Lou Harrison) and for various international functions.

An older review of Javanese gamelan recordings is by Geert Jan van Oldenborgh.

There are, of course, a large number of gamelan ensembles forming around the world and especially in the US. So ask around in your community or see the resources at the American Gamelan Institute in New Hampshire.

To World music menu.

T. M. McComb
Updated: 12 October 2010