This past Thursday night, the sounds of the annual Wesleyan Javanese Gamelan concert reverberated once again throughout the World Music Hall. Graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in MUSC452: Javanese Gamelan—Advanced joined Artist in Residence in Indonesian Music I. Harjito and Professor of Music Sumarsam in playing five pieces, three of which were composed by Harjito himself.
Gamelan music is characterized by its cyclical nature. Over the course of one cycle, which consists of four repetitions of eight beats, one easily loses the strong beat due to emphases on the off beats. The sounding of the largest gong, “gong ageng,” resets the listener to the end, which also serves as the beginning of the next cycle. The result is a rolling, momentous cadence with engrossing layers of melodies, the most prominent being the rich, lilting voices of the chorus.
Ever since Wesleyan restructured its music program with the construction of its new Center for the Arts in the 1960s, this entrancing and melody-filled musical style has been a mainstay in the department’s world music focus. The University’s precious gamelan instruments were made in Java in 1924. Each full set is unique and crafted at once, and, due to subtle differences in tunings between sets, the individual instruments cannot be easily replaced. According to custom, all performers must practice deep respect for the instruments by bowing their heads and never stepping over them; this has helped to preserve our set for so long.
A Javanese gamelan orchestra comprises about 40 instruments, each falling into a category that forms a layer of the music. For the main melody, there is a two-stringed lute called a “rebab,” a bronze-keyed metallophone played with a mallet called a “gendèr,” a bamboo flute called a “suling,” and a small chorus of singers. For melodic abstraction, a sort of skeleton with a simple rhythm, there are the “slenthem” and “saron,” which are also metallophones. Next are the melodic mediators, using different melodic lines that inform the previous two groups. These are the “bonang,” two rows of bronze gong-kettles, and the “saron panerus,” another metallophone. Keeping time is the “kendhang,” an asymmetric drum. Most important to the structure of the piece are the “kenong,” larger bronze gong-kettles, and the gongs of many sizes and pitches. The music is particularly spatial, a quality emphasized by the balanced construction of the World Music Hall: the main melodic instruments are situated in the front with the chorus in the center; the structural melodic instruments are raised behind them; and in the back and highest up are the large gongs. Though farthest away, the biggest gong has a powerful resonance that shakes your bones.
The scale used in gamelan music is neither major nor minor, but rather a variation of a Western pentatonic scale. Furthermore, there are two scales used: the five-note “sléndro” and seven-note “pélog.” To accommodate this, each gamelan orchestra actually contains two of each instrument, and the performers alternate from one scale to the other depending on the song. The scales and instruments are never played at the same time.
Also playing in the ensemble were Peni Candra Rini, a singer from the Institute of Performing Arts in Solo, Indonesia; Jessika Kenney; Jen Shyum Chriss Miller; Nadya Potemkina; and Leslie Rudden.