In the Indonesian archipelago, gamelan ensembles are found on the islands of Java, Bali, Lombok and Kalimantan. Generally speaking, the word "gamelan" refers to many different kinds of Indonesian musical groups, which often feature hanging and pot gongs, metallophones of various sizes, flutes, drums and other instruments. All gamelan music is shaped by a basic melody (in Java, balungan; in Bali, pokok) that is fixed within a repeating gong cycle and decorated by elaborating parts that blossom out of that basic melody.
There are some notable similarities between gamelan ensembles across the west, central and east regions of Java and throughout Bali, including instrument types and construction, performance contexts, musical techniques and theoretical and conceptual approaches to music-making. Gamelan instruments are constructed using natural materials such as wood, bamboo, iron, bronze and animal hide and horn. Gamelan makers are specialized, highly skilled and revered craftsmen who fashion and tune the instruments they produce. Working with metal so closely is believed to be spiritually charged, carrying both possible risks and potential benefits that must be taken seriously.
Gamelan instruments are considered to be imbued with great spiritual power. Stepping over the instruments and touching them with one's feet are forbidden; such actions are considered disrespectful to the instruments and potentially unsafe for the offending individual or other ensemble members. Offerings of various kinds, including incense and flowers, are often made before a gamelan piece is played and on certain auspicious days. There are a number of ancient gamelan groups in Bali and Java, most of which are ceremonial ensembles kept in courts and temples. These archaic gamelan, such as Bali's gamelan salonding and Central Java's gamelan sekati, are usually played only for specific ritual occasions, and some are believed to have tremendous, sometimes dangerous, sacred power.
Traditionally, gamelan ensembles are used in religious contexts, often as accompaniment to rituals, customary practices, ceremonies and dancing. In relatively recent times, gamelan music has begun to accompany secular events, including tourist and concert performances, government functions and educational demonstrations. Many performers maintain, however, that they uphold the sacred associations of the music on a personal level, even when performing in such secular contexts. It is typical for a gamelan musician to be a competent performer on all of the instruments in the ensemble and he will usually select a playing position in a given performance circumstance based on his experience, status, age and abilities relative to the other musicians in attendance.
There is no standard, fixed tuning in gamelan music. Instruments in a single ensemble are tuned as a unique set, making it impossible to simply take one instrument from a given gamelan and exchange it with the same-sized instrument from another set. This does not, however, mean that the gamelan tunings are unregulated or uncontrolledthere exists an exceptionally complex system of tuning and mode (or, more accurately, "mood"), the understanding of which develops over a musician's lifetime.
Given the many consistencies described above, it is remarkable that the various kinds of gamelan, both across regions and within a single area, differ greatly from each other. Each type of gamelan is distinctive, its music unique.
In contemporary Central Java, for example, a complete gamelan usually contains two full sets of instruments, one tuned in the five-tone slendro system and one in the seven-tone pelog. The two sets that make up this gamelan seprangkat are placed together on the floor, with all of the instruments of one tuning facing forward, and those of the other tuning placed perpendicular to the front-facing set. Musicians can quickly turn their bodies then to easily transition from one tuning system to the other. Full gamelan of this kind can be found at large institutions in Indonesia and internationally as well as in villages, in the homes of revered musicians and in the royal courts of Central Java.
On the other hand, a complete Balinese gamelan comprises one set of instruments, but these instruments are paired in their tuning: two instruments of the same size and construction are tuned in a complementary female (slightly lower-pitched pengumbang) and male (slightly higher-pitched pengisep) relationship. The unison pitches on the two instruments are not identical frequencies and when they are played together the result is an acoustical beating called ombak (literally, "waves"). This produces the characteristic shimmering sonority of Balinese gamelan.
A complex technique of interlocking rhythms, called kotekan, is also a defining feature of Balinese gamelan music: two players play precise, differing parts that interlock to create a single, extremely fast melody.
Gamelan ensemble types in Bali are many, and vary greatly in size, instrument composition, repertoire, age and function. Balinese gamelan of all kinds can be found in temples, village community centers, schools and institutes, hotels and private homes. Similarly, there is a great diversity of gamelan types in East and West Java, Lombok and in the relatively unknown and certainly under-researched traditions of gamelan in Kalimantan.
Professional recordings of gamelan music are widely available in the international market, and many colleges, universities and other educational institutions around the world own gamelan ensembles and present public performances. Opportunities to experience live gamelan music are plentiful in Indonesia and beyond the archipelago. Bethany J. Collier