Sunday, April 12, 2015

Noteworthy Instruments: Gamelan gong kebyar

Closeup of a gangsa, the most numerous instrument in a gamelan ensemble. The player hits the bar with the hammer and then dampens with the other hand. Dampening can be hardest part.

This Saturday, April 18, I’m playing in a gamelan concert. A gamelan is a type of percussion ensemble from Indonesia. There are two main types of gamelan: Balinese, from the island of Bali, and Javanese, from the island of Java. University of Hawaii at Manoa has both type of ensembles, but I’m in the Balinese one. Now, there are actually many types of Balinese gamelan ensembles, so to be more specific, I’m playing gamelan gong keybyar, known for being flashy having sudden changes in dynamics and tempo. The need for flashiness may come from Bali being a tourist destination for over 100 years; there are some forms of “traditional” music in Bali that were invented for tourists. This is not the first time I’ve played gamelan gong kebyar; I also was a founding member of BYU’s gamelan Bintang Wahyu, where “founding member” means none of us had any idea what was going on, at least at first.

Indonesia and Bali (source:

Here’s a performance of one of the pieces we’re going to play this Saturday. This ensemble is slightly different than our ensemble, but you get the idea. Oh, and they are playing much faster than us for most of the piece, called Sekar Gendot (8 minutes):

How does a gamelan ensemble work? I won’t go into detail about the names of the instruments, but the basic idea is that there is really only one melody, and that all the other instruments are elaborations of the melody. The middle has the main melody, and the higher instruments play a faster version of the melody while the lower instruments play a slower version of the melody on down until the gong. There are also some drums that keep the group together and act as conductors, giving tempo and cues. Finally, you may notice there are a few instruments that aren’t percussion—some bamboo flutes and bowed string instruments.

A Western audience may think that the instruments sound out of tune. They are “out of tune” on purpose; instruments are actually built in pairs, with one tuned slightly higher than the other, so the audience hears a wave-like sound when the two instruments are played together. It creates a unique sound.

Another important part of Balinese gamelan is interlocking parts. The higher instruments actually have pairs of pairs, and one off-tuned pair will play parts that fill in the fast notes from the other pair, so the music sounds faster than an individual player, while also sounding more complex.

The final result is a sound that is very unlike Western music. One more thing to notice: no one uses written music. Gamelan music is traditionally learned orally, which is how I have learned how to play. This can be frustrating at times, especially people like me who are used to reading everything.

1 comment:

  1. Very cool. As an undergrad I found the Nonesuch explorer album Music from the Morning of the World in a 99-cent cutout bin and fell in love with gamelan gong keybyar immediately. Hope somebody puts your concert up on YouTube for us all to hear.