By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly
Do you know what the soundtracks of the sci-fi show “Battlestar Galactica” and the video game “Sonic Unleashed” have in common with certain works of classical music composers John Cage and Lou Harrison?
They all contain the haunting, bell-like sounds of gamelan, an Indonesian musical ensemble.
Back in February, the UW School of Music and Southeast Asia Center presented an evening of Javanese performing arts showcasing gamelan music, dance, and shadow puppet play. In a few weeks, there will be a performance organized by Gamelan Pacifica.
What is a gamelan?
According to Kathryn M. Duda’s article, “The Javanese Gamelan: Ancient Music with Contemporary Appeal,” gamelan is an Indonesian musical ensemble of “mainly percussive instruments, with occasional winds, strings, voices … and dancers.”
The key instruments include various kinds of gongs, metallophones, xylophones, and drums. The word gamelan is likely related to the Javanese word gamel, meaning “to handle.”
The gongs are of different sizes, as some are positioned vertically and some are suspended horizontally in wooden cases, resembling rows of pots. The Javanese names for many of the instruments mimic the sounds they produce.
There are typically 25 musicians in an ensemble, and the group has no conductor. The musicians depend on the drummer to control the tempo and to signal the end of a piece.
A gamelan often accompanies “ceremonies, [theater], dance, and puppet plays.” In the United States, gamelan music is often performed in concerts.
The multi-layered gamelan music has a few basic elements: a core melody played by the metallophones, an elaboration of the core melody played by a combination of small kettle gongs, xylophones, rebabs, bamboo flutes, and zithers, and punctuations of the melody played by different gongs.
There are only a few written records that document the origins of gamelan. Many scholars believe that cultural influences from China, Southeast Asia, and India contributed to the development of gamelan music.
Long before Islam was spread to Java in the 15th century, Hinduism and Buddhism were the predominant religions on the island. The traditional Javanese performing arts of gamelan, theater, and dance were rooted in the older Hindu-Buddhist culture and it prevailed long after Islam had become the island’s dominant religion.
Gamelan music has influenced musical development in the West. A couple of Debussy’s piano pieces, in the years after the 1889 Paris Exposition, were found to be influenced by gamelan sounds.
Gamelan music has since attracted a legion of admirers in the West, including such well-known composers as John Cage, Lou Harrison, Colin McPhee, Francis Poulenc, Benjamin Britten, and Béla Bartók.
Gamelan was introduced to the United States at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Today, gamelan music performance, along with other Javanese arts, is growing in the United States. There are gamelan ensembles in most states, and some were founded in colleges. Gamelan music CDs can easily be found in the world music section of CD stores or online.
A gamelan ensemble is often featured in shadow drama, or wayang, a general term referring to different kinds of shadow drama in Indonesia. Wayang kulit, a type of play featuring flat leather shadow puppets, is one of the most popular forms of theater on Java.
Traditionally, wayang kulit lasts all night, starting after the night falls and finishing at dawn. It is performed on public holidays, religious festivals, and weddings.
The puppeteer, or dalang, manipulates the leather puppets by means of tiny sticks that are attached to them behind the screen. The puppeteer also does the voice-overs, sings for the characters, and leads the gamelan accompaniment. Another popular form of puppet theater is wayang golek, featuring rod puppets carved from wood and dressed in cloth costumes.
The stories of wayang borrow characters from indigenous myths, Hindu epics, and Islamic stories. The performance techniques have been passed down orally from one generation to the next within the families of puppeteers and musicians.
In 2003, the wayang puppet theater of Indonesia was proclaimed a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). ♦
On Sept. 25, there will be a Gamelan Pacifica performance at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. Visit www.gamelanpacifica.org for information on the event. For more information on gamelan, visit www.carnegiemuseums.org and www.unesco.org.
Vivian Miezianko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.