I’m about to go to Bali, home to Gamelan, one of the most interesting musical traditions in the world. Equal parts rhythmic and melodic, amazing harmony and counterpoint, and an interesting participatory music culture playing one-of-a-kind musical instrument ensembles. I’m fortunate enough to have a friend who has studied gamelan in Bali. Here's what Chris wrote me as on what I may hear when I visit. (He also gave me a copy of A House in Bali, a 1947 book about a Canadian musician who went to Bali to study.)
Most all links to video or music files, give it a listen!
Style: Gamelan “Gong Kebyar”
This is the style that is most associated with Balinese gamelan today. It’s a style that came into its own in the early 1900s-1930s, evolving away from the slower Javanese-style court gamelan that preceded it. A hallmark characteristic of this virtuosic style is the “kotekan”, or interlocking wherein different players each play one half of the melody at high speed and it’s which are zippered together at high speed (example here). It is also quite often accompanied by dance.
Jagra Parwata: This is a virtuosic gong kebyar piece, one of my favorites. I believe it won the All-Bali competition about ten years ago. It’s also the first piece I ever learned to play on Gamelan – a true “trial by fire”. Note the loose interpretation of time; it changes tempos both languidly and abruptly. This is a classic aspect of gong kebyar.
Taruna Jaya: This is the most famous of the gong kebyar dance pieces, created around 1950. For a Balinese female dancer, this is the single most important piece and is used as a required dance to judge the All-Bali competition. Taruna Jaya stands for “victorious youth”, and is intended to convey the wide range of emotions of an impetuous youthful princess. It is danced by a young girl who (as it was described to me by my Balinese teachers) is pretending to be a young man pretending to be a young girl. There’s a good description here. Carefully controlled, intense eye and finger movement are the hallmarks of this piece, and much of Balinese dance. The dance requires so much energy that most Taruna Jaya dancers peak out at around 15 years of age.
Style: Gamelan “Gender Wayang”
This is a ceremonial form of gamelan, used for religious ceremonies (weddings, tooth filings, etc) and also puppet shows. As opposed to gong kebyar, this style is played with either two or four players who sit facing each other, each side playing one half of the melody in a fashion similar to the gong kebyar kotekans.
Here’s a video from someone playing at a local temple festival. Here’s another video of someone practicing his half of the ankat ankatan melody at about half speed; it gives you a good idea of how both hands work together and how half of the melody sounds. This song is the first one I learned on the gender wayang, because it’s pretty simple and repetitive. It translates to “walking music” and is used as filler during the parts of the puppet shows when the characters are supposed to be “walking around on a long journey”.
Gending Rebong: This is a song used during puppet shows when two characters are expressing their love for each other.
This is a marching form of gamelan. You will see this in parades and cremation ceremonies. It has all the elements of gong kebyar but is much simpler and more repetitive and is easy enough that every villager learns a couple belaganjur patterns so they can take part in ceremonies for members of their village. In that sense it’s the form of gamelan that most non-musician villagers take part in at least once or twice a year.
The Belaganjur of group Jaya Sakti: I don’t think this even has a formal name, but it’s the most awesome belaganjur I’ve ever heard. I love how it starts out incredibly simple and, simply through tempo change along, seems to transform from something calm and relaxing into something violent and exciting, and then back again. If this doesn’t make you want to march, nothing will.