by Al Suwardi

Compositional Back-Ground

Indonesia is a country that is constituted by many different ethnic cultures spread out over 13,000 islands. I am attracted to this cultural wealth and wish to explore musical practices found within that culture as a source of my music composition. The composition aims to investigate possibilities of integrating Javanese gamelan, Javanese vocal performing practice, Balinese percussion technique, and Florenese vocal technique. The proposed composition also explores ways to develop aspects of different traditional performance practice in the context of contemporary music making

This composition, the Ringing of Gentha, explores new sounds produced from the Gamelan Gentha, which is a gamelan made up of instruments that I have developed and built in 2001. Making new instruments is one of my compositional concerns. The use of new instruments and their distinct sound colors is aimed at developing new sensibilities with audiences interested in contemporary Indonesian music.

The idea of making the new orchestra was, in fact, inspired by the gamelan genthana in the Palace of Surakarta. There are two different information about where the gamelan genthana came from. According to some informants, the gamelan genthana there was a gift that had been presented to the King of Surakarta by the King of Thailand in the 1930s. Some others assumed that the gamelan genthana was made by a Javanese gamelan smith. The name gamelan genthana was coined by Javanese musicians. Genthana is associated with Javanese word gentha, meaning ‘bell’ (Kartomi 2002: 45-6 ).  In my generation this gamelan has never been played because the palace gamelan musicians do not know the original music of the gamelan genthana. According to some informants, there were only a few musicians who could play this orchestra. Three musicians had been mentioned: the late of Pontjopangrawit, the late of Martopangrawit, and the late of  Mlojowidodo. Unfortunately, they did not pass on their knowledge to the younger generations, consequently, no one knows about gamelan genthana. To this day, the exact instrumentation of the orchestra is unknown. Some instruments are stored in Balai Bang (a name of storage building) and some are missing. The above information gives me inspiration to make a new gentha orchestra with new instruments, new sound characteristics, and new compositions.

Some traditional Javanese gamelan compositions have been written many generations ago. There are also more recently composed works for the traditional Javanese gamelan that are based on traditional Javanese musical structures. The layout of the traditional gamelan composition reproduces a fundamental formal structure, which provides the framework for the melodic material, and which provides a basis for interpretation. In filling in and embellishing the skeletal melodic outline, each performer interprets the melodic outline by means of his or her individual playing technique and style (Roth 1986: 20). Contemporary gamelan composition has emerged only recently, when the Pekan Komponis Muda (Young Composer Festival) first took place in1979 in Jakarta. Recent gamelan composition in Jakarta provides a musical context for my own composition.

As I mentioned earlier, making new instruments is one of my compositional concerns. Many contemporary gamelan music composers use gamelan orchestras, either in part or whole. Some times they also combine gamelan instruments with any object that can produce sound in order to search for new sonorities. In the development of Indonesian contemporary music, especially in Java, there is no boundary for utilizing any particular musical instruments and moreover, some composers make their own new musical instruments or modify existing instruments (Roth 1976: 96 – 102).

The Development of Recent Gamelan Composition in Surakarta

Change is an essential part of any lively musical culture, and traditional karawitan [gamelan music] is no exception. The more stable cultural environment of the Javanese past allowed such change to proceed at an evolutionary pace. Today, however, karawitan finds itself in a very different world. The impact of the forces of Indonesianisation, modernisation and concomitant Westernisation; the huge growth of the towns and a new urban culture; the consequences of mass education, its institutions, methods and implied values derived from Western models – all these have led to great social and cultural ferment and to a very unstable situation for the traditional arts. (Roth 1976: 49 – 50).

This times, I will discuss the origins of the emergence of contemporary gamelan music compositions and its development to this day. As indicated in the quotation above, the development of gamelan music compositions has an impact on Indonesian culture as a whole. The birth of contemporary gamelan compositions was at time when the first young composer festival took place in 1979. It was preceded, however, by the development of new musical concepts. This formation of new concepts paved the way for the modernization of the gamelan. In fact, new gamelan compositions have already emerged earlier–to the first gamelan festival aforementioned–in a form of dance-music.

Before discussing the development of contemporary gamelan composition, I will raise some questions relating to the young composers festival. Who was the originator of the festival? What was the conceptual basis in developing the gamelan tradition? Was this development related to the concept of modernization? To answer these questions I need to put forward a brief account of history of Indonesian development.

Indonesia, as a developing country, has experienced various changes and has needed to face a variety of conditions in its social life, political life, economical life, and cultural life. In the early 20th century, the Dutch colonial power established schools to provide education to a limited number of people who belonged to the aristocracy in order to address the needs of the Dutch administrators, technicians, and other officials. Ironically, besides being Dutch Government employees, they extended and stimulated Indonesian nationalism. The notion of nationalism emerged as a symbol of collective identity for the Indonesian society. The primary aim of this was to provoke national solidarity in order to overthrow the Dutch colonialists.

It is important to note that the emergence of Indonesian nationalism was crusaded by a group of artists, writers, and poets called Pujangga Baru and Persagi in the1930s. They campaigned for this notion through their works. (Rustopo 1991: 31-42; Becker 1980: 30-1; and Kayam 1981: 30). According to Kayam, both Pujangga Baru and Persagi had an important role in forming the “modern mood” and “modern temper” in the concept of art and culture (30-1). Perhaps, the notion of this modernization inspired Humardani,[1] who was the originator of contemporary gamelan festival that were based on traditional gamelan practice.

After Indonesian Independence in 1945, the war against the Dutch colonial power continued until 1949. Artists hardly any performed at all during that time (74). From the 1950s onwards, the Indonesian Government established formal education in the realm of traditional performing art for the first time in Surakarta, Yogyakarta, Denpasar, and Bandung. This development took place initially at the high school level, and then during the 1960s at the post-secondary level. The aims were to preserve traditional court art as the palaces became less powerful after Independence and to make the tradition available via formal education in the wider society. The institutions appointed most of the teachers from among the court musicians in a hope that they would “establish themselves as centres of performance and of new developments.” (Roth 1986: 54). During this period, many accomplished musicians, including Ki Wasitodiningrat, Martopangrawit, Nartosabdho, and Hardjosubroto, composed extensive new musical works based on a combination of the formal structure of Javanese traditional music and Western experimental music. This resulted in works that employed “triple meter, which presents [a] considerable challenge to musicians accustomed to using standard four- and eight-beat patterns…to create their parts.” (Sutton 1998: 684). Astonishingly, Ki Wasitodiningrat (also known as Ki Wasitodipuro, or Pak Tjokro) composed a work entitled Jaya Manggala Gita (Song to the Victory of Happiness and Welfare) to express the “patriotic fervor and high hopes” of the Javanese people (Becker 1980: 39). This work was composed by utilizing many different Javanese gamelan ensembles such as Gamelan Carabalen, Gamelan Monggang, Gamelan Kodhok Ngorek, Gamelan Ageng. Extensive discussion and thorough analysis of the composition can be found in Becker’s 1980 book, entitled Traditional Music in Modern Java: Gamelan in Changing Society.

In the era of the “New Order,” (1966 – 1998) the Indonesian government strongly supported the efforts of traditional developments in the arts by establishing Pusat Pengembangan Kesenian (art centers) in many different places from all over Indonesia. This project was aimed to support a variety of both traditional and contemporary artistic activities, including seminars, performances, studio works and other creative activities, in order to establish original works. The successful of the project was due to the support of some shrewd staff members from the tertiary schools of art.

In 1975, the Dewan Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta Arts Council) invited art-leading figures from various regional centers to present papers and to discuss future development of the traditional art in Indonesia. The symposium concluded with recommendation that such festival to be held to accommodate young artists in order to perform their original works. Subsequently, the Jakarta Arts Council organized a Young Choreographers’ Festival in 1978. This festival was repeated in the following year with the addition of Young Composer (Roth 1986: 55).

Instrument Making

One of the most important elements in the process of composing music is to determine the instruments as a suitable source of sound for the compositions being written. There are many different gamelan orchestras in the Javanese gamelan tradition. Some of these still exist and are used in social life, and some are becoming eliminated. Each gamelan ensemble has its own performance tradition as well as its own pieces or compositions e.g.: gamelan sekaten, gamelan monggang, gamelan corobalen, and gamelan kodhok ngorek. Many contemporary gamelan composers use these gamelan orchestras, either in part or whole. Sometimes they combine the different orchestras when they compose. In the development of Indonesian contemporary music, especially in Java, there is no limit in utilising a particular musical instrument and moreover, some composers make their own new musical instruments, either by modifying existing instruments or creating completely new instruments.

The process of making experimental music instruments, comply with the needs of new music composition a good deal of imagination and ergological skills. My experience of making musical instruments has two starting points: Firstly, I aim to make an instrument based on my imagination of its shape and without considering the resulting sound product. With a new instrument one can experiment and explore sound by employing many different techniques of playing. Secondly, I aim to make an instrument to obtain a specific sound that is derived from a sound imagined in my head. This process requires all sorts of attempt trials to make the imaginary sounds audible. As well as the specific sound I obtain, I also exploit the sound resources of the resulting instrument.

Comentary of Music Composition

Gendhing is a generic term for any traditional gamelan composition. The term gendhing also has a more specific meaning. It can refer to a gamelan composition that has a relatively large structure and consists of two major parts: merong and inggah. To compose a gendhing or traditional Javanese gamelan piece is a complex process; ideally, the composer should be able to play all instruments in the orchestra in order to manipulate them.

More specifically, to become a composer, Martopangrawit suggests considering the requirements as follows:

1.                     You must be familiar with the proper performance practice on all the instruments (of the gamelan), so that the gendhing you compose will not have sections that are awkward to play.

2.                     If the gendhing you compose is to include a vocal part (gerong), both the instrumental and the vocal sections must be given equal consideration, so that neither one is over-emphasised. In this way, both elements will go well together.

3.                     You must understand the direction of the melody (arah nada), for this is what determines pathet.

4.                     You must understand which tones can emphasise or de-emphasised the seleh tone, for if this is not understood, the pathet can be altered unwittingly.

5.                     You must understand the function (fungsi) of each of the tones in each pathet, for these are what serve to determine the pathet.

6.                     You must understand melodic phrasing (kalimat lagu), for this serves to determine the form of the gendhing.

7.                     You must understand the rules of sinden (solo singing), for these are closely related to melodic phrasing.

8.                     You must understand the structure of gendhing in order to avoid any discontinuity in the course of the gendhing.

9.                     You must understand the features of melody, since these will determine the character of the gendhing – whether dignified, pitiful, gay, excited, lively, etc.

10.                 You must understand the cengkok mati (fixed cengkok) so that in either or slendro you can avoid an awkward balungan.

11.                 You must understand lagu mati (fixed melody) because they serve to determine the basic irama of the gendhing.

12.                 You must be able to change the density of the balungan (lakuning balungan) – for instance from balungan mlaku to balungan nibani, or to balungan ngadhal, and back again – so that the atmosphere of the gendhing can be manipulated.

13.                 You must understand the natural embat (embat alam = natural intervallic structure) of each mode or tuning, so as not to cause the vocalists and the rebab player to play out of tune.

14.                 You must understand mode and tuning, for this will help the performers.

15.                 Finally, you must know how to transpose a gendhing in slendro to pelog and vice versa.

(Martopangrawit 1984: 227-28; translation by Martin F. Hatch; as quoted in Roth 1986: 40-2).

When a composer composes traditional Javanese gamelan music he/she provides a skeletal melodic line around which musicians “fill in” their parts. The balungan that is written down is an abstraction of the full gendhing in the composer’s mind. In other words, in the process of writing a balungan the composer has already formed a mental picture of all the instrumental parts of the orchestra in his/her head. The overall performance of a gamelan piece has “heterogeneous and even syncretic origin.” (Sumarsam 1995: 229). That is to say, the performance of a gendhing involves many different instruments, and every individual player performs his or her interpretation of the balungan to embellish it. Nevertheless, the final shape of the works depends largely on the performers’ interpretation known as Garap. Given these circumstances, the composer provides the raw material.

This compositional approach is distinct from many western approaches in which the musical score serves to capture much or even most of the resulting music. That is to say, many western composers attempt to be very specific about what the performer has to play, rather than leaving decisions up to the performer.

The work I present in the festival is a composition that uses a new orchestra called Gamelan Gentha. Making a new orchestra adds to my compositional resources. I shall use the outcomes of my sound investigations as compositional material. In addition to the making of the instruments, there are a number of specific stages in the compositional process:

  1. I compose the basic melodic materials in the form of Javanese music notation presented in a vertical relationship in individual layers. These materials are conceived with specific instruments in mind.
  1. I then develop the basic melodic ideas into full-scale melodies, which I again notated in Javanese cipher notation.
  1. I then arrange the developed melodies vertically, and assess them in terms of their multiphonic relationships. The most prominent multiphonic intervals here are an almost perfect fifth (J. kempyung) and the octave (J. gembyang).
  1. I assess and adjust the resulting simultaneities of layers are with regard to dynamic balance between the layers and instruments, and with regard to timbre.
  1. The next stage is continued with the formal arrangement of individual sections of the works. The important considerations here are the development of materials from one section to the next and/or the presentation of new material/s, the creation of contrasts, and the creation of transitions between contrasting sections.
  1. Subsequently, the formal arrangement of materials are realized in workshops and rehearsal. Since the Javanese gamelan notation does not provide for all aspects of the sound characteristics, I shall add new symbols and verbal instruction. In addition, my presence at rehearsal as the composer is mandatory in order to communicate a more specific consensus with the performers.
  1. During the initial workshops and rehearsals, recordings will be made in order to evaluate and revise the works.
  1. The last set of rehearsals focus on the presentation of the works in a public concert.

[1] Humardani, known as Pak Gendhon (1923 – 1983), was the Director of ASKI (the Indonesian Traditional Performing Arts Academy) in Surakarta from 1974 until the end of his life, 1983. He was also a central role in formulizing the concept of the Indonesian traditional arts development that had led into the first Young Composers’ Festival in 1979.


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