Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gongs, Gods, and the Ring of Fire

Java is the most densely-populated island on Earth, both in terms of humans and in terms of volcanoes. With cities built between these peaks and farms reaching uncomfortably far up the slopes, it is no surprise that this volcanism has greatly influenced the culture. National Geographic ran an article on Indonesian volcanoes in culture and the conflicts between spirituality and science earlier this year; I saw discussion when I was first getting into the geoblogosphere. But for all it was an interesting article, and for all the cultural discussion that was there, music didn't come up at all.

A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with a few ethnomusicologists and an anthropologist over whether central Javanese gamelan music is high art music or not. It is considered one of the major fine arts of Indonesia, but at the same time, this music is used for so many purposes and events that it not, in the strictest sense, art music. But regardless of how it's classified, its aesthetic, origin, and some of those uses are undeniably geological.

A gamelan consists largely of bronze keyed instruments and different styles of tuned gongs, both horizontally and vertically suspended. There are string and woodwind instruments involved, as well as vocals, but the core set of instruments are all heavy metal. The instruments, particularly, the gongs are cast by digging the form into the ground and casting molten bronze into it. The word gamelan comes from gamel, which means "to forge." While the heat from the actual volcanoes isn't used to melt the bronze, the heat of these forges is symbolic of the heat within the volcanoes. With that starting point, it could be read further that the molten bronze itself references the lava, forming the instruments like the volcanoes formed Java to begin with. The instruments are made as a set, not interchangeable with instruments from other gamelans; each set is given a name, often related to the landscape and natural setting of the city in which the set of instruments is to reside. UC Riverside's is Kyai Telaga Semu, or "Venerable Lake of Illusions," referencing mirages in the desert surrounding the university. UCLA's is, amusingly, "Venerable Dark Cloud." I have no doubt that volcanoes find their way into the names, where appropriate.

The most important instrument in a gamelan, though it has the fewest notes, is the great gong. The legend of the first gamelan states that the sultan needed a way to contact the gods, so he invented the gong; other gongs were added to contact other gods, and the ensemble grew. The gods in question are believed to reside in the volcanoes; there are some volcanoes, most notably Merapi, which is located between Javanese cultural centers Surakarta and Yogyakarta, with resident gamelans in caves on the slopes, which are played to keep the godly residents of the volcano appeased and less inclined to induce eruption. To speak to a volcano, the sound would need to be loud and low. The great gong consists of several hundred pounds of bronze, and makes a sound so low that it tests the bottom range of human hearing. When playing in a gamelan, you can feel the gong just as much as you hear it; the compressional sound wave pulses past you, as if the gong is the central vent of a volcano unleashing an explosion, or the epicenter of an earthquake. Even the names of instrument and mountain are related: gong ageng, or "great gong," has the same root as gunung, or volcano. A further connection here is that the animistic spirit of the gamelan resides in the gong, much like the larger gods reside within the volcanoes.

Javanese gamelan music is cyclical. There is a set framework pattern of notes that is repeated over and over, with variations in tempo and underlying texture. This music also has three basic levels of instrumental parts: those that play the framework, those that elaborate virtuosically within the framework, and those that punctuate. The gong is the strongest punctuation - it marks each repetition of the cycle, and marks the very beginning and the very end of a performance of a piece. To me - though I have not yet heard or read anything that definitively confirms or disproves this - having the gong be the beginning and the end at once is like the explosive part of an eruption cycle. Is the bang the end of one buildup, or is it the event that allows the next buildup to begin? Another feature of gamelan music is that more punctuation indicates a more intense mood, regardless of speed and volume. A quick piece with sparse punctuation would be considered less intense than a slow piece with frequent punctuation, and pieces used to represent fight scenes in shadow puppet theatre or dance have multiple punctuation strokes per note of the main melody. Could this relate to the eruption cycle as well - the more noise and material shooting out of the volcano, the more intense the eruption? These particular connections are things about which I have not seen research, but I am very curious to know if this is real, or if I'm just overanalyzing. I suspect I'd need to speak/read Javanese to figure this out, so I may enlist one of my Javanist ethnomusicologist friends to help me dig, since the only Javanese words I know are directly related to gamelan.

I've been playing in the UCR Javanese gamelan for two years now, and I absolutely love it. I joined the group for purely aesthetic reasons - I loved the sound of the music - but the more I learn about the structure of the music and the culture behind it, I appreciate it more and more in deeper ways. The undeniable connection to geology in this music is an added bonus, but one that makes gamelan even more fascinating and beautiful to me.

And now, since I've been jabbering about this for a lot of lines, here's a soundfile of a gamelan piece. This is the group in which I play, from our 6 June 2008 concert. We're not Javanese professionals by any means, but our instructor and guest singer have been studying Java for decades, and we had a guest director come in from Yogyakarta to work with us. These are good people to have in charge. This particular piece is a ladrang, which has 32 notes per stroke of the big gong, and it is often used to open a concert.
Ladrang Wilujeng

1 comment:

Silver Fox said...

Thanks, that's very neat music, and the story behind it makes it even more interesting. It makes me think of some of the flute music of the southwest native Americans, although I can't think of a specific artist right now.