The Gamelan Ensemble and Its Music in Java and Bali

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  • Topic: Gamelan, Pathet, Balungan
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The Gamelan Ensemble and its Music
The gamelan ensemble and its music are commonly found in the Indonesian countries of Java, Bali, and many others. The word gamelan describes the set of instruments which are classified by their paintings and decorations on the instruments. The gamelan ensemble usually consists of several metal bar instruments, as well as gongs. The metal bar instruments could be compared to what we might call a vibraphone. Besides gongs, the gamelan ensemble may have one or more drums, and also different native instruments.

Ancient gamelan ensembles were smaller in size with only a few gongs and one or two drums. In today’s ensemble, the ensemble is much larger. The larger ensemble has many more gongs, a couple more drums, and they also add in native instruments such as bamboo flutes, xylophones, zithers, and even fiddles.

The Gamelan instrumentation varies from which ensemble you may be hearing, and/or participating in. There are four main categories of gamelan instruments. There are the gong-instruments, the metal-keyed instruments, the drums, and other melodic instruments. When we talk about the gong instruments they can be classified as hanging gongs or kettle gongs. Among the hanging gongs, there are three sizes. The largest hanging gong is called the gong ageng. This gong is the stereotypical gong that you may see on television or in most Indonesian culture. The middle sized hanging gong is called the siyem. The kempul is the smallest of the hanging gong family. The kempul will also be the most used hanging gong in the ensemble. When we are analyzing kettle gongs you can either have a single kettle gong or sets of kettle gongs. The kenong is the only single kettle gong. It is also the largest of all the kettle gongs. The kethuk, kempyang, bonang barung, and bonang panerus are all smaller kettle gongs that come in sets.

Metal-keyed instruments are the instruments used for the melody of the gamelan music. When classifying the metal-keyed instruments there is the saron family and the gender family. The saron family consists of the saron demung, saron barung, and the saron peking. The saron family used a hollow box resonator with the metal keys suspended over it. The gender family instruments consist of the gender slenthem, gender barung, and the gender panerus. Instead of using a hollow box resonator, the gender family uses cylindrical pipes that go under if of the metal keys. The gender family is what we would consider to be the closest thing to a vibraphone.

To create a fuller sound the gamelan ensemble will use other melodic instruments as well. The most common instrument used is the gambang. The gambang is simply the wooden version of the saron family. With this instrument, the ensemble still produces a unified sound with close timbres. Another melodic instrument used is the celempung. This zither instrument uses strings and courses to create a guitar-like instrument. A smaller version of the celempung is the siter. This zither achieves the same sound as the celempung, but it does not have as many strings and courses. The gamelan ensemble may also use woodwinds such as the suling. The suling is a bamboo flute played by blowing in the end of the flute. It is sort of like the Americans recorder. The rebab is the last melodic instrument. It is a two stringed fiddle that is played with the fingers plucking or with a bow.

Next, we have the drums of the ensemble. There are four different drums used in the gamelan ensemble. The kendhang gendhing is the largest of the hand drums. There is also the kendhang ciblon and the kendhang ketipung. Both of these hand drums are smaller in size. The last drum is the bedhug. This drum is the equivalent of a bass drum in today’s orchestra. These drums create the foundation and beat of the gamelan music.

Now that we know the instruments of the gamelan, we may now venture into the ensemble as a whole. The gamelan ensemble may perform in different...
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