We Hear a Balinese Gamelan
Walking down a dirt road on the outskirts of Ubud, Bali, we hear a gamelan orchestra. Even from the road, it's clear that this isn't a music system with million watt speakers. It's the real thing and we wander round till we come upon a rehearsal in a nearby open air temple.
The gamelan is a magnificent red and goldleaf affair with a full complement of zylaphone style instruments, gongs and other noisy parts and flutes. During formal performances, the players wear matching costumes in the traditional Balinese form. But for this practice, everyone is in their usual street clothes, and for the first time in our several visits to Bali, we see these noblemen as the clerks and teachers and workers that they are. They flash us smiles of complicity as the tinkling notes pound on accompanying dancers go through their paces on the recessed stage before them.
A phalanx of noble warriors, spears in hand, dance through regimented battles. But without the rich costumes they're but students. No matter, it's an illusion that's hard to hold onto as their teacher, seemingly no older than the rest of them, quivers in rage with a spear and advances against an unseen enemy army.
Walter Spies (dates) is best remembered for his painting, was also an accomplished musician, brought to Indonesia to start a Western orchestra for a wealthy Javanese prince. During his stay on the island, he became fascinated with the gamelan and made the first recordings. These in turn probably inspired Colin McFee (author of My House in Bali) who wrote transcriptions of the music and further popularized it for Western audiences by writing an gamelan-inspired symphony.
One night we go for music lessons at Ganesha Bookstore, which doubles as a musical instruments shop. Ganesha is the jolly Indian god with an elephant's head and is usually seen carved in stone at doorways, seated, his trunk snarfing peanuts or something out of a cup in his left hand. The bookstore is owned by the teacher, Ketuk, and his expatriate wife.
Ketuk starts by saying that gamelan music is not written down, except by musicologists (a musicologist is someone who can read music, but can't hear it). How did Ketuk learn? "Everyday I would go to the guru (teacher) and he would start, nong neng, nong neng, nong neng," he says. "I would try and he would tell me it wasn't good enough and I would go away and practice and come back many, many times and then he would say I was not so bad and he would show me another rhythm, nong neng nong, nong neng nong." He takes a few moments to demonstrate series of two, then three note sequences. "It goes on forever and after a while you don't stop hearing it. It is everywhere in your ears."
It’s a Balinese version of the German earworm, a song you can’t get out of your head.
"Slowly,” Ketuk continues, “you go on to the next rhythms." He taps out a few more notes, adding another note to each sequence, "Then–" And without warning, his hands are little lost blurs and we realize that unless this evening's lesson continues well into the next century we're not going to be playing in the temple down the street.
A few things do start to make more sense of the music, however. There are usually four parts, a soft introduction and then a couple of louder parts ending with a humdinger of a very loud ending. "The Balinese love drama in their music," Ketuk explains.
Yes. It’s true. Gamelan refers to the orchestra, or rather the instruments, not the people and is always organized in threes: an instrument playing the melody, another keeping up the rhythm and the third which gives a sort of back beat to the whole operation. "You can have several of each of these three," Ketuk says, "but none of the instruments is played solo and when you hear someone in the fields singing a part of a song, others will often join in banging with a shovel or singing and fill in the other parts."
We ask whether new work is being written for the gamelan.
"Oh yes, he says. There are some new songs being written in the music academies in Denpassar and Java, but the old the songs are for the temple and have remained the same for a hundred years."
"Same old gods, same old songs."