Gamelan, a First Impression

By Ryan Robitson

Entrancing, meditative, colorful and moody….No I am not referring to your yoga guru, but rather the wonderful sound of Gamelan.  One of my first encounters with Balinese culture was the percussive performance of a Gamelan orchestra. For me it was at the Lotus Pond, an evening performance for a small crowd. It was Legong night, and while everyone seemed entranced by the dancing, I found myself lost, if not perplexed by the rhythms and melodies of the Gamelan.

My lifes work and interest has been in music, making my living in media arts, composing, arranging, and as an instrumentalist.  Before I encountered the Gamelan, I thought I knew a thing or two about music, but I have been left rendered, scratching my head, and feeling rather awakened by the whole experience. I have welcomed the opportunity to discover the Gamelan for myself following those of have explored it before me.

Gamelan gong kebyar is a modern genre of Balinese gamelan music. Kebyar means “the process of flowering”, and refers to the sudden changes in tempo and dynamic characteristic of the genre. It is considered the most popular form of gamelan in Bali, and its best known musical export.

Gong kebyar music is based on a five-tone scale called pelog selisir (tones 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 of the 7-tone pelog scale), and is characterized by brilliant sounds, syncopations, sudden and gradual changes in sound colour, dynamics, tempo and articulation, and complex, complementary interlocking melodic and rhythmic patterns called kotekan.

My absolute favorite moment in any Gamelan performance is the resonating sound of the low voice, sounding off in solo, the calm before the storm as the orchestra prepares for its launch. There is a beauty in its madness, and anticipation around every corner.  My ear has no handle or control on its plan, I don’t know what is the verse, or the chorus, or the bridge.  In my best guess I have not yet been able to pinpoint when the end of the song is near, and usually when I take a gamble with my prediction, I fail once again as a movement takes another flight. Needless to say I feel humbled.

Since my first experience with Gamelan, I have come to stop and listen at every chance that I hear a performance or a practice.  In a way I feel like a child again, trying to figure out David Copperfields magic tricks.  Upon returning to the piano I just stare at the keys, trying to find a bridge between my two worlds, east meets west. Can a California boy ever fully figure out the Gamelan and all its mysteries? I suppose time will tell.  In the meanwhile my own interest in South East Asian music is having a creative effect on my own musical writing, springing forth new sounds and new movements, pushing through the boundaries of all the musical laws I ever known. What a welcoming force for new creativity.

To experience the mysteries of Gamelan first hand, be sure to visit any of the numerous nightly performances throughout Ubud, or visit Tourist Information across the street from the Ubud Palace.

For more reading on Gamelan, and Balinese traditional music, locate Colin McPhee’s “Music In Bali: A Study in Form & Instrumental Music in Bali.” New Haven, London: Yale Univ. Press.

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About the writer: Ryan Robertson is a new media composer, instrumentalist, and counselor specializing in music for healing. Ryan can be reached at livebarefoot@ymail.com

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