Gamelan instruments and their cases are often ornately carved and decorated with animal and floral motifs. The gamelan plays for theatrical performances, shadow-puppet shows, and traditional dances.
Gamelan is instrumental music from Indonesia and Malaysia, rich in reverberating timbres of gongs, chimes, and other tuned metal percussion. Two types of gamelan music widely noted among Western composers are the Balinese tradition, which tends to be brilliant and extroverted in sound, and the Javanese tradition, which generally has a more subdued, lyrical character.
A gamelan comprises mainly metallophones, xylophones, and gongs. It may also include vocals, the rebab (a two-stringed spike fiddle), the keprak (a slit drum), and the kendhang (a set of three or four double headed, barrel-shaped drums). The kendhang sets the tempo and gives starting and stopping signals during the music.
Components of the gamelan
In gamelan music the part played by all the instruments contribute to the balungan, or central melodic thread of the music. The metallophones and xylophones play the main melodic content of the music, and the gongs mark out the structure. In descending order of pitch, the barred instruments span five octaves and include three different sizes of saron. Each of these has a single octave of notes, made of thick metal bars mounted over a single trough resonator, played with a wooden or horn mallet. The saron family plays the simplest version of the balungan. The gender and slenthem are larger metallophones with thinner, ribbed metal bars held on cords over individual tube resonators. The gambang is a xylophone. The gender and gambang play an elaborated version of the balungan in parallel octaves or complex interlocking patterns.
The gongs include the larger hanging gongs, in which the raised boss points to the side, and the smaller cradled gongs or gonged chimes, which rest on rope supports in a wooden frame, with the raised boss pointing upwards. The hanging gongs are shaped like a curly bracket in cross-section with a large lip bent back at about 130 degrees from the face of the gong. They are played with a padded beater on the fleshy part of a clenched fist. Cradled gongs are played in sets of 10 to 12, and each gong is tuned to a different not of the scale. They have a wider lip and more sloping shoulders than the hanging gongs. They are shaped like a lidded saucepan in cross-section and are sometimes called 'pot gongs' in the West. The cradled gongs are played with a wooden beater overwound with string.
Role of the gong
The gongs punctuate the cyclical structure of the music, providing aural cues to the other musicians. In ascending order of pitch, starting with the lowest, the hanging gongs include the gong ageng (85 centimeters/34 inches diameter) gong suwukan (63 centimeters/25 inches), and a set of three to five kempul (45 centimeters/18 inches). These gongs mark out keynotes in the balungan. The cradled gongs include the kethuk and kempyang (25 centimeters/10 inches), a set of 10 kenong (36 centimeters/14 inches) and two sets of 12 bonangs (18 centimeters/7 inches). Between them, the cradled gongs play an elaboration of the hanging-gong pattern, which interleaves with the patterns played by the gender and gambang.