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Gamelan (Traditional Balinese Orchestra)  

by on Wednesday, 24 January 20072 Comments | 4,012 views

The word Gamelan is a Balinese term for “orchestra”; there are many types of Gamelan in Bali. Gamelan is a generic term, and there is dozen or more completely different kind of ensembles. Gamelan is a percussion-dominated musical ensemble.

The instruments that are used in a Gamelan ensemble usually consist of

Metallophones that look like xylophones, called gangsas, consist of a carved often gilded, frame containing bamboo resonator over which a series of bronze keys are suspended by hide lacing. The bronze keys are hit with little wooden hammers which causes bamboo resonators below the keys to vibrate. They may have four to fourteen keys and are grouped in matching pairs according to size and number of key. After the keys have been hit by the hammer in the right hand, the left hand immediately grasps the key to stop the sound merging in the next note.

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There are a number of single fine bronze gongs, which are hit at intervals with a cloth-covered mallet, to punctuate the melody and divide the composition.

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These are small bronze cymbals which bring excitement and ever changing color.

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The only instrument in the Gamelan that can be considered as playing harmony. This is a long framed instrument holding a graduated series of a dozen or so inverted bronze pots, having small knobs protrude on top, which are hit with sticks by four players sitting alongside, each player being responsible for his own section.


Sometimes there is a second similar instrument, called a trompong, which is played by only one person, whose arms need to be long; this, along with the suling and rebab, are the only instruments that improvise.

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Kendang are two sets of double-ended drum held across the lap, lead the orchestra; in each pair, there is a higher pitched one, designated male and a lower-pitched one, female.

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High pitched flutes, suling play the high-pitched version of the melody, singing out above the orchestra.

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The rebab is an ancient two-stringed instrument like a violin. It produces a soft sound that quite indistinctive to be heard.

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One of the characteristic of gamelan is that, it has many sudden changes in tempo and dynamics. Gamelan emphasis on interlocking. Usually, different groups of player play different short melody/rhythm pattern simultaneously to create a complete musical phrase. Gamelan is in cycle, or in musical terms, ostinato. Usually the music will repeat over and over, until the drummer give a sign to end the performance.

To give a picture on how the Gamelan is played, here an excerpt from Covarrubias’ Bali.

“quietly, as if to indicate the piece to be played, someone started to beat out a tune on one of the high pitched metallophones (small Gangsa); others joined in, gradually increasing the volume of the playful melody, and soon they were playing music they like of which we had never heard. It was a pure music like tinkling bells, interwoven with the fast humming of the cymbals, onomatopoeically called ceng-ceng, and punctuated here and there by gongs, the whole controlled by the masterful leadership of the two drummers, who, with the tips of their fingers, beat impossible rhythms on the double head of the drums, each differently tuned. Suddenly, with a crash they all struck sonorous chord and stopped, all the four boys playing the reyong, who in perfect unison as if moved by a single impulse, beat the inverted bronze bowls with padded sticks, ringing out rippling chords, sinuous melodies that broke at unexpected places into resonant accents or rolled into fast syncopation.”

“When the reyong solo was over, the rest joined again, building up the themes until they reached furious climax that faded into original theme, but enriched by rhapsodical ornamentation on the high instruments against measured basses and reverberation of the deep gongs. It was an oriental ultra-modern Bach fugue, an astounding combination of bells, machinery, and thunder.”

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