Frequently Asked Questions about Gamelan

There comes a time in every gamelan musician's life when he or she is asked by a friend or co-worker what his or her plans are for next Sunday night. When it just so happens that a rehearsal falls on that Sunday night, answering this question can be one of the toughest parts of playing gamelan. Because it's so different from western music, it can be a challenge to give a true picture of what it's really like.

In order to help answer some of the most frequently asked questions, we are assembling a compilation of questions and answers, to which we will continue adding as we receive more inspiration (and questions from our audiences)! We're also working on an instruments page with information on (and pictures of) the individual instruments.

1. Gamelan? What the heck's that deal?

A gamelan is an Indonesian percussion orchestra. The word gamelan can refer to a set of instruments, to the group of people who play them, or to the musical form. Gamelan is an ancient tradition throughout Indonesia that remains popular today, and over the centuries, many very different styles have developed in the different regions of the country, and even within each region. Even a novice listener can easily distinguish Javanese gamelan from Balinese gamelan, and Balinese gamelan from Sundanese gamelan. The instruments include metallophones, hanging gongs, horizontal or "kettle" gongs, double-headed drums, bamboo flutes, and bowed or plucked stringed instruments. Within Balinese gamelan, Gamelan Mitra Kusuma plays four different styles of music (see the Ensembles page for more detail).

2. What instrument do you play?

This is, hands down, one of the most common questions a gamelan musician hears when he or she is explaining gamelan. There is no easy answer (well, there sometimes is, but "kantilan" wouldn't really be any more helpful to most people than "some-random-name-you'll-never-be-able-to-remember"). Some of us do have a favorite instrument, while some of us prefer to be gamelan nomads. There is, however, one universal answer to this question: "Whatever I want to play!"

3. Where is Bali?

Bali is an island province in the Republic of Indonesia, an archipelago nation in South East Asia. In terms of land area, Bali is roughly the same size as Delaware, although it looks very different! Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, but in Bali, the large majority of the people are Hindu. The influence of Hindu religious culture is evident in Bali's traditional performing arts.

4. How do you learn how to play?

We practice as a group once or twice a week and we learn from each other and from our teacher, Nyoman. It is important that we learn together, because the different musical parts depend on each other to make sense. Plus, the instruments are too heavy for us to take home to practice on our own! We learn a piece of music in segments, sometimes playing one small section over and over again--it can take months to get it just right. Some of us do find it helpful on our own time to listen to recordings of the music we're learning.

As for technique, the best way to learn is just to do it. We learn technique from Nyoman, but also from simple trial and error. The most difficult part of gamelan technique for a new musician is also the most essential: dampening the keys by grasping them with the left hand after they are played with the mallet in the right hand. This is necessary to keep the notes singular, so they don't all ring together at once. It takes a little getting used to, but talk to someone who's been playing for a while and they'll tell you they don't even think about it any more.

5. Is there musical notation?

There are some simple numerical notation systems for gamelan, but for the most part, it is an oral tradition (or, more appropriately, an "aural" tradition)--that is, like many other folk traditions, the art form has been passed from generation to generation without the use of a writing system. Our five-tone gamelan gong kebyar has pitches that correspond with the numbers 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 (see the next question for more on tuning), and it is relatively easy to notate some of the lower instruments' more simple parts using these numbers arranged on paper according to where the gong is played. But the faster, more complex rhythms that are so characteristic of Balinese music would be much more difficult to write out--it's just easier and more consistent with the tradition to memorize the music as it is learned.

6. Are you all Indonesian?

Not at all - while there are a few Indonesians among us (though not all Balinese), most of us just happen to live in the DC area and be addicted to playing gamelan. Many of us were first introduced to gamelan while conducting research or taking an ethnomusicology class at university. Or we were roped into it by a friend and were never the same since.