When I started as the graduate student instructor of the U-M Gamelan in fall of 2017, the greatest challenge I faced was learning to listen. Coming from a background as a classical and jazz pianist and as a composer, I considered myself a fairly versatile musician in terms of playing different in different styles, complexities, and so on.
And then I tried playing the elaborating instruments in gamelan – specifically bonang panerus, or an array of fourteen pot-shaped gongs arranged in two rows of seven.
The notion of an “elaborating instrument” is something specific to Gamelan, with few or no direct parallels in Western music. The structure of gamelan music revolves around the balungan (main melody of the piece) alongside the underlying time structure laid out by the gong, kempul, and kenong.
In notation, the relationship between balungan and these three instruments would appear as such:
Pictured here is one gongan (gong cycle) of Bima Kurda, a loud-style piece that would accompany a regal style masked dance. The piece is a ladrang, meaning the gongan consists of sixteen gotra, or four-beat units (i.e. rest 5 rest 5; rest 2 rest 5). The downward-facing arc represents where the kenong strikes (the last beat of each line), the upward shows the kempul (the fourth beat of each line, excluding the first line of the gongan), and the gong strikes on the final beat of the cycle. There are four distinct gongan in the version of Ladrang Bima Kurda that we performed for our Winter 2018 concert. This piece could conceivably be performed with just a drum, a saron (a lead melodic instrument), and the beat structure section of kenong, kempul, and gong.
When Professor Susan Walton taught us this piece, she sung it to us one line at a time and had us memorize it before we were allowed to look at notation. The first three lines of this gongan were particularly challenging, as the three consecutive 5s were surprisingly easy to miscount. The warm, billowing sound of the kempul and brisk, quick attack of the kenong reminded us of where we were in the balungan.
But the nature of the elaborating instruments is that they are derived from the balungan, meaning a performer had to internalize the main melody of the piece in order to be able to add onto it. For the bonang barang and bonang panerus, this would mean playing twice the rhythmic speed as the balungan and four times fast, respectively:
I spent several weekend afternoons learning the bonang panerus part to Ladrang Bima Kurda and its relationship to the lower, slower bonang barang and the main balungan melody.
There are two major challenges to learning a part like this. First is to recognize that the bonang phrases anticipate the melody rather than follow it, as the subdivisions and strong beats in Gamelan are the reverse of what they are in Western music. The second challenge is to recognize the specific patterns that are in the balungan, particularly when to play repeating notes (gambyang), doubled notes (kempyung), or a walking pattern (mipil).
When I first learned the bonang panerus part for Ladrang Bima Kurda, I did so by closely following the notation I had scribbled atop the balungan. When I tried playing the part in class, I repeatedly got lost in my score and failed to line up rhythmically with the balungan. I would sit in my own personal silence until the next gong, then I would try again.
The trick with learning my part was to first orient myself to the beginning of each gong cycle – and then to the end of each line, and then to each gotra. It took many rehearsals of sitting without playing anything so I could listen to the ensemble: the balungan, the kenong, the kempulan. Eventually I got it: I anticipated the melody.
And then, I had to turn around and teach that same experience to incoming students.