Ketawang Puspawarna: Song of Humanity is a famous soft style piece of the Javanese Gamelan repertory, which the University of Michigan Gamelan performed in Fall 2018 under the direction of Pak Raharja. Puspawarna, notably, was chosen to be on the Voyager Golden Record – two phonographs that were sent on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 – as one of the representative sounds of humankind.
The piece and associated poem are attributed to Prince Mangkunegara IV (1853-1881), ruler of a small principality in Surakarta, Java. The title is a combination of the Indonesian words puspa (flowers) and warna (colorful), and the lyrics describe the many kinds of flowers of the prince’s court, thought to be metaphors for his courtesans. The first stanza:
Flower of the kencur plant
always talked about with admiration,
her body is well-shaped
and her movements graceful,
she is so charming in speech
that one feels carried away.
(translation by Clara Brakel)
Mangkunegara’s poem is nine stanzas long, though many performances of Puspawarna – including those of the University of Michigan Gamelan and on the Voyager spacecraft – only perform the first two or three stanzas. As a result, recordings may range anywhere from five to twenty-two minutes.
“Ketawang” refers to the structure of the composition. In Puspawarna, each gong cycle (gongan) is 16 beats long. The umpak (A section) consists of two gong cycles, marked by the male vocalists (gerongen) providing elaborating “ha ey!” declarations and pitch-sliding “ahhhh!” sighs on certain beats alongside a verse by the female vocalist (pasinden). The ngelik (B section) is three gong cycles long and is distinguished by the entrance of the male chorus singing stanzas of the poem. Roger Vetter, scholar and performer of gamelan and semi-frequent guest of the U-M Gamelan, notes that performers in different regions or settings may opt to exclude the third gongan of the ngelik (1981: 204).
Puspawarna provides an interesting challenge for gamelan ensembles, as the notated score is sparse and skeletal. Because the performers only have the main melody (balungan) to work with, they must listen to specific audio cues to guide them: the gerongen vocal flourishes, the boom of the gong, and the timekeeping strikes of the hanging gong kempul and pot gong kenong. If the performers try to tune out these interlocking and overlapping parts, they will inevitably get distracted and lose their place in the composition.
When the U-M Gamelan performed this piece in Fall 2018, Pak Raharja and I sang. Pak Raharja also directed the pace of the ensemble on drums, and I marked the passage of time on gong and kempul. The piece presented me with two major challenges; first and foremost, I do not consider myself a singer. Puspawarna was above my vocal range, and gamelan is tuned to a different system and spacing of pitches than that of my Western training. Playing the timekeeping instruments of gong and kempul was also confusing, as I had to think in the melodic time of the male choral part as well as in the slow, sixteen beat scaffolding of the piece at large. Pak Raharja’s advice was simply to sing loud and project, and that everything else would fall into place. I made sure to keep my eyes fixed on him to ensure that our vocal entrances and exits were together, and I occasionally had to hug a gong or kempul to mute it after striking it at the wrong point.
Soft style pieces of the gamelan are difficult for the sustained focus they require to pull off. Slowness in music dares performers to rush and jump ahead, but the right patience makes for a deeply meditative experience with one of the representative songs of humanity.
Vetter, Roger. “Flexibility in the Performance Practice of Central Javanese Music.” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 25, No. 2 (1981), 199-214.
Yantra Productions. “Gamelan of Central Java – Flowers.” http://www.gamelan.to/flowers/flowersBOOKLET.html (accessed 14 December 2020).