The word gamelan represents a unique form of music that exists in Indonesian culture, and has had an interesting influence on Western music. The term Gamelan can represent several different types of ensembles in Indonesian culture which vary depending on the purpose of the set. The western world has recently become increasingly interested in “unique” and “exotic” forms of music, a category in which gamelan would easily fall under. Some artists in the west have adopted a few traits from gamelan and incorporated them into their own western music. For instance John Cage and his work with the prepared piano, Claude Debussy, and even newly developed electronic music have elements of gamelan integrated into their music.
Gamelan has an ancient history which supposedly predates the Hindu-Buddhist culture and according to Javanese mythology was created by Sang Hyang Guru a god who ruled Java. Gamelan differs from western music in many ways, which is why it is so interesting when the two forms fuse together. Gamelan music has no standard pitch which to the ears of a western music listener may often sound out of tune and even annoying, however there are two good reasons for this inconsistency in pitch. The first being that historically and even up to recent times, it is considered an insult to copy the exact tuning of an old or sacred gamelan set. The second reason why Javanese scales have not been standardized is because: “The Javanese understand and appreciate the great advantages of subtle differences of tuning (Lindsay 26). The deviations in tuning create a wider range of variation in the music and allow for more music to be created.
Another significant difference between Gamelan and western music is the purpose of playing music. “It is difficult for a Javanese to understand or appreciate the idea of individual artistic expression which is the basis of Western music” (Lindsay 40). In western music culture, music is performed for the enjoyment of the audience and the performers; however gamelan music is usually performed solely for the pleasure of the musicians. In Javanese society you do not find concert-hall performances of gamelan and if there is an audience it is usually a small group of invited guests and the music is simply used as a background. (Lindsay 40). In the same way that gamelan music sounds exotic to us, western music is very hard for the Javanese to appreciate. Gamelan music layers its pieces with many interlocking melodies, in comparison to western music which puts a greater emphasis on layers of harmonic lines that intertwine. In gamelan music, there is no such thing as “one person trying to be the virtuoso of the performance” all of the players fit their contribution into a balanced performance. (Lindsay 32). Below is a musical example of a traditional Javanese Gamelan performance, where you can hear the layering of melodies and how they all are woven together during the performance.
As stated previously, there are some characteristics of gamelan that have been assimilated into western music culture. Claude Debussy a western composer found the beauty in gamelan music. Debussy commented on the forms of traditional western music versus gamelan music. In Debussy’s words traditional forms are “goal-oriented” where musical forms develop ideas and reach climaxes. In contrast to this, gamelan music form is more cyclic, where music forms do not represent time-progress but rather the oriental view of endless cycles. (Hugh). “Perhaps the most important inspiration Debussy found in Javanese music was not any particular musical technique or sound, but rather the general notion that there could be a well-developed, powerful, and beautiful music that had developed totally outside and often in contradiction to, the established rules and conventions of western European music” (Hugh). This quote sums up the philosophy of Claude Debussy, he was not afraid of stepping beyond the boundaries of western music and by doing so, he widened the perspectives of many western composers. Here is a piece of music written by Claude Debussy which was inspired by Javanese Gamelan. This piece is performed by Percy Grainger and begins at 2:33.
John Cage is a man who came much later that Claude Debussy but also found wonder in the gamelan style of music. John Cage is one artist who took western music and turned it upside down. The music in which he wanted to create was based largely on melodies rather than harmonies, thus his relationship to gamelan music. Cage once stated: “I have no feeling for harmony” upon saying this, he was immediately showered with doubt from his peers who said that he would have nowhere to go if he only focused on melody (Pritchett). Cage began creating music similar to gamelan, when he started the idea of prepared piano. He would place items such as screws, wood pieces, or any other everyday items which would give some of the notes on the piano a percussive sound. Cage once described the sound of prepared piano as “a melody which employs sounds having widely different timbres.” (Pritchett). Prepared piano is amazing because it gives one solitary instrument a huge range of timbres which no other instrument can compare to. John Cage and his work with melodies completely changed the mindset of western listeners about what music can be. Here is an example of one of Cage’s works for prepared piano: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ce4TCth0gGM
In a recently developed genre of music, traces of gamelan characteristics can be found spilling into the ears of western listeners. Electronic music is a still developing art which encompasses many of the tell-tale traits of gamelan music. In many electronic songs, there are no vocals and no single line of melody. Electronic music also employs the same cyclic pattern in its songs as seen in the example below:
Electronic music is also mainly produced by machines with percussive sounds that strikingly reflect the ambient gamelan music.
To a western listener’s ear, gamelan music may sound exotic and even strange, but gamelan has influenced western music more than one may think. Gamelan music and other unusual styles of music are becoming more interesting to the western world as we expand our interests outside of our own realm. It is interesting to see how these two very different styles of music can come together in beautiful ways. In the future I see Gamelan music continuing to have an increasing influence on western music and expanding the vast possibilities that music has to offer.
Below is an interesting modern twist to the ancient art of gamelan:
“About the Composer.” Pbs.org. American Masters. 1 August, 2001. Web. 2 December 2012.
Durkan, Patrick. “The Influence of Gamelan on Western Modern Music.” 18 August, 2011. Web. 2 December 2012. http://latitudes.nu/the-influence-of-gamelan-on-western-modern-music/
Hugh, Brent. “Claude Debassy and the Javanese Gamelan.” Brenthugh.com. 1998. Web. 2 December, 2012. http://brenthugh.com/debnotes/gamelan.html
Lindsay, Jennifer. Javanese Gamelan. New York. Oxford University Press. 1979. Print.
Pritchett, James. “John Cage and the Prepared Piano: A Twelve Year History in Six Parts.” Rosewhitemusic.com. 2007. Web. 2 December 2012. http://www.rosewhitemusic.com/cage/texts/CagePreparedPiano.html