Discover the sounds of the gamelan and its use in the country’s traditional folk songsREGINA TANUJAYA , ALPHA KAPPA, KANSAS CITY ALUMNI REGINA.TANUJAYA@GMAIL.COM
he sounds of Indonesian music have been within the Western music repertoire without much recognition. Many Western composers were influenced by the Indonesian gamelan and incorporated it into their works. It is time to learn more about the country of Indonesia, the traditional music of gamelan, and start incorporating diverse repertoire selections for the young musicians.
Indonesia is an archipelago with over 17,000 islands and a population of over 270 million people. It is not surprising that the country is very rich in culture, languages and ethnicity. There are 38 provinces across the country and each region or group is proud of its language or dialect, customs, food and art.
The Javanese gamelan and the Balinese gamelan are the most well-known sounds to represent traditional Indonesian music. The gamelan is usually played for special occasions, such as funerals, weddings and religious rituals. It could also be played as music accompanying the traditional puppet theater. Unlike the Western instruments in the orchestra, the gamelan does not follow any specific standard in tuning. Western instruments are played interchangeably from one ensemble to another. For example, an orchestra can always replace one violin with another violin. But gamelan instruments are always played as a set. Aside from the tunings, another distinctive quality of gamelan sound would be its texture and rhythmic patterns. In gamelan, there are several different instruments that have specific roles in creating distinct interlocking patterns. Generally, gamelan sounds like instruments playing ostinatos in several melodic and rhythmic layers.
Gamelan Influence in Western Music
It is well known that the Indonesian gamelan has influenced works in the repertoire of Western music. There are several composers whose works have gamelan influences:
Claude Debussy — Debussy was probably the first recognized composer who incorporated gamelan sounds in his works. Debussy first heard the gamelan at the 1889 Paris World Exposition. The influence of the gamelan sounds in his compositions can be particularly heard by the use of pentatonic scales and the repetitive rhythmic patterns in “Pagodes,” the first piece of his solo piano work Estampes (1903).
Leopold Godowsky — Godowsky, a Polish American composer, traveled to Indonesia and wanted to recreate his journey there into music. He wrote a set of pieces for solo piano, the Java Suite (1925).
Henry Cowell — Cowell often listened to gamelan recordings and one of his piano works, The Fairy Bells (1928), clearly displays characteristics of the gamelan sounds. In this piece, the melody is produced by the right hand plucking the strings inside the piano while the left hand plays constant parallel cluster chords underlying the melody. The sounds produced by plucking the strings inside the piano resemble the metallic notes of traditional xylophones and the parallel cluster chords recreate the gamelan bell-like sounds.
Colin McPhee — McPhee was a colleague of Cowell’s and often listened to the gamelan recordings together with him. McPhee later went to Indonesia to study the gamelan extensively and transcribed many Balinese gamelan pieces.
Lou Harrison — Lou Harrison, an American composer and a student of Henry Cowell, became so fascinated by gamelan music that he composed many gamelan-inspired compositions and even composed for the gamelan orchestra itself. One of them is Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1987).
Other western pieces with gamelan influence:
• Gnossiennes by Erik Satie
• Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by Francis Poulenc
• “La Vallée des Cloches” from Miroirs by Maurice Ravel
• The Prince of the Pagodas by Benjamin Britten
• Galamb Borong, Étude no. 7 from Book II by György Ligeti
Gamelan and Prepared Piano
The gamelan sounds are often described as metallic, bell-like and enchanting. Prepared piano is the perfect way to imitate these qualities. Henry Cowell had a great success with his piece for prepared piano The Banshee. He was very influential to many other composers who later wrote for prepared piano, including John Cage and his work “Sonatas and Interludes” for prepared piano, which has some traits of gamelan sounds.
Indonesian Folk Music
While the gamelan made its way to the international stage, not many are aware of the Indonesian folk songs. Music in Indonesia is vastly diverse, because there are 38 provinces across the country and hundreds of languages and dialects. Each province has
their own folk songs, typically sung in their own regional or local languages. These songs are traditional songs that people would sing to their children or learn at school. They are varied in topics; some songs have moral teachings while others simply talk about daily activities.
Indonesian Folk Songs Arrangements for Solo Piano
I am pleased to share my ongoing project of arranging Indonesian folk songs for solo piano. There are a few pieces, ranging from early elementary to advanced level arrangements, available to download and listen for free on my website, reginatanujaya.com. I hope that this could be a great resource for piano students and teachers to incorporate Indonesian music into their repertoires.
‘Rek Ayo Rek’
One of the piano arrangements I have done is Rek Ayo Rek, a song I occasionally heard growing up. This song is from my province, East Java. In this arrangement, I kept the basic melodies simple and provided some fingerings to help when the melodies are not in the “five-fingers” positions. Some patterns possibly could make this arrangement qualify for a pedagogical piece. On the left-hand part, there are some passages that require the performer to hold one finger while the other moves, an educational feature typically found in many studies by Friedrich Burgmüller.
We predominantly teach students using repertoire by European composers or Western composers in general. While there are pieces that have some Asian music influence or the gamelan influence, they tend to be more advanced level pieces.
As a pianist and a piano teacher, I am always trying to find variety and diverse repertoire for my students. Young learners often have limited repertoire selection as their abilities are still limited. With this in mind, I began introducing music from Indonesia so that pre-college students can start experiencing the different types of music while learning the instrument.
Regina Tanujaya (Alpha Kappa, Kansas City Alumni) is a Chinese Indonesian pianist and educator who earned her Bachelor of Music in piano performance from the University of Kansas; her Master of Music in chamber music and piano performance from the University of Michigan; and her Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She has won national and international competitions leading to performances around the world. She has performed in Carnegie Hall, New York, had her debut performance with an orchestra in Italy and performed a concert tour in the Czech Republic and Indonesia. She is also the co-founder of the Neo-Art Piano Duo, actively performing programs of audience favorites and their own arrangements. Tanujaya is currently on the piano faculty at MidAmerica Nazarene University and Kansas City Kansas Community College. Her most recent project is to arrange Indonesian folk songs to be accessible for pre-college piano students and teachers. She enjoys doing outreach programs in teaching and performing as well as promoting Indonesian music, culture and arts.
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