The Indonesian Gamelan Orchestra

This unique art form employs a variety of instruments, from gongs to wooden and metal idiophones - the generic name for instruments that are hit in order to produce a sound. About 15 to 20 of these form a gamelan orchestra, tuned and balances internally to its own set of pitches. The wondrous quality about each ensemble is that it is unique to itself.

Each gamelan orchestra is the only existing species of its kind in the world as they each are calibrated to their own tunings. Thus, gamelan orchestras cannot mix and broken instruments would be hard to replace unless the same blacksmith that made it or one competent enough to make an identical set is found.

There are two music systems used in the gamelan orchestra: the five-note 'slendro' and the seven-note 'pelog'. The crux of gamelan-playing lies in the skeletal melody known as the 'balungan', over which complicated interlocking rhythms and flowery embellishments and elaborated. When performed competently, a gamelan concert is the aural equivalent to a rich batik pattern; an intricately-woven texture of metallic and wooden yarns.

This fabric of sound is elastic yet tightly-knit. The cohesiveness of the start-up, increase in speed and grand slow-down can only be achieved if the orchestra members are in perfect empathy with each other.

Thus, ensemble work in gamelan playing is of utmost importance - meaning that the musicians have to listen out and adapt to each other carefully for cues and play together as one. Hence, the gamelan orchestra is essentially improvisation and sixth-sense style mind reading. No scores, no conductors.

No wonder Debussy was impressed.

Adapted from 'Read my mind and let's make a hit together'

The Straits Times, 19th November 1998

Click on the links below to learn more about the instruments.







Gamelan is a spirit, not an object, the instruments are just the medium. -- Sapto Raharjo

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