As a classical pianist, I learnt about Gamelan music through my study of French Symbolist, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist music. Claude Debussy and Francis Poulenc are amongst the first Western composers who heard visiting ensembles from Java and Bali at various Paris Expos, some as early as 1883 and as late as 1937. The non-Western scales and approaches to rhythm, and structural freedom, arguably had the same impact on Western music as Picasso’s discovery of African masks had on Western visual arts. So when I visited Bali recently, the Gamelan was on top of my list of things to explore. I had no idea what to expect. But what I received went beyond my wildest dreams.

Being taught by Wayan Nataraja

In the town of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia, I had opportunity to study the Gamelan with Master Wayan Nataraja, one of the most famous performers and teachers in Bali. This humble man was so tremendously patient, kind and gentle as a teacher, but at the same time, a strict and hard task master. His English – not great – was a great deal better than my Indonesian – non-existent. Therefore there was very little by way of introduction, no explanations or philosophical discussions between musicians from different traditions. It would be easy to say we “communicated in the language of music” and all that romanticised twaddle associated with certain cross-cultural exchanges. Instead, it was more like an animal-trainer exhibiting great patience with his illiterate pupil! He demonstrated the main keyboard layout pointing out some pentatonic peculiarities. Then he simply handed me the hammer, sat down and started playing short phrases, which I was expected to imitate and memorise on the spot.

I was disoriented by the intervals. Being a pianist I could imagine intervals in terms of how far the notes were away from one another. However, on the Gamelan, two consecutive notes need not have consecutive pitches. So my piano-orientation put me at a disadvantage. At first, I just memorised which notes Wayan was playing, rather than trying to use my ear, which would confuse me when it came to the distances I had to travel between notes. The sound was bewildering. I am a pianist – therefore I play a “percussive” instrument where sound is created by hammers hitting strings. However, the piano also dampens the sounds the moment you let go of the note. Not so the Gamelan! What followed was a bewildering learning curve as I learnt that dampening a note was as important as sounding it.

Each note consists of two actions: Striking the note to start the sound, and dampening it to stop it.

And often, the dampening of one note coincided with the striking of a new note. This suddenly made the whole thing a lot more difficult, as you not only had to remember which note to play next, find it  – in a different place to where you would expect it on the piano – but then you still had to remember which one you had just finished playing so that you could stop it ringing! The Gamelan is made of a wooden box that amplifies the sound created by striking the metal notes. It is actually very loud, and letting notes ring without this dampening technique, quickly builds up a literally dizzying mush of sound. It was not long before Wayan could comment on my hitting technique, which had a lot in common with my Piano-training. A relaxed wrist and a golf-stroke “follow-through” made an enormous difference to the quality of the sound. He was impressed with my legato playing!

Balinese Arts, like its Crafts, requires dexterity and concentration. In this case, my son’s little fingers were an advantage.

Once I had grasped a basic technique, my back was aching, my backside was aching, my fingers were aching, my ears were aching and my head was spinning with all the new information. And we had yet to begin the work of putting together a piece of music. Wayan would teach me one short phrase at a time and then string more and more of them together until we had a a “piece”. Structurally there were repeats of sections and phrases. The rhythm was complex as there was no strict meter as in Western music. During the first session I desperately tried to convert what I was hearing to Western notation, and this was only of limited help. Only once I abandoned myself to my “ears” – and leaving behind my note-reading-skills – did I start to make real progress. I realised soon why Master Wayan was indeed a Master. Master of memory, master of structure, master of decades of aural tradition passed on from fathers to sons – and more recently, master to teacher. Schools in Bali now offer Gamelan lessons. Nothing is written down, although I have subsequently found that Westerners enjoy transcribing this music. In Bali, the idea of a music-book seems ludicrous. The Gamelan exists to bind communities together and there is a deep understanding of the need to learn your skill from a community of older masters. I did not notice any female Gamelan players, but at the time did not think to explore this question. Perhaps certain cultural constraints exist such as with instruments such as the Shofar, the playing of which is forbidden for women. I did however notice complete comfort with men dressing up as women in the stage performances. A man able to perform convincingly as a woman definitely achieved status in the community.

It seemed to me that everything in Bali is beautiful. Music and smiles flow freely. Every corner filled with ornament, decoration, art or craft.  Carvings are decorated with flowers, and men in hand-painted sarongs wear flowers in their hair. In Indonesian traditional thinking, the gamelan is sacred and is believed to have supernatural power.  Both musician and non-musicians are humble and respectful to the gamelan.  Incense and flowers are often offered to the gamelan.  It is believed that each instrument in the gamelan is guided by spirits.   Thus, the musician have to take off their shoes when they play the gamelan.  It is also forbidden to step over any instrument in a gamelan, because it might offend the spirit by doing so.  Some gamelan are believed to have so much powers that playing them may exert power over nature.  Others may be touched only by persons who are ritually qualified. The stage is strewn with flowers and the Gamelan players have a flower behind the ear.

A virtuoso performing on an exquisitely decorated instrument

I  attended my first full Gamelan Orchestra performance before my first Gamelan lesson. I was overwhelmed by what I heard and saw. The sheer virtuosity and the total abandonment to the beauty and expression was intoxicating. But it was only once I was in front of the instrument myself, under the guidance of a real expert, that I felt I caught a glimpse of the magical creatures in the tales of Bali: the cry of the Barong and the song of the Garuda. I heard “the  music that flies”.

There are many cultural organisations in Bali that can recommend workshops or lessons in various aspects of Balian culture. Some museums have lists of artists who offer Balinese Dance, Gamelan, or various other instruments such as the Bamboo Flute. I suggest this as the best way to experience Bali. Remove yourself from the tourist arenas and open your consciousness to an entirely different approach to life. It will be worth it!

USEFUL LINKS for those interested in the more technical or musicological aspects of the Gamelan:

A very good Beginner’s Guide to the Gamelan – also for non-musicians.

Some illustrations of musical patterns and rhythms in the Balinese KotèkanTypes

A general but useful  Introduction to Javanese and Balinese Gamelan

A very detailed blog-series on the Gamelan and other traditions.

Claude Debussy and the Javanese Gamelan by Brent Hugh. Despite it’s apparent brevity, a very useful and detailed article.

American Composer Colin McPhee’s delightful memoir A House in Bali tells the story of a young man’s love-affair with this island. He composed Gamelan influenced music and shared this passion with Benjamin Britten, in whose ballet  “Prince of the Pagodas” , the pagodas in question are definitely like the pagodas of Ubud Palace where the Gamelan still plays tonight.

And there it is! In the 21st Century it seems there is a manual for everything, including the Javanese Gamelan! I have not seen it myself, but for those dedicated enough, here is A Gamelan Manual: A player’s guide to the central Javanese gamelan. Let me know if it is any good!

The happy and contented Cymbal player who greeted me each morning as I woke up in Ubud