Tuesday, December 4, 2007

109. Music of the Great Tradition -- 11: Gamelan

Is the gamelan music of Java and Bali part of the "Great Tradition" I've identified, originating in musical practices ancestral to those of the pygmies and bushmen of today? Or are the similarities I've found simply a coincidence, due to independent invention? This is a huge question, too complex for me to fully tackle here. All I can say for now is that there are many striking points of similarity that are, for me at least, very interesting to contemplate. I'm hoping that sooner or later some of the real experts in gamelan music who might be browsing here (you know who you are!) might be willing to share their expertise by chiming in with comments, corrections, suggestions and criticisms.

I'll list some of the more striking points of similarity below, followed by some important differences that must also be considered. For convenience, I'll follow the order of my original listing when I compared Pygmy and Bushmen music, beginning with post 103.

In both P/B and gamelan music we find:

1. Interlocking parts, closely related to . . .

2. Hocket. "Imbal or imbalan is a technique used in Javanese gamelan. It refers to a rapid alternation of a melodic line between instruments, in a way similar to hocket in medieval music or kotekan in Balinese gamelan" (from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imbal ). Imbal and kotekan are especially relevant features of gamelan music that I'll be discussing in more detail presently.

[3. Yodel is not a significant aspect of Indonesian music.]

4. Cyclic structure. In the Pygmy example presented in the previous posts, the beat is subdivided into three, giving a "measure" of four beats. In this case the complete cycle consists of 12 such beats, divided by Kisliuk into three "measures." More typically, the underlying theme of Pygmy songs (and in many cases Bushmen songs as well) often, though not always, consists of four "measures" of four beats each, giving a "cycle" of 16 beats altogether. This emphasis on the numbers four and sixteen, as the basis for the underlying musical cycle is very common in Africa generally. In the court traditions of Indonesia and other parts of Asia, such "foursquare" divisions of the basic musical cycle are practically the rule in almost every case.

5. Basic melody. As stressed in my previous post, both the Pygmy example and the gamelan piece are based on a recurring theme. Typically with Pygmy and Bushmen music, the length of the theme coincides with that of the basic cycle, but in gamelan music the theme can encompass several cycles.

6, 7 and 8. As illustrated in the previous post, polyphony and heterophony are conflated in both the P/B and Indonesian traditions.

That's all for now. I'll continue with this list in the next post.

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