Friday, December 14, 2007

112. Music of the Great Tradition -- 14:Gamelan

Now that I've listed several points of similarity between the Pygmy/Bushmen and gamelan traditions, it's time to focus on one very important difference. The more elaborate gamelans, especially those associated historically with court traditions, are organized hierarchically, according to a principle often referred to as "layering," where each instrument has a strictly defined and delimited role, with varying degrees of importance (and skill) associated with each. This is radically different from the P/B tradition, where all parts are, in principle, equal, both in importance and function.

For clarification I'd like to draw on a very interesting and informative website, created by Yee-Seer See (with the advice of his teacher, Professor Han Kuo-Huang): Indonesian Gamelan. The page entitled Function of Instruments provides us with a clear picture of five basic layers of a typical Javanese gamelan, with links to descriptions of the instruments appropriate to each:

A. instruments that play the basic, or "nuclear" theme. (This is usually presented in longer note values, with little rhythmic differentiation); B. instruments that typically elaborate on the theme (using shorter note values); C. instruments (or voices), such as the rebab (bowed lute), suling (endblown flute) or voice(s), characterized as playing a "counter-melody." This term is a bit misleading, since, as can be seen from the transcription provided in earlier posts, these instruments also follow the nuclear theme heterophonically/ polyphonically, though with more freedom and flexibility than the others; D. instruments whose role is limited to "punctuation," i.e., the so-called "colotomic" layer (see under 17. in the previous post); E. "rhythm" instruments, in the form of three types of membranophone (drums with skin head(s)).

It's not difficult to see how certain layers, and instruments, could be associated with certain cultures that influenced Indonesia during different historical periods. For example, the rebab is strongly associated with Muslim culture, and could thus be a relatively recent introduction; the drums supplying the "rhythmic" layer look very much like -- and are played very much like -- Indian drums, suggesting that they could be associated with a somewhat older stratum dominated by Hindu culture; one of the elaborating instruments, the Gambang, is a xylophone, suggesting African influence, possibly via ancient slave trade, as has been suggested by Roger Blench (the noted ethnomusicologist A. M. Jones produced a fascinating comparative study of African and Indonesian xylophones in an attempt to demonstrate that they were of Indonesian origin, making their way to Africa via the Indonesian colonisation of Madagascar, an interesting theory that has not survived closer scrutiny).

Especially relevant, in the present context, are traces within this hierarchy that suggest the surival of a much older historical level, a level that can be associated with the "great tradition." To understand this connection we will need to look more closely at two specific layers: "elaboration" and "punctuation."

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