Gamelan Nyai Saraswati

Gamelan Nyai Saraswati is an ensemble of the Department of Music, College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Introduction to Gamelan by Prof. Sumarsam
Gamelan Glossary

Topic:  Introduction to Gamelan Music  (other topics:  Introduction to the Bonang ,  Introduction to the Peking )

A Brief Introduction to Gamelan Music

Gamelan is a Javanese/Indonesian word for ensemble. The word "gamel" means to hammer something in Javanese and , indeed, "hammering" or hitting is the way in which most of the different instruments in the ensemble are sounded with the exception of the two stringed instruments -- the bowed fiddle (rebab) and the plucked zither (siter) -- and the flute (suling), male chorus (gerong) and female soloists (pasindhen). Most of the instruments are made from cast bronze and are in the shape of hanging gongs (gong, kempul) and racked gongs (bonang and kenong) which look like gongs lying on their backs with the boss facing up towards the ceiling. There are metallophones (saron) (like xylophones but made from metal, in this case, bronze polished to a gleaming luster) and drums (kendhang) played with the hands. The drummer and the bowed instrument player are the leaders of the group, one determining melodic transitions and the other determining rhythmic transitions. No single person stands in front of the ensemble and conducts. The musicians must listen and rely on their understanding of what is "usual" in a piece of any particular form and "special" or pamijen in a particular piece in order to play it properly. The music is cyclic, often composed of several different cycles, each of which is repeated an undetermined number of times. Each cycle begins and ends with the stroke of the biggest gong (gong agung) which is, itself, named Nyai Saraswati. The length of individual cycles can be as short as 30 seconds or as long as 20 minutes. As most pieces are composed of several different cycles, each played several times, the duration of pieces can range from a few minutes to more than an hour, rivaling a Mahler or Beethoven Symphony in terms of complexity, movements, and duration.

The late 19th century composer Claude Debussy heard gamelan at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. He was transfixed and spent many days in the Dutch East Indies Pavilion listening to the Indonesian musicians perform. He worked hard to understand the structure and tuning. He later set about composing music inspired by the Javanese music he heard. Some of the other composers who have been inspired by Indonesian gamelan traditions include: Maurice Ravel; Oliver Messiaen; Benjamin Britten; Colin McPhee; Harry Partch; John Cage; Lou Harrison; Peter Sculthorpe; Anne Boyd; Steve Everett; and many contemporary Indonesian composers such as I.M. Harjito; B. Subono; Tony Prabawa; Franki Raden; I Wayan Sadra; and Otok Bima Sidarta.

Western musicians who hear gamelan are struck both by the complexity of the relationships between the melody lines of the different instruments and, if they are aware of the "rules" of western harmony, by the almost "impressionistic" tone clusters that can be heard if the listener hears the music vertically, or tries to interpret it "harmonically". People without musical training often focus on the melifluousness of the sound and the soothing, meditative quality of some of the music. Others are excited by the multileveled interlockingness of the texture, comparing it to the experience of listening to several, incredibly good jazz solo players improvising together.

Director: Daniel Guberman (email:
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