Gamelan

March 12, 1996

For my last birthday I invited my friends to join me in a gamelan. We went to the home of a man who possesses one and he told us about it and taught us elementary songs. The gamelan is an ancient Indonesian percussion instrument played by ten to thirty people. It consists of a large number of gongs, bells, and metal and wooden xylophones. The musical notation is a series of numbers surrounded by various marks. Each musician reads only certain parts of the written music. The player of a particular gong, for instance, strikes only when there is a small curlicue on the upper right side of the number. The person playing the small xylophone, on the other hand, plays two notes simultaneously when he sees a six and two others when he sees a seven. Since all the musicians change to different notes when the number changes, it becomes a chord change. There is no melody in the Western sense, but the music follows regular patterns that form recognizable tunes when repeated many times. The music is haunting and relaxing, conducive to meditation. Each part is relatively simple. After a few repetitions, even beginning musicians can stop thinking about playing their parts and listen to the whole unfolding about them.

As in playing in a Western orchestra, there is a unique pleasure in contributing a small but essential piece of a whole that is both emotionally beautiful and beyond the ability of any one person to create. Like Western music, gamelan music is the sum of a great many sounds being played in precisely the right pitch, time, and tempo. But with gamelan there are no solos, no melody instruments, no individual virtuosos. It is very Oriental. Rules are rigid and strictly enforced. The rules are arbitrary but unquestionable because they are ancient. The individual is subordinate to the whole to such an extent that he almost ceases to exist.

The notation is also rather foreign to Western musicians. Western notation attempts to define everything that happens to the sound. The pitch and duration are rigidly defined, and the tonguing or attack, the phrasing, the volume, even the mood of the performance is specified. A note is not just an A; it is 440 cycles per second, 5/16 of a second long, with a legato attack, played on a B-flat trumpet with a particular mute, medium loud but getting louder, and in a joyful manner. Gamelan notation specifies none of this. A beginner does not even know what note he is playing. He thinks: I see a 5, so I hit the second note in the top row and the fourth in the bottom, then damp the notes with my hand when I'm done. He doesn't know what the other musicians are playing when they see the same notation, and he doesn't need to. If each one obeys his instructions, the music emerges with no one person directing it, like a Ouija board with twenty hands on it.

Gamelan notation does not define the shape of each individual sound, but it is nonetheless complete and precise. Each symbol describes exactly what is to happen at a particular time. Thirty or forty mallets descend at precisely the same time and produce a euphonious and extremely complex sound. But then nothing happens in the notation until the next note. In reality, the instruments continue to resonate, changing their timbre as they fade in volume, their voices blending and interacting in a rich tapestry of sound. This is the true music, this interval between the impacts of the mallets.

Gamelan notation, while gratifyingly ancient and Oriental, at the same time shares something with modern digital recording technology. Digital recording samples the sound at a particular instant. The wave form is frozen, and no matter how many instruments are playing or how complex the sound, that wave can be reduced to a single number representing the amplitude of the wave at that instant. Then a moment later the wave is sampled again and a second number is recorded. What happens to the sound between those instants is not recorded in any way. All the subtle nuances of sixteen separate violinists playing an arpeggio with vibrato and a crescendo are reduced to a series of numbers. Nothing about the first number indicates that the violins are about to rise to the following F-sharp. The playback equipment simply reproduces a single blat of sound corresponding to the recorded digit, then there is silence until the next blat. But because the blats are very close together, our imperfect ears hear them as a continuous sound, just as our eyes see a rapid series of still images as moving pictures.

As with the gamelan, it is the unrecorded spaces between the digits that are the music. But with gamelan, the instruments are ringing throughout those intervals. With digital recordings, those spaces are silent, and the music is provided entirely by our minds. In both cases, a simple string of numbers can be used to reproduce with great precision a powerfully moving aesthetic and emotional experience. Music is so universal to the human experience that it can be said to be a defining characteristic of our species. Music can be described, recorded, and analyzed, and yet so far it has resisted all attempts to explain it. Perhaps it will always evade our intellectual understanding.

I certainly hope so.

copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford