Sudden changes, displaced accents, bursts of rapid, precise, highly syncopated playing, increases and decreases of volume, and a highly developed counterpoint based on simple melodies give many Westerners the impression that gamelan music is improvised like jazz, but this is untrue. If an orchestra musician started hammering out his own tune, he'd be immediately expelled from the troupe.
Alternately playful, blaring, with a frenetic, vibrant sound, gamelan is Balinese music like no other you have ever heard. The assorted drums, gongs, and cymbals carry a wide variation of pitch and timbre.
What might be called octaves are not exact octaves and may sound off-pitch or dissonant to Western ears.
Instruments with a high range of notes are struck with more frequency than those with lower ranges, so there's a greater proportion of high harmonics over fundamental harmonics. Half and quarter notes are employed to a considerable extent.
There are five or seven tones in Balinese music, just as in Java. The instruments are tuned when they're made to either the pentatonic (five-tone) 'pelog' scale or the septatonic (seven-tone) slendro scale.
All the instruments have fixed pitches, with the exception of the wistful, viola-like rebab and wailing suling (flutes).
Each gong-like instrument is tuned to its neighbor, making the whole gamelan a self-contained, coherent musical unit, played as a single instrument rather than a collection.
Each instrument is tuned to its partner in a slightly higher tone, producing the shimmering, and 'tremolo', so characteristic of Balinese gamelan. Even on an individual instrument, the octave notes may be tuned slightly higher than the matching lower tones. Played together they produce rich, throbbing sound.
A Balinese gamelan piece usually consists of four or five movements, each divided into four phases: a solo to introduce the piece, the introductory theme, followed by central body and then the clashing, thunderous finale.
Typically, compositions are named after animal actions or temperaments: Crow Stealing Eggs, Fighting Cats, Toad Climbing Pawpaw, Golden Butterfly, or Snapping Crocodile.
Composers are selected from the orchestra's best players. In everyday life they could be waiters at a restaurant, artisans, or field laborers. It's difficult to make out who controls the orchestra so perfectly and precisely because the gamelan has no real conductor. Instead, the orchestra is lead by the two drummers, often the most accomplished musicians of the group.
They link the instruments together, control the tempo, and underline the accents. With their knowledge of both dance and music, the drummers signal other musicians to play the proper musical gesture to accompany a specific dance.
The music itself is played from memory, which is extraordinary when you consider how lengthy and complex some pieces are.
The Balinese have worked out a system of notation, but the orchestration of the melody is fixed so notation is seldom used. Learning by repetition, the Balinese say when a piece is practiced long enough 'it enters the musician's liver and he plays without thinking.'
Musicologists marvel at the way two musicians play interlocking parts as fast as possible, beating out alternate notes at top speed and in perfect coordination, resulting in a faster performance than one player is capable of.
The Balinese like their music very loud and dramatic, with sharp changes in the tempo and volume. A piece always seems to end unexpectedly-as if in mid-song. In the south, the playing style is more refined and fluid, radically different from the violent, rhapsodically styles of the north.
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