Students Perform on Gamelan, Talempong


Courtesy of Ika Apriani-Fata

College juniors Alex Frank (left) and Isabelle Rew and College seniors Noelle Hedges-Goettl, Adrian Ziaggi, Edmund Metzold and Shonari Edwards perform a concert of traditional Indonesian gong music. Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology Jennifer Fraser hosted the concert, which took place in Shipherd Lounge in Asia House.

Aviva Blonder, Staff Writer

When the audience filtered into Shipherd Lounge in Asia House this past Sunday afternoon for a concert of Indonesian gong music, only a small portion of the ensemble was present, seated on the floor and surrounded by a variety of percussive instruments. Then, once everyone had taken their seat, a shrill sound resembling that of a bagpipe — actually produced by a small horn — began emanating from outside the room. The sound slowly got louder and louder, until the remainder of the ensemble paraded inside and lined up in front of the audience to take a bow and begin its performance.

Many of the students in both the talempong and gamelan ensembles, led by Professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology Jennifer Fraser, had only been studying the instruments for a single semester. Nonetheless, they capably performed a broad selection of works that exemplified the uniqueness and diversity of this Indonesian musical tradition. Indonesian gamelan pieces feature circular rhythms, counted in multiples of two and are divided up into nested intervals marked by gongs of varying sizes. The drums cue what part of the song the musicians should play and how many times they should repeat a given section. No one instrument projects louder than another. Instead, all of the sounds merge into a rich, echoing melody.

As Fraser said in her introduction to the first piece, in Javanese gamelan the deep, reverberating sound of a large gong marks the beginning and ending of every song cycle. The gong used in Sunday’s concert is a very old instrument; Fraser explained that gong-makers don’t make gongs that large anymore because they are very difficult to cast. Smaller hanging and kettle gongs, such as the kempul and kenong, are used to mark every half or quarter cycle of the music.

During each piece, the musicians performed a skeletal melody on metallophones of varying sizes. In the first piece, “Ladrang Asmardana Laras Sléndro, Pathet Manyura,” which recounts the narrative of a warrior bidding farewell to his love as he leaves for a battle he knows will be his last, the scratchy sound of a sitar and haunting female vocal melody further enhanced the musical narrative. Together, the musicians created a coherent melodic thread, like rushing water that flows as one current. All of the parts were equally audible and combined to produce a beautiful, meditative atmosphere.

The smaller talempong ensemble replaced the gamelan ensemble to play a series of Sumatran melodies. Beginning with “Siamang Togogau” (translated as “Surprised Gibbon”), the musicians brought out a different set of gold instruments, the most notable of which were the ensemble’s namesake instrument, the talempongs. These looked like several small pots placed on clear elastic bands strung over a wooden box. As Fraser explained, the instruments were usually played outside at important ceremonies, such as weddings, coronations and rice harvestings — typically, people focus little on the music at these events.

The talempong sound, which is sharper and louder than the gamelan, emphasized the rhythmic motion of each piece. For each song, the students switched between different instruments. Each song began with a slow build with one musician playing an instrument alone, usually the talempong; others gradually joined in.

Most of the songs were performed on two drums and a single talempong played by two students. When two people played talempong, their parts overlapped, so they had to time their playing so as not to hit the same pot at the same time. The students accomplished this admirably, performing with impressive coordination to create an intricate, unified rhythm.

The second piece of the talempong portion of the program, “Urang Halaban Batimbang Baju” (“People from Halaban considering what clothes to wear”), featured two hanging gongs that produced a low pitch to contrast with the higher sound of the pots. According to Fraser, people traditionally played the gongs by hitting them with java fruit, though a fork could be substituted.

The ensemble’s last few pieces were sharper still, incorporating a bottle played by hitting it with a fork — the Sumatrans had initially used plates, but found glass bottles had a stronger sound and didn’t break as easily — a tambourine, and another drum. The timbre was painfully bright at times, but the musicians flawlessly performed the work’s fascinatingly complex and elaborate rhythm.

At the conclusion of the talempong performance, one of the musicians explained how the native performers of the talempong are a marginalized group in West Sumatra, which further impedes the preservation of an already fading art. Some of the students in the ensemble visited the villages from which the music originated and studied with women who play the instrument. Currently, older women represent the only demographic that still plays the traditional music, because the younger generation is not as involved in the traditional culture.

The gamelan ensemble then returned to its green and gold instruments to play “Ladrang Kagok Semarang” by Ki Nartosabdho, one of the few pieces for gamelan that was composed recently enough that the name of the composer is recorded. The piece involved a seven-tone gap scale that is typically used for ceremonial and majestic pieces, but Nartosabdho, who is known for his creative use of traditional modes, employed the scale here for a dance song. It was an energetic piece, and the students’ rendition was pleasantly lively and well-balanced.

The final song of the afternoon, “Lancaran Singa Nebah, Laras Pelog Pathet Barang,” also featured a unique facet of gamelan music: irama. Irama is translated as the “density” of a song; the denser a piece is, the more intricate the rhythmic layer as compared to the skeletal melody. In this work, the drummer clearly signaled each shift in tempo, and the musicians responded with practiced coordination.

The music of the Javanese gamelan and Sumatran talempong has a uniquely cohesive, rhythmic sound and the musicians played the music with clear skill despite their limited experience.