Orchestration: Composers Reveal Tricks of the Trade Barbara Benary

Barbara Benary

On Orchestrating for the Gamelan

I began playing Javanese gamelan in graduate school at Wesleyan University in the late ’60s, and about a half dozen years later began adapting my indeterminate and process type pieces for the instruments. Soon after I began composing new pieces specifically for those instruments. My first instinct as an ethnomusicologist, and thus preserver of traditions, was not to mix things up. But with much encouragement by the participation and interest of composers Philip Corner and Daniel Goode at Rutgers, I soon let those barriers fall, deciding that no tradition was in danger of being lost or dishonored because of experimentation. The result was the birth of Gamelan Son of Lion as a new music composers’ collective and repertory ensemble in 1976.

Ever since we have continued to perform and to encourage both the composer-performers in the group and friends in and out of the gamelan world to add to our repertoire. Each composer deals with the gamelan in his/her own way, with individual choices as to how much of the traditions of Indonesia, Europe, or elsewhere to mix into a piece. We have a huge variety of styles as a result: everything from minimalist to melodic (maximalist?) to indeterminate and random to chordal to electronic, not to mention pieces built more out of the inspirations of Eastern Europe, Bali, India, etc.

The instrumentation of Gamelan Son of Lion covers a little over five octaves and is keyboard based, primarily mellow metallophones. But since different instruments handle different octaves, it doesn’t work to pretend it’s just a great big piano or vibraphone. There are timbre differences across the range; tunes that cross octaves have to be assigned carefully to different keyboards, or perhaps rethought to fit the range of the instruments that are there. Additional timbre differences are also available in the knobbed gongs and in various panerusen or elaborating instruments: wooden keyed xylophone, zither, tuned bamboo rattles, bowed string rebab, bamboo suling flutes, etc.

One major factor in gamelan composing is that the tuning is not diatonic at all but based on two flexible scale prototypes called slendro (5 tone) and pelog (7 tone). Not only do these scales not match the Western conventional instruments, but they need not even match a different set of gamelan instruments somewhere else. As a result we often find ourselves “shoehorning” a tune we hear in our heads with our Western ears into a scale that isn’t quite there. This can be a good or a bad experience depending on the effect desired. Our gamelan is a double set: two keyboards for every instrument type, one in each of the two scales. Often our composers have broken with the Javanese tradition of one tuning per piece and combined the 12 keys (actually 10 different pitches in our case) to widen the modal or harmonic possibilities. This involves adapting playing techniques and physical placements to accommodate what has been written.

Also the gamelan has historically been a syncretic kind of orchestra. Javanese can and have added to the core of metallophones and gongs everything from Indian-derived barrel drums and near-eastern rebab fiddle to an occasional diatonic brass section borrowed from the colonialists. In the synchretic spirit, Gamelan Son of Lion frequently makes use of the traditional skills of any orchestra-type musicians who happen to be with us. Violin and viola adapt well as gamelan additions, as does trombone of course, and saxophone with a little pitch bending. Flute bends with a bit more difficulty and clarinet has more trouble. (We had a specially tuned one made for the band). Matching pitches with trumpet is nearly impossible. But chorus and voice work well with gamelan, providing the singers have good ability to adapt to what they’re hearing.

Lou Harrison was a master of writing gamelan pieces with Western instruments added. He did, however, write these for a gamelan of his own design based on a just-intonation tuning, which tends not to be as radical as the indigenous tunings my own instruments use. The assumption is to try to have the solo instrument be in tune with the gamelan. However some composers deliberately use our western add-ins in unaltered diatonic tuning to produce heterophony with the gamelan. A couple of examples: I made this a focus of my piece Aural Shoehorning for gamelan and percussion quartet a few years ago with the idea that it could be played by any gamelan and be just as out of tune. And this year we enjoyed playing I.M. Harjito‘s piece “Sekat” for gamelan and highland bagpipe, intonation fall where it may!

In terms of notation, most of our musicians know the traditional number or cipher notation called kepahitan, which is used in Java. But because we are oriented to the concept of downbeats (kepahitan uses end-beats), we often do a rhythmic transposition and write our pieces with the downbeat on the first of every group of four. Other pieces in our repertoire—particularly those from our founding minimalist period—are often in the form of diagrams and instructions rather than notes. In recent years as more of our composers have taken the plunge to Finale literacy, we increasingly use a staff notation with the nearest equivalent diatonic note for each slendro or pelog pitch and the number-name written below

There is no doubt in my mind that a gamelan is an orchestra. But it’s an orchestra of a different type with its own history and its own limitations on its flexibility and hence on its repertoire. We don’t do Beethoven (just as Garfield doesn’t do mice). I don’t think we’d even want to try unless a comic or programmatic effect was intended. (I have done a couple of ragtimes and a tango, for instance). On the other hand, those of us who want to can use gamelan to evoke harmony of the western type, just as Harrison, Cowell, and McPhee evoked gamelan with piano and symphony orchestra. It is one of many possibilities, but not our main intent.

What we can do, and what I most prefer, is to continue to explore all the stylistic possibilities that can be made to happen with gamelan instruments. We individually synthesize what we know of the gamelan, or discover by playing it, with whatever is rattling around in the musical history of our heads. The result is a delightful ongoing exploration enriched by all the composers who jump in and take part in it, and all the music pieces, theatre, dance, or puppetry projects we undertake.