Gamelan Gumption

The Indonesian musical tradition of gamelan embodies both cultural tradition and philosophy.

Large Western ensembles, such as the jazz big band or a symphony orchestra, can feel like a small community to the players that belong to them. Of course, those players are also free to take their instruments and play with whomever they choose. In gamelan ensembles, the instrumentalists aren’t quite bound to their ensemble; but the importance of community is emphasized in how the instruments that belong to the gamelan can only be played within the ensemble.

The most famously known gamelan styles originated on the islands of Java and Bali. Where Javanese gamelan can be slow and contemplative, Balinese gamelan is characterized by its fast-paced tempos and the challenging technique demanded of the instrumentalists in rapidly striking and damping the keys of the metallophones. Watch the video below for an example of a live performance of Balinese gamelan, and pay close attention to the metallophone players:

As knowledge of the music has spread, people around the world have experimented with their own approaches to gamelan. Here’s a video of modern musicians performing in a gamelan ensemble, using traditional instruments to play music in a modern popular style.