Do Balinese have written music?

There are around forty different types of gamelan in Bali, each with its own distinct repertoire called ‘gending or ‘tabuh’. These gending may vary in style and sometimes nomenclature from village to village but generally they are recognizable enough for people to say “oh that’s such and such with this variation” etc. Some repertoire is impressively large. For example, the four-tone angklung, even with such a limited tonal range, has a staggering four hundred plus gending to its name.  In addition, some musicians know more than a hundred gending of any one type of gamelan – this is a great deal of music to commit to memory in any musical world!

Even though Balinese gamelan has its original traditional notation system, this is rarely employed for learning purposes. It is only seen as a reference point for rare ceremonial music. The cremation music of the gambang, for example, is preserved on ancient palm-leaf manuscripts called lontar. Teachers or scholars of this type of gamelan will refer to these manuscripts from time to time, particularly when teaching a group. The types of gamelan which have written manuscripts, however, can be counted on one hand. When I say musical manuscripts, I don’t mean anything that resemble European musical notation. In fact, all that is recorded is the core melody. Time, rhythm, dynamics, incidentals and all the ornamental parts, including the drums, are not mentioned. These aspects are left up to the interpretation of the teachers or musicians themselves, explaining why there is so much regional musical variation in Bali.

Since the introduction of Western and Javanese notation in the academies, some composers have recorded their compositions in more detail. Nonetheless, the most popular way to preserve and conserve both traditional and modern gamelan music is by audio or video recordings. Fortunately, more and more musicians are seeing the importance of documenting the repertoire of rarely heard traditional music and slowly more efforts are being made to immortalizing near-extinct repertoire.

© 2012 Mekar Bhuana

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