Bali is world famous for its gamelan music, which, to the outsider who may have been fortunate enough to have witnessed a temple ceremony, seems alive and well even in the face of globalization. At least on the surface. Since gamelan music is remembered and passed on as an oral tradition, much has been lost over time. In fact, due to lack of notation or documentation, it is impossible to know exactly how much music and how many regional / village / banjar styles have disappeared. In the case that notation exists – for gambang, selonding or gong gede music, example – it only provides the reader with a sparse skeletal melody, not revealing a time signature, speed, interlocking patterns, drum patterns or even a melodic line.
So using notation means that the reader has to interpret and basically make all of the parts up and guess the time signature and time. It seems that notation simply served as a memory cue and I have seen that personally as an ethnomusicologist working with elderly musicians who use notation simply to jog their memory.
Notation was originally written using the Balinese script known as ‘aksara’, but more musicians are now using a Roman script notation representing the tones are vowel sounds: ndong, ndeng, ndung etc. It was written on palm leaves known as ‘lontar’ and then later in the 20th century on regular paper and in notebooks. This notation is still kept in family homes across Bali.
My main research focus since 1997 has been the court orchestra, semara pagulingan. I’ve found that not only is the original music extremely rare but a fair chunk of it is in fact extinct. At our centre in Denpasar called Mekar Bhuana, since 2000 we have reconstructed numerous pieces of music from the semara pagulingan, semara patangian, selonding and angklung repertoires. If we get an invitation to an important local or overseas festival we use this opportunity to reconstruct a piece of lost music. This year at the Bali Arts Festival, our semara pagulingan troupe performed a number of rare or once extinct pieces of court music from the 17th to 19th century period, featuring once piece which we reconstructed specifically for this performance from the memory of 88 year old Wayan Gunastra from Denpasar.
The audience had a unique opportunity to hear what Balinese court music once sounded like before the immense changes that Balinese music has gone through since the development of tourism in the early 20th century.
© 2016 Vaughan Hatch