[Date Prev][Date Next]   [Thread Prev][Thread Next]   [Date Index][Thread Index][Author Index]

Re: Living on a rock

on the topic of looping in asian musics...

javanese gamelan music is fundamentally based on certain aspects of
loopiness.  however, the looping pattern can be up to 256 beats long as
slow as 6 bpm, so until someone comes up with a digital looper with some
SERIOUS ram....  but still, javanese music has some features which can be
very inspirational for us loopfolk.  the music is very beautiful and
trancelike, the loop transforming itself gradually over time in speed and

quick background:  a gamelan orchestra is comprised mainly of tuned brass
idiophones (struck with hard and soft mallets) in varying sizes, from small
xylophones to large hanging gongs.  these instruments play the foundation
or framework of the music.  there will also usually be some combination of
end-blown flute, spike fiddle, choir, and a special xylophone called
"gender".  these instruments play a freer melodic role.  a drummer sets the
tempo and directs changes in the music.  

the fundamental looping melody is called the "balungan" - it is usually
fairly rhythmically regular (one melody note per quarter note) and is
played with hard mallets on medium-sized xylophone-like instruments tuned
to one of two pentatonic scales. the balungan is the melody upon which all
other instruments base their parts, in what can be called "stratified
polyphony".  instruments higher in pitch will play in a rhythm that is a
multiple of the balungan rhythm (twice as fast, etc), playing a melody
weaving in and out of the notes of the balungan.  instruments lower in
pitch will play in a rhythm that is a division of the balungan (half as
fast, etc), playing structurally important notes of the melody.  the
hanging gongs play a sort of bass line, and a huge gong plays only at the
end of a melodic cycle.

here's the really cool part.  fundamental to javanese gamelan music is the
concept of "irama", which describes a sort of gradual repeated doubling of
the fundamental pulse, while the higher instruments adjust their parts to
maintain a constant rhythmic density.  after a few cycles of the balungan
have been played, the drummer carefully slows the ensemble down, until it
is playing at half of the previous tempo.  the higher-pitched "elaborating"
instruments will double their rhythmic density, playing four or eight notes
per balungan note instead of two or four.  these notes are formulaically
tied to the balungan notes, and a sense of continuity is maintained.

this process is repeated as many as four times, until a melody that lasted
15 seconds now lasts four minutes.  at this irama level, the balungan is no
longer recognizable as a melody, but serves more of a "punctuating"
function, regularly defining important moments in the structure.  the
process is repeated in reverse to end the piece at the original irama

this is all an oversimplification of a very deep, complex musical system,
so i encourage people to look into it more yourselves.  for anyone
interested in checking gamelan music out, just a little warning:  the
instruments are not always tuned in a system that is compatible with the
western chromatic system (in fact, each gamelan is tuned a little
differently!)  it may at first sound just a bit "off" to western ears, but
you'll soon hear it for its beauty.

a good introduction to javanese gamelan music is "gendhing bonang", an
instrumental genre played by an all-brass gamelan orchestra that has a very
smooth, ethereal sound.  check out "music of mangkunegaran solo I", part of
king records' "world music library" series.  (king records, tokyo,