Books - Book: Gamelan: A Way of Life

Book: Gamelan: A Way of Life


Gamelan: A Way of Life Exhibit Catalog

"Learning about gamelan music is learning about life," according to gamelan master Midiyanto.

Originating in Indonesia centuries ago and varying by region, gamelan means “ensemble” and refers to a revered set of mostly percussion instruments, crafted and tuned to be played together. Instruments include a variety of bronze gongs and pots, xylophones of bronze and wood, and drums.

Indonesia is an island nation located off the coast of mainland Southeast Asia in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The archipelago has nearly 20,000 islands with more than 300 ethnic groups. The world’s largest Muslim population lives in Indonesia with 85-90% followers of Islam. The majority of citizens live on the island of Java. Part of the maritime “Silk Road,” Java and several of the other islands have a long history of invasions from other nations and cultures, one of the last of which was the Dutch who first sailed to Java in the late 16th century.

Indonesia declared independence in 1945. Instead of being fully absorbed, the invading cultures were layered onto existing cultures creating stratification that is directly reflected in gamelan and its music.

Just as it has been influenced by other cultures, gamelan has influenced other styles of music. Claude Debussy encountered Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Paris Exposition and what he heard affected his compositional style. In 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the US general public was introduced to the gamelan. That very gamelan is still in Chicago at the Field Museum.

Colleges and universities started to acquire gamelan after World War II and gamelan is part of many programs in ethnomusicology. American composer Lou Harrison experimented with utilizing Indonesian music principles in his own compositions. Eventually he composed music for gamelan and built his own “American gamelan.” German composer and pedagogue Carl Orff and his collaborators were influenced by gamelan to create a family of child-size xylophones and metallophones that has become a standard tool in music education.

A parallel can be drawn between traditional Javanese societal values and gamelan. Ethnomusicologist Henry Spiller states that to experience Javanese music-making is to experience a bit of the people and culture of Java. According to Joko Sutrisno, master gamelan teacher and player, “It reflects the complex rhythms of life and becomes a second language to all who know and perform it.”


Gamelan! A Way of Life
© 2022 National Music Museum

NMM Inc. Publications
National Music Museum
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Vermillion, South Dakota 57069

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced
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written permission from the publisher.

Written by Deborah Check Reeves, DMA
Edited by Margaret Downie Banks, Ph.D

Design & Layout by Byron Pillow

Photography by Byron Pillow. Additional images –
p36 reproduced with permission © 2022 Eitan Simanor / Alamy Stock Photo

Printed by Mixam Inc.

Support for "Gamelan! A Way of Life" provided by a generous grant from the
Clayton & Odessa Lang Ofstad Foundation