INTERVIEW WITH THE FINE STREAM GAMELAN
This year’s musical composition for the All Souls Procession Finale will be performed by the Fine Stream Gamelan, Tucson’s own purveyors of traditional Indonesian musics. Fine Stream was founded in the late eighties by Matt Finstrom, a long-time student of the gamelan and other ethnic musical forms as well as a builder of musical instruments, including the first Calung (bamboo gamelan) set crafted here in the United States.
Here we speak with some of the Fine Stream musicians on the patio of the Bamboo Ranch after a night-time practice session in late September. The conversation ranges from the Kembang Wuluh composition itself to the art of the gamelan and its role in Indonesian culture.
Present for the talk were Matt Finstrom (playing kendang for the finale piece), Ni Wayan Suarniti (on gangsa kecil), Michael Lord (calung), Chad Bailey Nelson (reyong pemitit), Holly Finstrom (gangsa pemade), and Michele Smith (reyong penyorog)
jhon: What’s the role of gamelan in Indonesian culture and community?
Wayan: Mostly in Bali, the gamelan is for ceremony: ceremony in the temple, and also for festival. And we have many different kinds of gamelan, not only one. This one (composition) that Matt wrote is (of a type) called Gong Kebyar. Also there is Angklung, and also Belaganjur. Belaganjur is used for procession, and Angklung they use for procession and for cremation. There is also Gong Rindik with the bamboo, and many other Gong styles, many kind of gamelan. Usually when preparing for the ceremony, they use the Gong Kebyar for the dancing; the Barong (dragon dance) and Baris (warrior dance).
jhon: Are the ceremonies always religious in nature?
jhon: And is it Hindu?
Wayan: Yeah, because most of the people in Bali are Hindu; like ninety-five percent.
jhon: And the style of the piece that you’ve written for the finale is Balinese, but you’re more used to working with Javanese; is that right?
Matt: We do primarily Javanese styles, several different Javanese styles. Occasionally we play something from Bali. We’ve done some of the processional style that Wayan was talking about, which is sort of like a marching band where everyone has a different instrument and they all interlock; like there’ll be four cymbal players all interlocking, a couple of drummers, people carrying gongs on poles, and the whole thing marching along. And then it ends up somewhere else and they do the ceremony.
Wayan: Before the ceremony starts in the temple, there is a cleansing ceremony (Melalsti), so everybody starts at the temple first, and from the temple they have a big procession to the river for cleansing. The Angklung is in the front of the procession with the offering and everything like that, and then the rest of it: the Barong (dancers) and a lot of Umbulumbul; and then the last part is the Belaganjur where they’re carrying all the gongs and then the ceng-ceng (cymbals) , and then the reyong (pot-type gongs), but they carry the pots. So they carry all around to the river, and they parade, and then they come back again to the temple and play the Gong Kebyar. The ceremony sometimes is for three days, all day, all night.
jhon: The musicians will play for up to three days?!
Michael: No, they switch gamelan.
Wayan: Yeah, the Belaganjur is just for procession, the one they carry that’s very fast and like “ching-lung-lung-ling-lyng-ging!” (staccato), that’s a different type. So that’s for the procession, and then we change with the Gong Kebyar or other kind of gamelan.
Michael: It’s amazingly complicated.
jhon: Sounds like it. What’s the difference between playing Balinese style versus Javanese?
Matt: There’s quite a bit of difference actually. The instruments are tuned radically differently, for one thing. Balinese instruments are tuned in pairs, so it takes two or more instruments to play one of the parts. Usually there’s an interlocking feature to some of the instruments –like the gangsas for instance– where you have one pair of instruments playing one half and the other two players doing the other half so that it takes four people to play one part. And the reason they need two people on each part is that the notes are slightly de-tuned from each other.
jhon: So it’s more complex.
Matt: Yeah, and the nature of the pieces are different, too. In Javanese music, typically a piece would cycle; you’d have one section that goes over and over a long time, or you might have a couple or three different sections, each of which is repeated many times. In Balinese music, it’s more linear. One section may repeat a little bit but it’ll go to another section and never go back to the beginning again; it just keeps heading towards the end. I’d say it’s much more intricate rhythmically, and there’s a lot more going on on the metal-keyed instruments. Javanese music is more laid back, more subtle. It’s just more relaxed and has a whole different feeling to it.
Javanese is the one I started with, that’s what I learned in college. When I got out here there weren’t any instruments so I built a set of instruments so I could do Javanese gamelan. I had to build extra instruments for the Balinese stuff because they’re paired, so I had to add quite a few there.
jhon: Was there something more appropriate about Balinese style for this particular piece?
Matt: For this piece, yeah, because of the nature of the All Souls Procession, it called for something a little more….celebratory. Just a brighter sound for that type of event. I think Javanese gamelan would be lost in something like that. It’s just quieter, mellower…it just doesn’t quite fit.
Also some of the sections of Kebyar (compositions) are reminiscent of some of the other gamelans Wayan mentioned. Like for instance the Gambang, which is one of the four sacred emsembles of Bali where there’s only half a dozen players; two saron, and four or sometimes five bamboo xylophones –gambang is what they call them– and they’re very, very loud and played with hard, wood mallets. These are only played at cremations, and with the Urn and everything, it sort of is a cremation, a wake-type event, and so those elements being in Kebyar made it particularly suitable for this occasion.
jhon: Can you name and describe all the instruments you’ll be using for the piece?
Matt: Yeah, there’s a few of them.
Of course there’s the gong; that’s sort of the main heartbeat of the whole thing. We use three different gongs. The large is called gong, the medium-size is called kempur, and the small one is klentong, and that’s kind of a high-pitched gong. They alternate into sort of a certain cycle which are divided by an instrument called kempli ( a small pot gong), and those create the basic rhythmic structure….gives kind of a breath to the music.
Above that, there are the jegogans (low pitched metallophones), which are also a low-keyed instrument, but they’re higher-pitched than the low gongs.
Above that are the calung (mid-range metallophone), and those play a part that’s called a pokok, which is like the base melody; it’s kind of a structural thing, not really what we think of as a melody in the western sense, it’s more like a framework that the whole thing hangs on.
And then the pokok is elaborated by different types of instruments. One is called reyong (a row of pot-gongs) which is played by four people; a ten foot long row of pots where each player has three to five pots that they play. They play an interlocking part between the four of them that makes one part.
Further elaboration is created by the gangsas, and they’re a metallophone-type instrument with ten keys. There’s two types of gangsas. The pemade are the lower and middle range gangsas, and there are four gangsa players for the pemade; two in the polos , which is the basic part, and two in the sangsih, which is the answering part. The two sets fit together to make this part all one. The other four gangsas are called the kantilan, and those are the high-pitched ones. They echo the other gangsas in the higher registers.
And then there are drums, or kendang, sort of directing the whole thing, and there’s ceng-ceng –the cymbals– that punctuate certain accents.
I guess that’s the main ensemble there.
jhon: Michele was telling me that the instruments are considered to have a kind of spirit or a power associated with them, and not to play with your shoes on because that’s offensive to them?
Matt: Well it’s a little different in Java; sometimes they’re a little more casual about it than in Bali. In Java or Bali, and specifically in the kraton (palace), they would never step over an instrument for instance. They’re considered sort of a sacred object. And there are sacred gamelans –pusaka– that are very special and only play on certain occasions.
jhon: What sort of occasions?
Matt: Auspicious occasions.
Michael: The sultan’s birthday, muslim holidays.
Matt: There’s one in Java called Gamelan Sekaten that’s only played during Ramadan for instance.
Wayan: In Bali also, before you play the gamelan and even when you practice, it has to be blessed by the priest. And they’re all wearing the sarong, and the gamelan is like a holy one; they put it in a special place. And the Balinese gamelan is carved very nicely, and the gold color, and they are so fragile also. They take care of the gamelan very well. When you play, they always have offering in the gamelan. You’re not allowed to play the gamelan without ceremony first.
jhon: Do you guys do anything like that?
Matt: There’ve been a few occasions. There haven’t been too many formalities lately, but it’d be nice to sort of get back into that. We sometimes have a slametan: it’s kind of a meeting before you play, or sometimes they’re after, but there’s usually food…it’s kind of almost like centering yourself , relaxing a little bit before you play. That’s a very informal sort of thing, it’s not quite a ceremony.
jhon: How would you compare say traditional western musics with that of Indonesia?
Chad: The main difference that I see is that in western music you have an instrument or set of instruments playing an explicit melody and other instruments are supporting that melody, whereas in Indonesian music –Balinese, Javanese, Sundanese, all the different types of gamelan music– no one instrument plays the melody: all the instruments have to be there to create it. It’s an amorphous, communal melody that’s created out of the whole.
Holly: It’s there, all right, it just takes everybody to be there to make it happen.
Matt: It’s pretty much the whole group that creates the sound. It’s very much a communal effort to create the whole.
Michelle: Yeah, and it’s a kind of music too where there’s no ego. Like sometimes in music where people can improvise and do their own thing there’s an ego, but you can’t have that in gamelan music because everybody has to try to hear each other and play within each other’s parts.
Chad: There’s no soloist, no one person who’s in front of everyone, and if one person’s playing louder, the melody’s going to be off. It’s not going to be balanced, and it’s not going to sound right. So everybody has to work together. You have to really pay attention to what everyone else is doing in order to make the whole work together.