KEMBANG WULUH: a Composition for Balinese Gamelan Gong Kebyar

By Matt Finstrom


Composer: Matt Finstrom, director, the Fine Stream Gamelan

Dedication: It’s for Rolf. Rolf Jordahl. Rolf was one of the founding members of the Fine Stream Gamelan back in 1988 and for 18 years was my musical partner exploring unlikely corners of the musical universe. He was an experimental guitarist extraordinaire, a conservator of fine art, a person of extraordinary insight, and a good friend. Rolf passed away while celebrating Dia de los Muertos in Mexico back in 2001. He was a big fan of the All Souls Procession so it seems the right place to honor him. 


This performance also kicks off our 20th year as a performing group playing gamelan music in Tucson and around the state. We mostly play regional styles from Java but we occasionally play Balinese gamelan as well, and this is one of those times. Balinese gamelan takes quite a bit more effort to learn than other types of gamelan due to the highly percussive nature and sometimes rapid pace of the music. We will perform a style of Balinese music called Gong Kebyar. Gong refers to gamelan. Ke-BYAR means lightning or an explosion, and that describes the music pretty well. It also means a bursting forth, like the opening of a flower. Kebyar compositions do unfold like flowers, with many sections, colored by the unique tonality of the Balinese tuning system. Most of the instruments we play were made by me back in 1990 and may be the only home-made Balinese gamelan in the U.S., possibly the only one ever made outside of Bali. The instruments must be paired and made so that one member of the pair is slightly out of tune with its partner creating a natural phase cancellation which we hear as an acoustic vibrato. That gives Balinese gamelans their shimmering, ever-vibrating  sound. From the spooky lows of the jegogans to the crystal ring of the kantilan, the sound is full of surprises. To create the fast interlocking melodies on some instruments, such as the gangsas, requires four players, one pair for each half of the pattern. 


Kebyar is a modern style, and a kebyar composition is somewhat of a musical tour of Bali’s many musical traditions. The instruments are based on the much older Gamelan Pelegongan ensemble but the compositions may include, for example, sections reminiscent of the Gambangan style, one of the sacred and very old traditions played primarily at cremations. Some of the gangsa sections are similar to the famous Gender Wayang music, used to accompany shadow plays. My work also includes a section typical to the style known as Gamelan Jegog, which uses instruments made of bamboo, some with keys around 8 feet long. We had a special gong made in Bali this summer to optimize our sound for this event. Rolf always dug playing the Balinese stuff, so this one’s for you, Rolf.
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