A Gamelan Manual
A player’s guide to the central Javanese gamelan
Review by Tim Byard-Jones
gamelan-manual ‘A Gamelan Manual’ is a thorough, meticulously researched and substantially weighty tome which could well be subtitled ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about gamelan but were too busy actually playing to ask’.
Richard Pickvance notes in his introduction that this is the book he would like to have had when he first started to play gamelan. It is a book which will appeal to people who like their theory thorough and their scholarship rigorous; people who like clear and consistent rules.
The sort of people, in other words, who for the most part will find gamelan maddeningly inconsistent. Although this is pitched in part as a book for beginners, it probably contains too much detail to be comprehensible to a newcomer.
I suspect that the main market for this will be libraries, teachers and experienced players wanting to brush up on a bit of theory. I should also add a disclaimer at this point – I was marginally involved in producing this book, as a quick flick through will reveal.
Anyone who has taught gamelan to Westerners has been faced at some point, on some level, with the dilemma that the answer to a question can either be clear or comprehensive, but not both. Where most teachers opt for clarity, ‘A Gamelan Manual’ goes consistently and uncompromisingly for comprehensiveness.
At the very least, this offers teachers the option of being able to refer students to ‘A Gamelan Manual’ for a fuller explanation. There is a wealth of information in this book, and great effort has been made to present complex concepts in creative ways – the illustrations are a model of clarity, and the book overall is clearly structured and beautifully designed.
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The glossary alone almost justifies the price, and we are promised some ongoing internet tie-ins on www.jamanmasbooks.co.uk, where further appendices, information and updates will be available.
Furthermore, this book gives the Yogyakarta style a fair run (a heartening thing for a Yogya-style player like myself to see), and spreads itself sufficiently widely beyond ‘pure’ gamelan to set some useful and often-ignored context: the reader will find good introductions to subjects like Javanese verse and the use of gamelan to accompany dance and wayang.
Best of all, Richard Pickvance carefully avoids the atmospherics and wishy-washy philosophising which too often pollute books about Javanese culture and gives solid information suited to the needs of a hands-on gamelan player, including comprehensive tables of information and some nicely phrased ‘tips and tricks’.
This is a book I am happy to recommend to gamelan players and teachers, who will readily find good use for it as a reference work. My only major reservation is its utility to non-players.
While the medium of print is excellent for presenting large quantities of background and theoretical information, to someone who had never heard or played gamelan I suspect this book would fail to convey the joy and beauty of gamelan as a living art form.
That minor quibble aside, this is a very useful contribution to the available literature on gamelan and clearly a labour of love for its author. Richard Pickvance has done us all a good and useful service in putting this book together, and we should all be grateful for it.