Music in Central Java

Music in Central Java

music-in-central-javaBy Benjamin Brinner

gamelan-manualThis is a further volume in the Global Music Series issued by Oxford University Press. As the subtitle ‘Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture’ suggests the aim of the book (as with others in the series) is to place the music of Central Java in its social and cultural context.

The author, who has studied in Java with a number of well-known musicians and teachers, does this very well. The opening scene-setting chapter combines historical background with a vivid picture of contemporary Surakarta (Solo) and ranges from the royal kraton (palaces) to a birthday celebration at the home of one of his teachers.

The following chapters discuss the instruments that make up a Central Javanese gamelan, linked to other concepts such as musical structure, irama, laras (tuning systems) and pathet and including a short chapter on singing and tembang (sung poetry). I felt that the explanations were clear and helpful, without being overburdened with too much detail. The diagrams and examples were also useful.

The book also offers two interesting chapters on wayang kulit featuring two performances, one in Java, the other taking place in Berkeley, California. This section of the book covers the stories and plots used in wayang, the characters and chacter types, the music played and most importantly the role of the dhalang (puppeteer) in controlling and breathing life into the performance. It is well illustrated with photographs of puppets.

The book is also intended as a teaching aid and, with this in mind, includes a 78-minute CD containing a wide range of musical examples which are cross-referenced in the text, together with learning activities. These are slightly superfluous for an adult reader, but there is a wealth of interesting music in the CD.

Overall, this is an excellent basic introduction to Javanese gamelan, combining lively descriptions with concise explanations which will also be of considerable value to music teachers. Available in paperback at a reasonable price.