Composing for Javanese Gamelan
In gamelan, there are two tunings: slendro (pentatonic) and pelog (heptatonic). These tunings differ considerably from the western well-tempered tuning. A complete gamelan consists of two complete sets of instruments for each tuning.
For details about the tuning and range of each instrument see slendro (pdf) & pelog (pdf).
Ensemble Gending has 10 players and usually plays on the slendro-set of the gamelan, but a few smaller pelog-instruments can be added if the composers wants to mix slendro and pelog.
Although western musical script does not represent these tunings properly, Ensemble Gending likes to play from western notation for ease of reading and understanding. As long as one keeps in mind that the score is a kind of tablature rather than a pitch-true notation, there should be no problem. After all, in the gamelan there is no way one can ever deviate from a given pitch, since the metal sounding components have no means of altering their pitch (only the flute and the spike fiddle can manage this, but they are the only exception). Moreover, since gamelans tend to differ in tuning from one to the other, a general notation is actually quite convenient, for the tonal structure will still be the same. And a score is of course never an exact representation of sound anyway, it is only an “instruction for use”, so to speak.
Ensemble Gending prefers octave transposition in instrument parts, to facilitate reading for instruments of the same family. On a separate page you will find the complete range of the gamelan, as written, and how the real dispersion of the octaves works out.
To mute or not to mute
Traditionally, gamelan is almost always played legatissimo. Once a tone is played, the sound is supposed to last until the next tone is played. One should mute the former slightly after the moment one strikes the latter, in order to achieve a smooth legato. However, staccato playing and every articulation in between those two are perfectly possible. Should a tone be muted prior to a following sound, the precise moment to mute should be indicated by a precise note-value, followed by rests. In case of laissez vibrer followed by a longer silence (a natural fade, so to speak), this can be indicated by just that (l.v. or by a slur (rests would then just indicate the division of the measure). There is a lot of misunderstanding in notating the desired length of a sound; we recommend that the composer notate it as exact as possible.
A special effect is created by muting a key or kettle while striking it. One can also achieve this effect by letting the mallet rest on the key (i.e. not lifting it after the stroke). This is especially effective on kettle instruments like bonang and kethuk. This kind of muting should be indicated by a + over the note to be played.
Although gongs are made to project their prolonged sound, it is quite possible to mute them. This is done by grabbing the boss and holding it (the boss is the epicenter of sound production in a gong – if you try to mute the instrument in a different place, it will continue to sound).
The largest gongs will however produce ‘rest sound’ as it is impossible to completely silence them, due to the vibrating weight of the metal.
In general, every kind of articulation is possible, keeping the nature and construction of the individual instruments in mind. You will find specific information below.
In writing for gamelan it is good to keep in mind that the ensemble consists of several families of instruments: saron, gender, bonang, kenong, gong, and drums. All these groups have their own characteristic, sound color and properties. Each family has a separate description, see links at top and bottom. The complete set of instruments also includes a rebab (arabian spike fiddle), a suling (flute), a zither, a gambang (xylophone) and several metal rattles.