Extreme Heterophony: a study in Javanese Gamelan for one or more pianists (Dec 2021)

Published Advent 2021 – available from AmazonUSApaperback KindleUSA AmazonUKpaperback KindleUK LuluPaperback sheetmusicplusPDF

On the Recommended Reading list for Gamelan courses at Simon Fraser University, Canada www.sfu.ca/outlines.html?2022/spring/ca/243/d100 and www.sfu.ca/outlines.html?2022/spring/ca/343/d100

A new book for inquisitive pianists – either solo or in duets/duos/triet or multiple piano ensembles – to discover, step into, and explore music for gamelan orchestra from the Indonesian island of Java – what it is, how it works, and how to begin to play it.

Karawitan is the classical music of Central Java.  Gamelan ensembles consist of between c.5 and c.20 musicians on a range of tuned metal percussion and gongs, xylophone, plucked zithers, bowed string lute, bamboo flute, singers and drums.  Almost every aspect of the music – including its core concepts, texture, metre, structures, sounds, tunings, scales, and aural tradition – is a world away from notated western classical music.

This book is a deep dive into a single well-known composition in the central Javanese repertoire – Ketawang Puspawarna – composed by Prince Mangkunegara IV of Surakarta in the 1800s.  Its layers have been systematically taken apart and transformed into several individual stand-alone (or perform-together) piano pieces.  This has both an educational and artistic purpose.  Each piano ‘piece’ demonstrates one or more layers from within the gamelan ensemble, and how the core theme (the ‘skeleton melody’) may be fleshed out by each player.  They give interested pianists a performer’s insight into how this music is built, by being able to explore some of the intricacies of the musical construction of each instrument’s line – as far as it is possible on a piano – along with a downloadable backing track (see below). As gamelan music is fundamentally music for ensemble, each piano adaptation is designed to be played both on its own and also in any combination with any of the others – with multiple possible duet combinations (and a triet) at one piano, or duos or multiple-duets at two (or up to seven!) pianos.

“Extreme Heterophony” refers to a foundational principle of how this music is constructed – akin to a theme and variations, but where c.10 types of related but widely diverse, decorative variations are all performed simultaneously – creating a rich, vibrant, exciting texture – and where the theme itself isn’t directly played.  Many of these ‘variations’ or elaborations are part-learned, part-improvised within defined parameters.  Some are independent of the pulse.  For everyone else, the metre is end-weighted and beats are grouped with the notes leading into them – for newcomers extraordinarily counterintuitive.  It is a profoundly different way of experiencing metre.  It means that each player constantly looks forward and works out their style of elaboration in relation to the goal note on the 4th beat at the end of each group of notes in the theme.

Learning to perform Javanese gamelan music requires an approach and mindset entirely distinct from the European classical canon.  This book takes its own approach too, designed for its specific audience of pianists.  It seeks to provide pianists with an accessible window into this extraordinary music, using appropriately comprehensible (and sensitively chosen) western terminology and staff notation.  It goes into just enough detail to get a feel for how the music works – how the notes are chosen – and enough to begin to explore it practically on a piano.  The thorny issues of using any kind of fixed notation, or of playing this music on the equally-tempered piano, are dealt with sympathetically – with the aim of providing a useful resource to pianists (and composers, improvisers and teachers) seeking to broaden their musical horizons in this enigmatic and alluring sound-world.

Backing Tracks to play along with:

Balungan instruments (saron, demung & slenthem – played on piano) & punctuating instruments (kempyang, kethuk, kenong, kempul, gong ageng) [no.1b, pp.58-59] & kendhang drums [p.55] and gender [no.5, pp.82-85]

Download mp3 (balungan, punctuating instruments, and gender) (Right-click and save as)

Balungan instruments (saron, demung & slenthem – played on piano) & punctuating instruments (kempyang, kethuk, kenong, kempul, gong ageng) [no.1b, pp.58-59] & kendhang drums [p.55]

Download mp3 (balungan on piano, kempyang, kethuk, kenong, kempul, gong ageng, kendhang) (Right-click and save as)

These tracks work behind each adaptation in the book, and should be satisfying to play along with. Download them and play them in headphones or through speakers while playing each adaptation on the piano.

Many thanks to Pedro Augusto & Rui Penha – creators of these Javanese gamelan samples: https://github.com/Digitopia/CDM-GAMELAN-SAMPLE-LIBRARY/releases/tag/v1

Source Recordings

Below is a Youtube playlist of many of the recorded performances of Ketawang Puspawarna (and other useful material, including other piano music with a connection to gamelan music of various kinds) that were used in the research for and creation of this book. In particular, these three recordings were constant sources of reference:

Other performers/sources of recordings in the playlist above include:

  • Sunarto Ciptosuwarso / The Schubert Club Gamelan Ensemble / Mang Udin, Pupuk Bawang / New Daffa Multimedia, Cakra Buana Campursari / Cornell University, Music class directed by Christopher Miller / Gamelan Rinengga Sih Tentrem / Smith College Javanese Gamelan Ensemble / Gamelan Dadali Moscow / Rohan Iyer & Robert Campion / Gasita Vokasi UGM / Sanggar Jung Giri, Belajar Bersama Teman / RetnoBudaya / Lewis and Clark College, featuring: Peni Candrarini – Vocals Jesse Snyder – rebab / Bath Spa University 2nd & 3rd Year Gamelan / Panji Anom / Cakri Buana Pacitan, Ms Yu Yuni / Dunia Cokek / Jakarta Youth Community Gamelan / Moh. Tohir – school / Charles Matthews – Automatic Gamelan software / Saiful Rebab / Kobarkan Semangat Cinta Gamelan, Mari Belajar Gamelan Jawa / Rohmadin BNSS / Darsono Hadiraharjo / Aditya N I Soewidiatmaka / Belajar Nyinden, Batari Ayu / Nakulo Art / Slamet Riyadi / ParsoGok / Iswanto Gamelan / Almas Juna

Other online resources

Here’s a link to a short article by me about Extreme Heterophony published on Melanie Spanswick’s “The Classical Piano and Music Education Blog” in March 2022: https://melaniespanswick.com/2022/03/20/extreme-heterophony-a-study-in-javanese-gamelan-for-one-or-more-pianists-john-pitts/