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Unplayed Melodies: Javanese Gamelan and the Genesis of Music Theory

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 273
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  • Book Info
    Unplayed Melodies
    Book Description:

    The gamelan music of Central Java is one of the world's great orchestral traditions. Its rich sonic texture is not based on Western-style harmony or counterpoint, but revolves around a single melody. The nature of that melody, however, is puzzling. In this book, Marc Perlman uses this puzzle as a key to both the art of the gamelan and the nature of musical knowledge in general. Some Javanese musicians have suggested that the gamelan's central melody is inaudible, an implicit or "inner" melody. Yet even musicians who agree on its existence may disagree about its shape. Drawing on the insights of Java's most respected musicians, Perlman shows how irregularities in the relationships between the melodic parts have suggested the existence of "unplayed melodies." To clarify the differences between these implicit-melody concepts,Unplayed Melodiestells the stories behind their formulation, identifying each as the creative contribution of an individual musician in a postcolonial context (sometimes in response to Western ethnomusicological theories). But these stories also contain evidence of the general cognitive processes through which musicians find new ways to conceptualize their music. Perlman's inquiry into these processes illuminates not only the gamelan's polyphonic art, but also the very sources of creative thinking about music.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93049-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Conventions of Transcription and Orthography
    (pp. xv-xx)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Karawitan, the music of the Central Javanesegamelanensemble, is a highly sophisticated tradition of multipart music. As many as eleven distinct melodic lines create a rich orchestral texture, one that owes nothing to Western principles of harmony or counterpoint. Ethnomusicologists call this texture “heterophonic,” meaning that it presents different versions of a single melody simultaneously. This is a very imprecise term, but it does capture an important truth: Javanese musicians usually consider the many melodic lines of a gamelan composition to revolve around one central melody. Paradoxically, however, it is not obvious what that melody is. Javanese musicians themselves...

  7. 1 Cognitive Preliminaries: The Nature of Musical Knowledge and the Processes of Creative Thinking
    (pp. 13-36)

    In this book I tell the stories of three Javanese musicians who found new ways to think about their music by postulating an unplayed melody. This abstract entity, they felt, was the key to a more profound mastery and understanding of their music’s dense melodic texture. To follow these stories in full we will need to learn many details of Javanese musical practice and many cultural and historical facts about twentieth-century Java, but there is one aspect of these stories that invites attention from a broader viewpoint, a viewpoint I present in this chapter.

    The musician’s quest for insight through...

  8. 2 A Brief Introduction to Karawitan
    (pp. 37-60)

    Traditional Javanese music—karawitan—includes more than just the gamelan; it also comprises several genres of unaccompanied singing(tembang), the traditional vehicle of Javanese poetry.¹ Even the term “gamelan” refers to more than one kind of ensemble. There are many relatively small ensembles dedicated to particular ceremonial purposes, playing restricted repertories: thegamelan Sekatèn, for example, is heard only once a year, performing outside of the Great Mosque during Garebeg Mulud, the commemoration of the birth and death of the Prophet Muhammad.

    The ensemble that concerns us, however, is the largest and most versatile, the “complete”(jangkep)or “big”(gedhé)...

  9. 3 Karawitan as a Multipart Music: The Relations between the Melodic Parts
    (pp. 61-86)

    As we saw in chapter 2, the parts guard their own musical identities. But they also need to guard their relations with one another. Musicians must coordinate their conceptions of the composition to produce the best musical results; they should be united (kompak: Martopangrawit 7.xii.85). While maintaining their musical individuality, they should strive forkerukunan, social accord and goodwill (Suhardi 13.ix.85).

    But good musical citizenship does not require a constant, unvarying acknowledgment of the demands of the group. To change the metaphor, we could say that the parts do not always walk in as tight a formation as the terrain...

  10. 4 The Balungan as Melodic Guide
    (pp. 87-116)

    On my second visit to Martopangrawit (12.ix.81), he talked at length about the difference between Javanese music and Western music. Western music, he said, has a “score” (partitur), by which he meant that each vocal or instrumental part in the ensemble is fixed. Butkarawitantypically uses a different system, what Martopangrawit called a “rule” or “law” (hukum), centered around thebalungan(Javanese: “skeleton, framework”). “Thebalunganalone is fixed; the other players and singers derive their parts from it.” The composer of agendhingtries out all of the instrumental and vocal parts in his mind but writes out...

  11. 5 Theorizing Melodic Guidance: The Social and Historical Context of Javanese Music Theory
    (pp. 117-126)

    As we saw in chapter 1, the act of formulating explicit knowledge is a social act, responsive to social pressures, and Javanese theories of thebalunganhave doubtless been shaped by such pressures. Javanese reflection on the nature of melodic guidance emerged within a rapidly modernizing society, where colonial and postcolonial political, social, and technological changes affected the circulation of knowledge. In traditional Javanese society there had been no formal institutions charged with disseminating musical knowledge; like most other forms of knowledge, it flowed within familial and personal circles. Learners were expected to be self-reliant, to figure things out for...

  12. 6 Three Concepts of Unplayed Melody
    (pp. 127-158)

    Melodic guidance is, as we have seen, a basic aspect of Javanesekarawitan, but not an entirely systematic or consistent one. It pervades the music, but in differing degrees, and admits of many exceptions. In chapter 4 I documented the limits of melodic guidance, but not to show that Javanese music is somehow incoherent. For I am not interested in these irregularities for their own sake: my real concern is how musicians deal with them.

    Insofar as musicians absorb the swirling mass of general rules and apparently arbitrary exceptions through learning-without-teaching—insofar as they acquire implicit knowledge of it—they...

  13. 7 Implicit-Melody Concepts in Perspective
    (pp. 159-171)

    Let us summarize the differences among the three implicit-melody concepts in a diagram (example 44). Two of them were modeled on thebalungan, one on therebabpart; two of them—though a different two—were put to theoretical use, while one was largely a pedagogical device. All of them, as we have seen, idealized the concept of melodic guidance, replacing divergence with congruence, insofar as this is possible; but all encountered limitations in doing so. In this chapter I try to account for these similarities and differences.

    Let us start with the similarities. It is clear that some common...

  14. 8 Patterns of Conceptual Innovation in Music Theory: A Comparative Approach
    (pp. 172-194)

    To this point I have trafficked in the very specific and the very general. I have tried to understand a moment from the history of Javanese music theory by using psychological concepts of extremely broad application. The reader with exclusively musical interests might grant that in so doing I have provided the cognitive psychologist with useful data, but remain skeptical of the potential musical illumination to be had thereby. I suggest, however, that having observed these general features of musical cognition at work in Java, we can now look at creative thinking in other traditions with new eyes. In this...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 195-204)

    Javanese gamelan melody is a landscape of congruences and divergences, where the parts work cooperatively while preserving their individual idioms. With its hints of hidden melody, it is a site of exploration for musicians. I have told here the stories of three especially articulate musicians to show how they arrived at new ideas about their music, ideas similar in outline but remarkably different in detail and purpose. In making sense of their music in late-twentieth-century postcolonial Java, Suhardi, Sumarsam, and Supanggah naturally used the schemas and models their culture provided them and responded to the opportunities and challenges their modernizing...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 205-220)
  17. Glossary
    (pp. 221-226)
  18. References Cited
    (pp. 227-244)
  19. Index
    (pp. 245-254)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 255-255)