Mysticism and Spirituality in Javanese Gamelan Music

On the Indonesian island of Java, gamelan music is a central part of artistic life.  Gamelan refers to ensembles of instruments that are part of a great number of events, including Javanese rituals, wayang kulit, and dances.  In her article, “Aesthetic and Spiritual Correlations in Javanese Gamelan Music,” Susan Pratt Walton proposes that Javanese ideas of mysticism are manifested in gamelan music and performance.  Her argument focuses on the idea of rasa, which can mean feeling, physical sense, meaning, or “the essential, often hidden, significance of something obscure” (Walton 31).  Walton finds this concept of rasa to be integral to both Javanese mysticism and music (31).

Instruments in a Gamelan ensemble

Javanese Mysticism

One type of Javanese mysticism, Sanskrit aesthetic theory, proposes that one is able to discover one’s higher Self through works of art.  In this theory, good works of art are expected to prompt an emotional response, rasa (Walton 32).  Finding this rasa causes the viewer to dissociate from his/her self, and connect “with the fundamental oneness of all things,” allowing them to locate his/her true or higher self (Walton 32).  Rasa also has a central role in modern mystical groups like the Sumarah, a sect that focuses on achieving individual spiritual experiences through communal meditation.  In meditation, the participants free themselves from normal consciousness and focus solely on the present, eventually “[becoming] aware of another level of being, termed rasa sejati” (Walton 34).  Thus, this communal meditation focuses on individually finding absolute truth, rasa, within a group that “confirms” the absolute truth (Walton 35).  Both types of Javanese mysticism have a strong focus on seeking rasa and the importance of rasa in achieving a higher spiritual plane.

Manifestations of Mysticism in Gamelan Music

Regarding how these mystical beliefs manifest in gamelan music, the most prominent similarity is in the centrality of the concept of rasa in both musical and mystical discourses.   Gamelan musicians believe in an inner melody of song, rasa, which corresponds to the mystical ideas of finding inner absolute truth.  Walton states,

“This melody is inner not only because it represents the heart of the piece but also because it exists, in complete form, only in the minds of musicians.  It can never be played by just one instrument, but only by the combination of instruments working together” (35)

Thus, both gamelan musicians and mystics regard rasa as having central importance and pursuit of it is their goal.  Additionally, this quote suggests a belief in cooperation that is common to both mysticism and gamelan.   In gamelan, it is the combination of instruments that create the inner melody, the essence of the song (Walton 36).  Similarly, in Sumarah tradition, it is group meditation that allows for absolute truth to be discovered (Walton 37).

In addition, gamelan and mysticism share a similar style of leadership.  Sumarah meditation is led by a guide, pamong, who is intuitively aware of members’ inner states and “makes suggestions about their practice,” which the individual is expected to try and then make a decision about whether the suggestion works for them (Walton 37).  In a similar way, in gamelan music, “leadership is shared and diffused” (Walton 37).  When playing, musicians “both follow their own conceptions of the inner melody and listen to suggestions from other instruments,” sometimes choosing to ignore these suggestions (Walton 37).  Walton considers the guide, or “the instrument expressing the main emotion,” to be the rebab, however she notes that other instruments can take over this role (37).

While Walton mentions that gamelan ensembles do not have a conductor, R. Anderson Sutton, suggests that the player of the kendhang drums acts as “the conductor” of the ensemble, “controlling the tempo and the dynamics” (312).  The drummer does not “conduct” in the manner of a Western conductor, instead sitting in the middle of the ensemble and leading through aural cues, like signaling the end of a song by “[altering] the least few strokes in the penultimate gongan” (Sutton 319).  However, for example, players of “punctuating instruments have a choice of pitch” and parts played on instruments not in the balungan melody “are open to some degree of personal interpretation” (Sutton 316).  Thus, as in mysticism, leaders of gamelan act in a manner more similar to guides, helping lead the group through the song, while still allowing for individuality.

A kendhang player is considered to be the "conductor" of the ensemble.

 Javanese Music Culture

Altogether, Walton’s assessment of gamelan music highlights a number of ways in which beliefs and practices of mysticism manifest in gamelan.  However, it also reveals more about the Javanese music-culture, particularly the beliefs surrounding Javanese gamelan music.  As Walton made clear, gamelan music exhibits in many ways ideas of Javanese mysticism.  Even today, as the concept of rasa fades from gamelan music, the “spiritual links are still there, just below the surface, and those links are part of the deep attraction many Javanese musicians feel for their music” (Walton 39).  Today, instead of rasa, young musicians relate gamelan music to lango,

“ ‘a kind of swooning sensation, in which the subject is completely absorbed by and becomes lost in its object, the appeal to which is so overwhelming that everything else sinks into nothingness and obliviation’” (Walton 39).

While the use of lango represents a shift in terminology away from connections to mysticism and rasa, the meaning of the term is quite similar to the previously discussed mystical concept of rasa.  Thus, gamelan music has retained a deep connection to spiritually, even as its explicit connections to concepts like rasa change.  Walton’s analysis reveals a music-culture with deep connections to spirituality, even if these connections lie under the surface.  She has also provided a history of Javanese music-culture and its more modern changes, such as the waning of the concept of rasa as the idea of lango takes it place.  Altogether, Walton creates a rich account of the ideas of Javanese gamelan music-culture and the more recent changes to these conceptions of music.

Sources:

Sutton, R. Anderson. “Asia/Musics of Indonesia.” Worlds of Music: an Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. By Jeff Todd Titon. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 299-338. Print.
Walton, Susan Pratt. “Aesthetic and Spiritual Correlations in Javanese Gamelan Music.”Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65.1 (2007): 31-41. Print.
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