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Much of the power, mystique, and allure of musical instruments . . . is inextricable from the myriad situations where instruments are entangled in webs of complex relationships—between humans and objects, between humans and humans, and between objects and other objects. Even the same instrument, in different sociohistorical contexts, may be implicated in categorically different kinds of relations. I thus am arguing for the study of the social life of musical instruments. (Bates 2012: 364)

This resource is an exploration of how, in a specific sociocultural context that is animated by a particular understanding of the world, musical instruments, in addition to their practical utilization as tools of musical performance, become actors in the cultural life of an institution. The trajectory of this study is to commence from descriptions of the “thing-ness” of these musical objects and head towards an understanding of their agency within a particular cultural geography. It is therefore intended to be a study of the social life of musical instruments as proposed by Bates.

The context of this study is the royal palace (kraton) of the former Sultanate of Ngyogyakarta Hadiningrat (hereafter shortened to “Yogyakarta,” which is also the name of the city in which the palace is physically situated). Yogyakarta, in a physical geography sense, is located in the south-central part of Java, the most populous island of the Southeast Asian archipelago nation of Indonesia. Prior to the establishment of the nation of Indonesia in 1950, the Sultanate of Yogyakarta was a recognized, free-standing entity under the colonial umbrella of the Netherlands East Indies. Founded in 1755, the Kraton Yogyakarta has been, like other Javanese royal institutions, a bastion of the Javanese aristocracy and a place where the ideals of cultural refinement have been developed to a remarkable level of nuance and complexity. It has as its animating nucleus a central, charismatic, and spiritually-validated leader, the Sultan, who is a link in a hereditary lineage that bears the title Hamengku Buwana (“He Who Cradles the World”). Even in post-independence Indonesia, in an age when royalty and their kingdoms no longer have any economic or political power to speak of, there exists a critical mass of Javanese who find meaning in the traditions perpetuated by the Kraton Yogyakarta to sustain it as a cultural institution. Both historically and presently, the performing arts play a central role in the ceremonial and everyday activities of the palace. The distinctive Javanese instrumental ensemble known as the gamelan is thoroughly orchestrated into these meaning-laden activities, and it is the numerous gamelan sets found today in the Kraton Yogyakarta and their myriad relationships with communities of Javanese–Javanese nobility, Javanese in the service of the nobility, and Javanese traditionalists outside of the palace–that will be the focus of this study.

The Kraton Yogyakarta possesses a truly extraordinary collection of gamelans, the impressive sets of indigenous Javanese instruments on which music is performed for ceremonies (upacara), listening pleasure (uyon-uyon), and to accompany dance (beksan or tarian), dance theatre (wayang wong) and puppet theatre (wayang kulit and wayang golek). Over the 250 year history of the Yogyakarta palace and its lineage of sultans, dozens of gamelans have been utilized in the daily and ceremonial life of the institution. Although several of these sets have had fleeting association with the palace, many others have become more-or-less permanent fixtures of palace life. It is this latter group of gamelans, currently numbering twenty sets, that will be at the core of this exploration.

Javanese gamelans are themselves fascinating and imposing cultural objects. They include a wide variety of instrument types with perhaps the most distinctive one being the gong, which comes in an array of sizes and shapes. But gamelans also include numerous varieties of keyed instruments with bars made from bronze or wood, as well as hand drums, stringed instruments, and bamboo flutes. Each set is visually unified by its wood casings and racks that are carved and painted with eye-catching motifs and colors. When arranged for performance in the traditional setting of an open-sided pavilion (bangsal or pendhapa), gamelans can be truly stunning objects to behold. This impression is further enhanced if one is aware of the difficult process involved in manufacturing the bronze sounding elements of these ensembles and of the symbolic, even mystical, associations Javanese read into their making. Add to this that some of these sets have been in existence for centuries and one can easily begin to sense why these tools of musical performance have in some instances become revered, quasi-personified objects treated with great respect.

In the rarefied cultural geography of the Kraton Yogyakarta there are yet other facets of these instruments that contribute to the esteem conferred upon them by those Javanese who dedicate their lives to this institution. It is these facets of the palace gamelans that will be revealed and explained in the first half of this site. How these objects relate to their performers, audiences, the Javanese performing arts in general, and Javanese ceremonial life as practiced in the Kraton Yogyakarta will be explored in later sections.

heirloom gamelan being performed
The Kraton Yogyakarta heirloom gamelan sekati Kangjeng Kyahi Gunturmadu being performed for the opening of Sekatèn in 1982.

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The representations and interpretations of the musical material culture and life of the Kraton Yogyakarta presented here are those of the site’s author, Roger Vetter, who first encountered this institution in 1973. He has revisited the Kraton Yogyakarta several times since then, most recently in 2019. Over this forty-six year period he has immersed himself in the literature on Java and its music, studied and taught the performance practice of central Javanese gamelan music, written a dissertation and published articles about the musical life of the Kraton Yogyakarta, and released a CD of field recordings made while doing research in the palace. Yet he is the first to admit that the topic presented here is far bigger and more complex than he alone is capable of grasping. This site should therefore be understood as one researcher’s attempt to share his findings and package them in an insightful way for deliberation by a diverse audience of internet users. Hopefully amongst this audience there will be future researchers inspired to embark from where this work leaves off.

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