Kraton Yogyakarta Gamelans

musicians performing on the gamelan Kancilbelik
Abdidalem niyaga (palace musicians) performing on the gamelan K.K. Kancilbelik during a recording session in 1982. The instrument in the foreground is the set’s bonang panembung.

Each of the twenty gamelans that were integrated into the cultural geography of the Kraton Yogyakarta as of my most recent visit (November and December 2016) is introduced in this section. You are invited to think of the following entries not so much as descriptions of things but as biographies of agents that are operative in the ongoing cultural life of this one institution. While it is inevitable that these “biographies” include a fair amount of description and information, it is my hope that for each gamelan a unique personality and character will emerge.

For each palace gamelan a translation of its name, a description of its decorative elements, information about its history and its utilization in the ceremonial and everyday life of the palace, and an inventory of its constituent instruments is presented. If any special beliefs or stories exist about a set, they will also be conveyed. The age of each palace gamelan will be articulated in terms of either an epoch of Javanese history or the reign of a particular Sultan during which it was constructed and/or became associated with the Kraton Yogyakarta. These compilations of information are intended to approximate the context-specific information and associations that knowledgeable Javanese members of the palace community might command and draw upon in shaping their responses to each set. Much of the historical information used in these “biographies” is gleaned from the introduction to the palace manuscript Pakem Wirama, which was compiled during the reign of the Eighth Sultan. Details about the recent and current utilization and condition of the palace gamelans are the result of my own research over the past several decades.

Since a gamelan–especially a complete common practice set–consumes so much space when set up for performance, it is almost impossible with a single photograph to document it in its entirety. I am therefore taking quite a different approach to the visual presentation of the palace gamelans in this project. While general shots of the archaic gamelans will be presented, for the common practice sets a close-up of a single instrument type, the gendèr barung, will be shown. This one type of instrument has been chosen because it typically encapsulates the key visual elements–color combinations and carving motifs—that can be used for identification of a set. These identifying clues are most clearly displayed on the instrument’s tebungan, the hourglass-shaped front board of the gendèr barung. The gendèr barung also provides further assistance in differentiating one gamelan from another. Gendèr barung cases in the Kraton Yogyakarta come in two basic shapes. One is referred to as Mataraman or Majapahit, which are names of long past Javanese kingdoms that are much respected by courtiers and commoners alike. This shape is characterized by high, undulating end pieces that extend well above the plain of the instrument’s bronze keys. Totally inconsequential to the operation of the instrument, this dramatic visual gesture is employed for purely aesthetic reasons and to signal the Yogyanese-ness of the instrument. The other basic form has rectangular-shaped, vertical end pieces capped off with blocks to which the strings used to suspend the keys are attached. These blocks are gracefully curved or peaked on some sets, more cylindrical in form on others. One final reason to isolate the gendèr barung as the representative instrument for an entire set is that it is typically positioned right at the front and center of a gamelan that is set up for performance, allowing an observer a clear view of the instrument.

Before moving on to the synopses of the palace gamelans it needs to be pointed out that most of the sets being described are a century, or multiple centuries, old. What you will be seeing in the images of each gamelan discussed on this site are accurate representations of its current condition, but not necessarily of its appearance and contents at various moments throughout its history. The degree to which some of these sets have changed over their lifetime can be surprising.

The Evolution and Maintenance of Palace Gamelans

In a 1982 conversation with R.R. Mangkuasmara he mentioned that only three of the bonang kettles of the pusaka gamelan sekati K.K. Gunturmadu were original to this revered set. Members of the palace community and the general public believe this gamelan to be an inheritance from Demak (a 16th c. CE kingdom located on the north coast of Java). At the time of this revelation R.R. Mangkuasmara was the palace penglaras (gamelan tuner), so I hold his knowledge about such matters in high regard. To put his statement in perspective, he was saying that of the bronze sounding bodies in that set, which number fifty (sixteen bonang kettles, twenty-eight saron keys, two bendhé, two kempyang kettles, and two gong ageng), only three bonang kettles date from the Demak period. He added that the two massive gong ageng, the heart and soul if you please of the set, were fabricated during the reign of the Seventh Sultan to replace the original ones (or perhaps they themselves were earlier replacements).

Nearly all extant common practice palace ensembles originating from the 18th and 19th centuries have had instruments added to them at least once during their existence. We simply do not know, for example, what the original instrumentations were for the two palace pusaka gamelans K.K. Surak and K.K. Kancilbelik, both of which are believed to have been manufactured prior to the founding of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta in 1755 CE. Were they the same as their pre-modern instrumentations listed in the 20th century palace document that also chronicles their instrumentation modernization during the reign of the Eighth Sultan? Or did these revered gamelans have pre-pre-modern or even pre-pre-pre-modern instrumentations? Due to scant and questionably accurate historical data, it is extremely difficult prior to the 20th century to trace and date accurately when changes to individual gamelans took place. More often than not, such alterations simply went documented.

Palace manuscripts attribute to the reign of the Eighth Sultan (1921-1939) the modernization of four pre-modern common practice sets (the two gamelan sléndro K.K. Surak and K.K. Harjanegara, and the two gamelan pélog K.K. Kancilbelik and K.K. Harjamulya) with the addition to each of: kendhang alit/batangan, gendèr penerus, gendèr panembung, suling, clempung, 3 or 4 kenong jaler, 3 or 4 kempul, 3 gong suwukan, and, for the two gamelan pélog sets, kemanak. New casings appear to have been made as part of the modernizing of these sets, for the royal emblem of the eighth sultan is worked into the decorative design of several instruments in these gamelans. A similar updating of two palace gamelans, the gamelan pélog K.K. Mikatsih and the gamelan sléndro K.K. Medharsih, took place in 1982 and early 1983. Both of these sets are attributed to the reign of the Seventh Sultan (1877-1921) and were made probably sometime in the latter-half of the nineteenth century. Prior to 1982 they were pre-modern common practice gamelans, although I did not personally see and document the instrumentations of these sets before the updating process began.[1] The modernizing of these two gamelans, which was completed in January 1983, included the addition of new instruments (2 gendèr panembung, 3 gendèr penerus, 7 gong suwukan, and several each kenong and kempul) and several replacement saron keys and bonang gongs on the older instruments. The updating also involved a major reworking of the tunings of both sets. This was no small task considering that more than four hundred keys and gongs had to be painstakingly scraped or pounded until in tune. I vividly remember visiting the workspace in which the updating was taking place and seeing several mounds over a foot in diameter of bronze shavings dotting the floor like small volcanoes. New casings were not only made for the added instruments, but for several of the original ones as well. Thus, these two gamelans not only look quite different now than before, but their instrumentations and tunings are altered substantially. Still, they retain their original names and, I sense, are considered even more special because of these changes. They were immediately put into service upon completion of their restoration. More recent modernizing projects of pre-modern palace gamelans include the gamelan pélog K.K. Panji in 1996 and the gamelan sléndro K.K. Marikangen in 1999.

At the time of the modernization of K.K. Mikatsih and K.K. Medharsih, R.R. Mangkuasmara was the penglaras in the palace. Between August 1982 and August 1983 he not only carried out the above-mentioned re-tuning of K.K. Mikatsih and K.K. Medharsih, but also touch-up tunings on at least six other palace gamelans.[2] While he was re-tuning one of these, the gamelan sléndro K.K. Surak, he was critical of its embat (intervallic structure). This gamelan dates from before the reign of the First Sultan and is well over 250 years old. In the past it had important ceremonial functions and today holds a special place in the musicians’ hearts as “asli Kraton Yogya” (“originally from the Kraton Yogyakarta”). R.R. Mangkuasmara explained that before this gamelan received a major re-tuning in the 1930s by the palace penglaras of that period, its embat was “juara seluruh Yogya” (the “champion, or finest, of all of Yogyakarta”). According to him it would take a lot of time to undo the “damage” done by his predecessor, and he had not yet had the time to “restore” the tuning of this gamelan to its “original perfection”. A point to be made here is that the tuning of a gamelan is not set forever but changes according to the tastes of the many tuners who work on it over the years. R.R. Mangkuasmara’s major re-tuning of K.K. Surak, if he got around to it (he passed away in 1989), would probably be no closer to the set’s pre-1930s tuning than that tuning was to its predecessors–it would undoubtedly reflect his own personal tastes to at least some degree.

Instances of palace gamelans being given new casings have already been mentioned above. While sometimes, as with the joint makeover of K.K. Medharsih and K.K. Mikatsih, the change in appearance to the renovated sets is dramatic, other times it is not. When I first started documenting palace gamelans in 1982, the base color of the gamelan sléndro K.K. Harjanegara was a dark brown (sawo mateng) and its kindred gamelan pélog K.K. Harjamulya was bright blue (biru nem). Sometime between my 1989 and 1999 visits K.K. Harjamulya was repainted a dark brown to match K.K. Harjanegara. This visual change most likely was made to enhance the thinking about these two sets as a related pair rather than as two individual entities. On the other hand, I have also seen and photographed a few extant casings of palace gamelans that predate their replacement with new casings, and from these it can be deduced that continuity in appearance through the modernization process is sometimes desired. In the image below a comparison of kenong casings for the gamelan sléndro K.K. Surak is presented. The case on the left predates the modernization of this gamelan in the 1920s or 1930s, the cases on the right were part of the modernization project and are still in use today. While changes to the proportions of the casings and how the mirong motif is realized within the available space are evident, it is also obvious that an effort was made at the time of the project to retain the visual identity of this heirloom gamelan. The same is true for the gamelan pélog K.K. Kancilbelik with which K.K. Surak is often paired—its distinctive carving motifs and coloration were also retained through its modernization process.

Comparison of kenong casings for K.K. Surak: pre-1930s casing (left); new casing made during the modernization of this gamelan in the 1930s (right).

I deduce from the preceding information that in order for a common practice gamelan to be utilized in the palace, it must be complete in its instrumentation, in tune with itself, and visually striking. However, one cannot assume that these facets of a gamelan’s being are immutable. Rather, palace gamelans should be viewed as evolving through their existence as a result of being regularly maintained and occasionally updated to meet the changing demands of performance practice and visual aesthetics. Such alterations to these revered objects do not appear to detract at all from their cultural value in the minds of members of the palace community; indeed, such transformations seem to reinvigorate a set’s standing as a prized heirloom dating from the reign of a past sultan. Gamelans that have not been maintained or updated, such as K.K. Pusparana and until recently K.K. Panji and K.K. Marikangen, are not suitable for display and performance within the palace, and this is why they are stored in out-of-the-way places or in use outside the palace. Their value to the palace community is a latent one, awaiting modernization to thrust them once again into the musical life of the institution proper.