Types of Palace Gamelans

The term “gamelan” (also gangsa or gongsa) is used here to refer to a single unified set of instruments tuned to one of the two traditional Javanese musical scales (laras)–sléndro (a five-tone scale) and pélog (a seven-tone scale). The two Javanese laras are tuning models rather than tuning standards, so each gamelan is tuned to a unique realization of one of these models. Such sets typically include dozens of instruments of various types, including ones with metal keys (metallophones), wooden keys (xylophones), and metal gongs with deep in-turned rims and pronounced central knobs. The largest of these gongs in a gamelan, measuring a meter or more in diameter, is called the gong ageng (the “great gong”), and several gamelans in the palace have two of these impressive instruments. (See the Gamelan Instruments section of this site for an inventory of the various types of instruments found in the gamelans of the Kraton Yogyakarta.) A gamelan also displays a singular decorative motif on its wooden casings and racks. The unique sonic and visual character of each palace gamelan is acknowledged by it being given a personal name preceded by the honorific “kangjeng kyahi” (from “ingkang panjenengan kyahi,” “the venerable one,” hereafter abbreviated “K.K.”).

Several types of gamelans can be discerned amongst the twenty sets found today (2016) in the Kraton Yogyakarta. Similarities and differences in instrumentation, tuning, repertoire, and ceremonial use will be drawn upon to define these various types, beginning with the first-order distinction between “archaic” and “common practice” gamelans. Details about the history, repertoire, tuning, instrumentation, and utilization of these sets are presented in the Kraton Yogyakarta Gamelans section of this site.

Archaic Gamelans

In this study, the qualifier “archaic” will be used in conjunction with gamelan sets that have well-defined ceremonial contexts of use, that are of great age, that include some instruments that are not found in common practice gamelans, that have limited repertoires, and the performances of which never include singing. Four types of archaic gamelans are found in the Yogyakarta palace: gamelan monggang, gamelan kodhok ngorèk, gamelan sekati, and low-pitch pre-modern gamelans (obviously not a Javanese designation, but a necessary one to articulate in order to group one particular set—K.K. Guntursari—amongst the archaic gamelans of the palace). The archaic nature of these ensembles is consciously preserved and effectively utilized in the palace context to register the importance of the events for which they are sounded. For some types of archaic gamelans their repertoire is restricted to but one or two pieces, each unique to that set alone. Other archaic types of gamelan might have larger repertoires, including gamelan pieces (gendhing) that are part of the much larger contemporary repertoire of the common practice gamelan. However, when these pieces are realized on an archaic gamelan they are typically treated in special ways so as to lend them an archaic quality.

There is one archaic palace gamelan that is somewhat of an enigma and which, in the end, I have decided not to include on this site beyond this explanation. I first saw it in 1999, at which time it was identified as the gamelan kodhok ngorèk dating back to the reign of the First Sultan and used at the Prime Minister’s residence, Kapatihan. There were a few curious features about this set, which as far as I know has not been used since being recently reconstituted. First, its two gong ageng are constructed from sheet iron rather than being forged from bronze, which suggests they are recent replacements. Second, it appears to have two kenong japan rather than one, and two kethuk, an instrument not found in the complete palace gamelan kodhok ngorèk. Finally, it lacks a cymbal rhythmic instrument such as the rojéh. In 2016 I was told it might be a gamelan carabalen, yet another type of archaic gamelan more strongly associated with the court city of Surakarta than with Yogyakarta. References in palace manuscripts and publications do support the existence of a gamelan kodhok ngorèk at Kapatihan (and another such ensemble at Kadipaten, the residence of the Crown Prince) before the middle of the 20th century, but the instrumentation of that set does not match that of the enigmatic gamelan now on display. I have long heard references to parts of old gamelans being stored in various locations around the palace, and perhaps this assemblage of instruments constitutes an attempt on the part of the palace performing arts division to make something of at least part of this inventory. I have therefore decided to treat this set as a museum display rather than a functioning ensemble, and to not include it in the inventory of palace gamelans on this site.

Common Practice Gamelans

Common practice gamelans are those sets that from the time of their manufacture could be used for the performance of the large repertoire of central Javanese gamelan pieces (gendhing) and its associated performance practice. These ensembles have always been used to accompany dance and puppet theatre and to provide music for listening pleasure. Their tuning is such that singing can be, and usually is, incorporated in their performance. Some palace common practice gamelans have been in existence for centuries, and not all of these sets have come down to the present with their original instrumentation. For this reason it is useful to articulate three distinct forms of common practice gamelans: pre-modern, modernized, and modern.

What I will refer to as “modern common practice gamelans” in the Kraton Yogyakarta are sets that were constructed with the following instrumentation:

gong ageng (1 or 2)
gong siyem/suwukan (3 for sléndro gamelans; 3 for pélog gamelans)
kempul (5 sléndro; 6 pélog)
kenong jaler (5 sléndro; 6 pélog)
kenong japan (1 sléndro; 1 pélog)
kethuk (1 sléndro; 1 pélog)
kempyang (1, only pélog)
bonang penembung (1 sléndro; 1 pélog)
bonang barung (1 sléndro; 1 pélog)
bonang penerus (1 sléndro; 1 pélog)
saron demung (2, 3, or 4 sléndro; 2, 3, or 4 pélog)
saron ricik/barung (4, 6, or 8 sléndro; 4, 6, or 8 pélog)
saron peking (1 sléndro; 1 pélog) (not all palace gamelans include this instrument)
gendèr penembung/slenthem (1 sléndro; 1 pélog)
gendèr barung (1 sléndro; 2 pélog)
gendèr penerus (1 sléndro; 2 pélog)
gambang kayu (1 sléndro; 1 or 2 pélog)
clempung/celempung (1 sléndro; 1 pélog)
siter (1)
rebab (1 or 2)
suling (2 or 3)
kendhang ageng/gendhing (1)
kendhang ketipung (1)
kendhang alit/batangan (1)
bedhug (1)

Gamelans with the above instrumentation were being constructed in central Java probably by the beginning of the 20th century and have remained the standard up to the present day for new gamelans in the Yogyakarta region. However, only two gamelans currently found in the palace can be said to be of this type: Kyahi Sangumukti and Kyahi Sangumulya, the two most recent additions (1998) to the palace’s inventory of gamelans.

No fewer than twelve other palace single-laras (either sléndro or pélog) gamelans possess the instrumentation as listed above. However, none of them were originally constructed with this instrumentation. Most of these sets include instruments no longer in common use today such as the slentho and the gambang gangsa (these instruments often still exist but are usually not included when their ensemble is set up for performance). Additionally, all these sets began life with a smaller pitch selection for their kenong jaler and kempul—additional gongs of these types have been added at some time. Finally, almost all of these gamelans did not originally include gendèr penembung/slenthem and gendèr penerus because these instruments did not exist at the time these sets were constructed. Because these twelve palace gamelans are today modern common practice gamelans in instrumentation but were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries to different instrumentation standards, I will refer to them in this study as “modernized common practice gamelans”.

Only a single palace gamelan, constructed in the second quarter of the 19th century, retains its original period instrumentation. It, the sléndro gamelan K.K. Pusparana, is the sole example of what will be referred to here as a “pre-modern common practice gamelan”. [1] This set still includes its original slentho and gambang gangsa, has a very limited pitch selection of kenong jaler and kempul gongs, and does not include either a gendèr penembung/slenthem or a gendèr penerus.

The distinctions made above between various types of common practice gamelans serve to remind us that, although “common practice” music making on palace gamelans has been occurring continuously since the founding of the Kraton Yogyakarta in the 1750s CE, this tradition has not been static in terms of either its musical performance practice or the hardware on which music was being realized. Just how much and in how many ways the current palace gamelans have changed over time can be surprising, and this topic will be explored in some detail in a later chapter.