musicking in the javanese culture of klenengans and latihans: comparisons to a western symphony concert

musicking in the javanese culture of klenengans and latihans: comparisons to a western symphony concert

Sometimes you reach earlier than expected and you see the gamelan set in the middle of the living room with a few people sitting around it. Mats are laid out all over the place. You park your motorbike and go around, shaking the hands of the people already present. You especially look out for the owner of the house, or ask for him if you do not recognise who he is, to make sure that you greet him, for it would be disrespectful not to do so.

Night comes and you get up on your motorbike in search of the location for the klenengan happening. You only get vague directions from your friend about the place. So you set off early just in case you get lost. It is usually difficult to locate the klenengans that take place because they are normally in the middle of a kampung, at the house of the one man who owns the gamelan set for community rehearsals. Wayangs are usually more well-attended and you can easily follow the crowd of people on motorbikes or look for the highly lit place of the kampung. Also, many food carts surrounding the area make the location much easier to find. But klenengans are smaller and more personal, like the set-up of chamber music concerts of the western world.
Sometimes you reach earlier than expected and you see the gamelan set in the middle of the living room with a few people sitting around it. Mats are laid out all over the place. You park your motorbike and go around, shaking the hands of the people already present. You especially look out for the owner of the house, or ask for him if you do not recognise who he is, to make sure that you greet him, for it would be disrespectful not to do so. People may have extreme reactions to acknowledging your presence if you are a foreigner but you can be sure you are being watched. What you do there usually gets talked about amongst the rest and some bapaks may even get offended if they see you shaking hands with another bapak and not with them.

Photo: Chan Sze Tah

Or sometimes you lose your way, and after asking different people on the streets for the direction to the kampung, you finally hear the soft music of gamelan in the air. You recognise it as Ladrang Wilujeng, an opening piece usually played at the start of klenengans or even general latihans. As the music guides your way, you see the house with people sitting down behind the gamelan and a line of singers in front of the instruments. You enter as quietly as you can and sit at any available spot on the mats laid out, giving a nod with your palms together in front of you to the bapaks and the ibus that are all present there. The people sitting around you will shake your hand and if a friend is already present in the room, will come over or get you to sit by them. Someone then hands you a cup of Javanese tea filled with sugar and a small plate with snacks. Everyone has those plates by their sides. The sound of music continues into the night and so does the conversation going on amongst the audience. Someone seems to be telling a joke and people laugh out loud. There is a short break between each music suite, and if you have been studying the music long enough, you can recognise the change in patets as the musicians play. They usually start with pelog lima or slendro nem, before proceeding to the pelog nem and slendro sanga pair, and lastly to the relatively cheerful and shorter patets of pelog barang and slendro manyura.
As it starts to get late children are all sleeping on the floor. Musicians in the audience sometimes change the lyrics of familiar tunes or randomly sing out a line to lighten things up. If a younger musician or a less competent one forgets a sequence, older musicians start singing out what they were supposed to be playing. Most of the musicians puff away on their cigarettes and musicians who have to use both hands to hold their mallets quickly take puffs in-between each piece. Before you know it, the time has flown by and it is now midnight. You hear the sound of utensils against plates and you see someone handing out plates for a midnight meal. The musicians too get served a plate each and so they stop after the piece ends and start eating.
After everyone has finished their meal, the klenengan continues. It is coming to the end of the performance and the pieces being become shorter and livelier. Soon it leads into the kendhang signal of two low beats and you recognise it as Ayak-ayak Pamungkas, the most common final piece in any klenengan outside the two palaces of Solo.

It is one piece where all of the singers in the ensemble, male and female alike, break into a huge chorus:

Dhuh Allah mugi mugi,           Oh God, hopefully
Keparenga paring rahmat,        you would like to give your blessings
Dhuh Allah lestaria,            Oh God, eternally
Indonesia mardika,          Keep Indonesia independent
Wasana wosing pangidung,            Finally, the intention of this singer
Tarlen among amemuji,           is to wish and
Mugi bangsa Indonesia,          hope that the nation of Indonesia
Sepuh anem jaler estri,         the old, the young, males or females
Sami kersa amanunggal,          will integrate and
Gumolong geleng ing kapti       be united in one goal

You sing the song quietly under your breath and watch as people start leaving. It is probably around two o’clock in the morning and after short conversations with some of the musicians that you personally know, you go around, shaking the hands of whoever is left within the same compound as well as thank the owner of the house once again for having you over and take your leave from the place of music.
Musicking, in Christopher Small’s terms is ‘to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or by practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing’ (1998: 9). In his book Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening, Small breaks down the activity of a symphony concert and gives his views on the various activities centred around the symphony concert. This article describes my own journey of discovery in Solo City, Indonesia, as a foreigner living and studying their traditional arts there while attending the music concerts of the Javanese culture, known as klenengan, and give my view of the musicking that goes along with it. At the same time, I explore the similarities and differences between a Javanese klenengan and a Western symphony concert.
Unlike a Western symphony concert where advertisements and posters are placed way ahead in advance and tickets bought, the Javanese klenengan can be considered a rather informal event advertised via word-of-mouth where one can just show up at the doors and leave whenever one feels like it. A typical way of learning about any klenengan that takes place is by getting a text on the phone from a friend that asks if I will be going to the klenengan that is happening the same night at a particular house or performance space. One interesting occurrence that happens is that even though there are no programme notes or announcements, the audience is still able to tell when the performance is approaching its end which is usually via the patet¹ of the repertoire performed, or a familiar ending piece. No applause is given, because most of the time the audience would have left before the last piece comes to its end (Brinner 2008: 19).
An orchestra musician performing with notation in front of him is a common sight, whereas for a gamelan musician, it is not as common. If any notation is present, it is either a few sheets of paper at the side or a lyrics book for the sindhen². In Western classical music, ability and technique is gauged by how accurate one can be in following all the notes and performance direction written out in the notation with exact precision. However, in the Javanese culture, the very thought of notating everything down on paper is unthinkable, even though the balungan³ of Javanese music has been notated down since the nineteenth century for preservation purposes. Sutton sums the situation thus:
Performances are not conceived in their entirety by a single composer or musical director, but are the result of the performers’ individual sensibilities and their shared understanding of the constraints under which the musical tradition operates. (1988: 169)
What Javanese music has is an interesting system in their music making known as the garap. The gamelan ensemble is made up of various instruments: some that carry the balungan melody and some that carry elaborating parts to the balungan. These elaborating parts are what constitute the garap but fixing the elaborating parts by notating them down ‘would rob the players of their creativity’ (Perlman: 2004: 87). This goes in hand with Christopher Small’s observation, ‘A musical performance, like a conversation, consists of a mixture of preformed and spontaneously generated material, which is manipulated according to rules, which are the grammar and syntax of the musical style’ (1987b: 58-59).Variations are widely used and gamelan students are encouraged to develop their own styles and patterns. However, there is still a framework to follow. It is only after years of listening to other good musicians that one can develop competencies in music-making.
In a western concert, the repertoire has been selected and fixed and the programme notes are all printed. The musicians have rehearsed together, and no changes are usually made. However, that is not the case in a klenengan. Someone would have chosen the repertoire for the night, but it can be changed at the request of a musician. In fact, sometimes the musicians know what they will be playing only after arriving at the venue itself! Musicians have such a pool of repertoire at their fingertips that the change to the pieces being played does not affect them. On the other hand, it has also been noted that depending on the status of the musician, the musician behind the ensemble’s leading instrument and the situation where the performance takes place, the music sometimes changes to a fixed list of pieces. Or, it even changes the order of the pieces which can lead to musicians getting upset, leading to a somewhat problematic performance due to conflicting constraints within the music (Brinner 1995: 307).
One exciting thing about going to a klenengan is that no one knows for sure who would be playing. In a concert, the musicians are prearranged and have been contracted. Certain people may turn up for a concert just because they know that a famous musician is going to be performing that night but you never know that with a klenengan. The klenengan is mostly done via verbal invitation and musicians could possibly switch around. Sometimes a musician known for a particular gamelan instrument shows up unexpectedly. Instantly, you can see the reshuffling of musicians as the musician on that particular instrument stands up and invites others to take his place. This is something that I often encountered during my time in Solo for the more informal klenengans. This practice comes from the Javanese having a deep sense of hierarchy that stems from the feudal nature of their society (Brinner 2008: 16). In a situation where there are no pre-assigned allocations to the instruments, ‘the leading instruments are likely to remain open while musicians seat themselves at the less prominent instruments, leaving the best places open to others.’ (Brinner 2008:17). However, when the klenengan has been sponsored for important guests such as visiting ambassadors or royalty in the palaces where it is not opened to the public, the mood is much more serious and the musicians playing are the designated palace musicians who have their own roles to fulfil in the ensemble.
Unlike in Western classical music, where both men and women equally perform as instrumentalists, women in the Javanese gamelan culture are usually singers rather than musicians that play instruments. Although it was once common for women to play the gender in the olden times during wayangs for their husbands who were the dhalangs — and although the female playing style for gender was also much more appreciated than the male gender playing style – it is hardly a common sight at klenengans for women to be playing instruments rather than singing nowadays (unless the entire group is a female segregated group). When I first got around to going to the various rehearsals around town, I was always directed to the group of women sitting at the front. They were the singers and it took quite a while to convince the different groups that I had not learnt to sing, and would rather play an instrument in the gamelan ensemble than sing. Even at the arts college in Solo, Institut Seni Indonesia Surakarta (ISI Solo), the girls that attend the college, although taught how to play the various gamelan instruments, would only focus on the singing as their aim was to be trained as a sindhen.
Another difference is the disconnection of socialising over food and drinks during a performance. At a klenengan, like any other social gatherings, food and drinks are provided for the musicians as well as the audience. They are part of the event. People socialise during the klenengan and the appreciation of music is not the only thing going on. If we compare it to a concert, Small points out that though socialising before and during the intermission of a concert is important, ‘the two halves of the event are physically

separated from each other, and the experience of the musical works themselves…is a solitary one’ (1998: 42). Noise is frowned upon during a performance and the social status of a musician has been elevated to that of the higher class of society in concerts in the west now.
In Knowing Music, Making Music, Brinner states that ‘Public gamelan concerts other than gamelan competitions are a rarity’ (1995: xviii). Today, however, while the number of klenegans held is smaller than the number of wayangs, they are no longer a rarity. At Gramedia, a bookstore along the street of Slamet Riyadi in Solo, a klenengan is held every five weeks. This klenengan hosts groups from the various kampungs around the city. Here, you can find amateur groups like the Ibu-ibu and groups that are semi-professional performing at Gramedia. Another place is the pendhapa of Taman Budaya Surakarta which hosts regular performances of klenengans, wayangs, and traditional dances. One of the major series of klenengans happenings in Solo is that at Klenengan Pujangga Laras. It was initiated in July 2001 by a group of Americans learning gamelan in Java and is currently being sponsored internationally. This series of klenengans are meant to create an opportunity for Javanese gamelan musicians, young and old, to gather together and play. It is also to document karawitan in its present form, the rule is that non-Javanese musicians are not allowed to play in this series.
The Pujangga Laras Klenengans are quite atypical for a Javanese klenengan and have features similar to a Western concert. Firstly, it does not have as much flexibility of musicians—there is always a select group of musicians playing. Even though one of the stated purposes is to ‘provide an open opportunity to play’ (klenengan), not all Javanese musicians will jump at that open opportunity. This no doubt has got to do with whom the musicians are and the planning committee that is involved in this klenengan as well as the hierarchy system that I had touched on in one of the earlier sections. It is here where the best of Solo’s Javanese musicians gather and where the big names in the academic world of Javanese gamelan in Solo participate in planning the repertoire, which may include big pieces that are not commonly performed and any unique method of reinterpreting an old classical piece. Secondly, programme booklets are printed and the repertoire fixed. The name of the bapak who planned the night’s repertoire, the location of the klenengan, as well as the notation for the pieces to be played will be printed in the programme booklet. These also serve as notation references for the musicians if needed, especially if an uncommon piece is played. Thirdly, a report is published online after each klenengan is scheduled that includes the pieces played and the musicians attending the event, and is followed by a recorded audio file of each piece that only those who financially support the Pujangga Laras Klenengans have access to.
If you are a foreigner in Solo that knows how to play gamelan, it is more than likely you will be invited to play with them if you show up. Javanese musicians are more open to ‘outsiders’ coming in to play even within a performance context, something totally unheard of in a Western symphony concert. No orchestra would let an audience member then come on stage to join them in playing just because he or she is able to play an orchestra instrument. One thing I have noticed in Solo, however, is that sometimes, performing with a foreigner – especially a westerner – elevates the social status of the group. Thus, many are keen to invite foreigners to sing, or play key instruments if they are skilled enough. However, that is not true for all gamelan groups for some of them may include a musician that a foreigner is learning under, in that case, though, they will try to include him or her for performing experiences.
Another aspect of musicking is the latihans that occur. There are various gamelan groups within the kampungs that have regular rehearsal sessions every week. These are usually free (although some may collect a token amount that goes into buying snacks and drinks to provide the fee for the professional musician that leads the group) and mainly to serve the neighbours in the compound who would like to engage in communal gamelan activities.

Photo: Jeff Low from Style Revisited

There are many differences between the music culture of the Western and Javanese world. What I have described above are my own views on how these two musical ensembles and cultures have their differences or similarities. As Small puts it, ‘Every kind of musical ensemble establishes its own sets of relationships, both within itself and between itself and its audience’ (1987a: 30). Understanding why things work the way they do will involve looking at the social culture behind each musical ensemble. The Javanese have a very family-oriented society which places strong emphasis on respecting elders and are very typical of the Asian family in being male-oriented. I am inclined to also believe that their klenengans and latihans are more homely and do not require huge advertisements and posters, nor do they separate the socialising with food and drinks during the time set for music appreciation. Neither is it so rigid that the repertoire cannot be changed or that outsiders are not welcome to participate. Playing music is not merely a job in the Javanese context, but a time for socialising and enjoying the company of one another.


Books and Journals:
Brinner, Benjamin. 1995.Knowing music, making music: Javanese gamelan and the theory of musical competence and interaction. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press.
Brinner, Benjamin. 2008. Music in Central Java: Experiencing music, expressing culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Perlman, Marc. 2004. Unplayed melodies: Javanese gamelan and the genesis of music theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening.
Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Small, Christopher. 1987a. “Performance as ritual: Sketch for an enquiry into the true nature of a symphony concert.” In Lost in Music: Culture, style, and the musical event, ed. Avron Levine White, 6-32. London:
Small, Christopher. 1987b. Music of the common tongue: Survival and celebration in African American music. London: Calder.
Sutton, R. Anderson. 1988. “Individual Variation in Javanese Gamelan
Performance.” The Journal of Musicology 6(2):169-197.

Internet Sites
Klenengan. Accessed on 8 Nov 2013.

Anne Choo is a multi-instrumentalist, versatile in both western and Asian music traditions, and enjoys teaching music at various levels. She holds an MMUS (with Distinction) from SOAS (UoL) and a BA (Hons) in Music (LASALLE). Her interest lies in the performance and theory of Asian music traditions and in ensemble playing. Anne is also a founding member of BronzAge Gamelan, which she manages and performs with regularly.

¹ Not exactly like, but somewhat similar to the modes of western music
² Female vocalist of the gamelan ensemble
³ Melodic framework of gamelan music

 Metallophone instrument of the gamelan ensemble
 Indonesia shadow puppet performance

Traditional Javanese music

Respectful way of addressing a male, similar to ‘Mr’ in English

December 2017

Sometimes you reach earlier than expected and you see the gamelan set in the middle of the living room with a few people sitting around it. Mats are laid out all over the place. You park your motorbike and go around, shaking the hands of the people already present. You especially look out for the…

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