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The Music of Bali
The Music of Bali

Gamelan Instrument

The music of Bali is extremely complex and vibrant. The original purpose of music here again is to serve religious beliefs, accompanying dances or wayang theaters. The traditional Balinese orchestra, known as gamelan, is composed of various forms of percussions, with notes overlapping and criss crossing among the various kinds. There is a number of string and woodwind instruments, but most of the players, which can range from a few to several dozen, sit behind various kinds of metallophones, gongs, and xylophones. Each gamelan has its own tuning, preventing instruments from being interchanged from one gamelan to another.

The music of Bali has inspired well known composers from all around the world. Bela Bartok titled his No.109 piece "From the island of Bali." It is also said that Debussy, after having met a Balinese musician and seen a Balinese orchestra performed in Europe, is very impressed and affected, and that much of his later works contain distinct colors of Balinese music.

But Colin McPhee (1900-1964), a Montreal-born author and musician, was probably the one most affected as well as most influential in Balinese music. Story has it that his life-changing moment happened in New York, when he first encounter a vinyl of Balinese gamelan. He set sail, so to speak, to Bali, and immersed himself in learning about and contributing to Balinese music. His compendium of Balinese music is an extremely well-researched collection of the various aspects of Balinese music. His Tabuh-tabuhan: toccata for orchestra won him the coveted Pulitzer Prize.

Tabuh-tabuhan is a collective noun that literally translates into a collection of percussion instrument - the Balinese gamelan. It consists of three movements: Ostinatos, Nocturne, and Finale. McPhee's nuclear gamelan consists of two pianos, celesta, xylophone, marimba, and glockenspiel, with special Balinese gongs and cymbals added for certain sounds. Premiered in Mexico in 1936, this piece fuses Balinese motifs, melodies, and rhythms into a symphonic work. The signature of a Balinese flute melody inspires the Nocturne, unmistakably similar to what you can hear as you walk by the village temple today. The syncopated finale is kindred to the tapestry formed by the village orchestra accompanying a popular dance.

McPhee was also mostly responsible for the introduction of Balinese music and gamelan into the U.S. Many ethnomusicology departments in various U.S. universities today as well as performance groups have in-house gamelan, and fortunately, some of them even have Web sites that you can visit (if you know more, please send us email ):

  • Gamelan Sekar Jaya
    This group is a non-profit organization that studies and performs Balinese music and dances, based in the San Francisco Bay Area and founded in 1979 by I Wayan Suweca, Rachel Cooper and Michael Tenzer.
  • Bali & Beyond
    This is a group of Los Angeles artists performing programs related to Indonesian culture.
  • Gamelan Galak Tika
    Housed at MIT, Gamelan Galak Tika was founded in September 1993 by director Evan Ziporyn, Associate Professor of Music at MIT, for the purpose of studying and performing both traditional and modern Balinese music and dance.

The Gamelan Gunung Sari of Peliatan, Bali is making a US Tour this year. Check their schedule here, and if it's coming near you, go see it!


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