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  • Gamelan: The Traditional Sounds of Indonesia
  • R. Anderson Sutton
Gamelan: The Traditional Sounds of Indonesia. Henry Spiller. World Music Series. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. xxiii 395 pp., photographs, illustrations, glossary, listening guide, bibliography, index, CD. 2004, ISBN: 1-85109-506-3

This is in important new book, serving as an introduction both to a broad range of related musical traditions in Indonesia and its neighboring countries, and, within Indonesia, to the gamelan music and dance of Sunda (West Java). Neither this breadth nor this focus, however, are accurately reflected in the title, a problem that might have been easily overcome by choosing an alternative title (such as "The Gamelan Music of Sunda in the Context of Southeast Asia" or "Sundanese Gamelan Music and Related Traditions"). Another problem with the title is that it suggests that gamelan music is the traditional music of Indonesia, whereas many of Indonesia's hundreds of ethno-linguistic groups spread over Indonesia's thousands of islands have no indigenous tradition of gamelan music. (This problem could have been avoided simply by omitting the definite article "the.")

Quibbles over the title aside, the focus on Sundanese music and dance is clearly one of the greatest strengths of the book. Sunda is the author's research specialty and this focus contributes toward a more balanced coverage of major music traditions in Indonesia in the scholarly literature, where Central Javanese and Balinese gamelan traditions have been much more widely repre sented, particularly in general overviews intended for the non-specialist (e.g., Lindsay 1979, 1992; Sorrell 1990 on Central Java; Tenzer 1991, 1998 on Bali). Other solid works of scholarship on aspects of Sundanese music and related arts have recently appeared (Williams 2001; Weintraub 2004), but Spiller's is the first introductory study, thorough, informative, and readable.

The book opens with a substantial preface in which Spiller puts forth an intriguing definition of "tradition" as that which "teaches, reinforces, and creates the social values of its producers and consumers." The first chapter, "Music and Southeast Asian History" offers a broad overview of ensemble music in a wide variety of Southeast Asian cultural regions. Through his descriptions of court music in Cambodia, gong ensemble music among the Batak of North Sumatra, "classical" music of Thailand, and Magindanao (southern Philippines) kulintang gong ensemble music, he provides specific instances of widely practiced musical principles that seem to characterize Southeast Asian gong ensembles in general, such as ostinato, cyclic structure, interlocking parts, layering, expansion and contraction, and other forms of melodic variation.

Chapter 2, "Music in Java and Bali," begins with historical background on the Indonesian nation and its formation, emphasizing the prominence of Java and weaving some aspects of musical history into the narrative. The musical focus, as one would expect from the book title (but not from the chapter title) is gamelan [End Page 142] music. Other forms of musical expression are not discussed. The first gamelan music covered is from Cirebon (on the cultural margins between West Java, i.e., Sunda, and that portion of the island that is culturally "Javanese," i.e., Central and East Java), with focus on both the ancient gamelan sekaten and on pre sent-day gamelan musical activity in Cirebon. The next section, on Central Java, offers an extensive discussion of the musical basics of Central Javanese music, copiously illustrated with Javanese kepatihan cipher notation, diagrams, graphs, and line drawings. A few minor inconsistencies in spelling and problems with definitions should be noted. Current orthography would have kethuk, rather than ketuk (67, 88– 89). The author's definition of the Javanese musical term gatra as a "basic form or outline" is not accurate. Although he cites Sumarsam (1995, 229), we should note this passage by Sumarsam discusses the uses and meanings of this term outside the context of gamelan performance, and that this definition is actually a somewhat puzzling one, given in a dictionary published in 1901. The author's description of instrument configuration is also occasionally inaccurate. The arrangement of kettles on the pelog bonang (97), for example, shows the 1's and the 4's reversed from the usual positions in which one normally encounters them. And the gender instruments...


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