Some Funky Gatras

A “gatra” is the basic four-beat unit of much traditional Javanese gamelan music, which I’ve been studying since January.

I started working on a composition for some gamelan players along with violin, alto sax and drum set.  I’ve decided to call it Some Funky Gatras.

My primary intention is to create a hybrid composition, which acknowledges and incorporates the gamelan tradition but includes non-gamelan elements.  To this end, I’ve composed a “core melody” (called “balungan”) to use as the structural basis, as is common in the tradition and composed another melody – or series of riffs – in a funky, jazzy style to go along with it.  The “gatras” will be organized in straight-ahead 4/4 time and, hopefully, I can create some ambiguity as to where the strong beat is, since in Western 4/4 the strong beat is naturally on beat one but in gamelan music the strong beat is on beat four, and even stronger at the end of an eight-beat phrase.  An essential component for me was to create a funky rhythm that accents the fourth beat of the bar, in addition to beat one.  Also, I necessarily had to choose the “slendro” tuning as this is analogous to our pentatonic scale (as opposed to “pelog” tuning, for which we have no workable equivalent in equal temperament).  Although the pentatonic scale works well for many different flavours of tunes, including funk and jazz, some adjustment will be needed to tune to the slendro instruments.  I’ve chosen violin and sax because they can both bend tones easily and they happen to be readily available among the musicians I’m working with.

My gamelan group had its first public presentation last week in a community gamelan workshop open to the public.  I got quite nervous for our main piece, which is quite an elaborate and difficult piece to play well, and on which we still have quite a bit of polishing work to do before our main performance on April 17th.  Since it was an informal presentation, audience members were seated on the floor, which is where the musicians play.  For this main piece, I play bonang panerus, which is placed at the front of the ensemble.  It was a little off-putting to be playing and have audience members sitting so close, especially when I’m not quite as confident as I’d like to be with my part!  I’m sure the final performance will feel more comfortable as well as sounding more polished.

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