The Sounds of Bali: Music in Technicolor

By Casey Dienel
Jan 24, 2019

In Bali, where ceremony is a pillar of cultural life, gamelan is its most steadfast, beating heart. Both a complex percussive orchestra and rich musical tradition, gamelan figures centrally in spiritual and social functions. Gamelan serves as accompaniment to dance or elaborate shadow puppet performance, but it’s also featured heavily in ritual ceremony.  The name derives from the low Javanese word meaning “to strike,” in reference to the sound the mallets produce when played. My exposure to this music came as a happy accident. Then a music composition student, I was so shy I hardly spoke up in class. A classmate in the department invited us to a concert at MIT. I’d never heard the word ‘gamelan,’ but in an effort to socialize I went anyway, relieved of the risk I might need to hold a conversation. I wasn’t prepared for what came after. For all the videos available on YouTube, none compare to experiencing gamelan in person.

The easiest way to describe the sound of Balinese gamelan, and I’m oversimplifying here, is like watching a living organism under a slide, undulating, moving outwards. Retracting, expanding. It’s visual and musical. Most of all, it is joyful. Tempo and rhythm are marshaled by the khendang, a long, double-sided hand drum braided with red rope. As the music progresses, intricate layers of rhythmic patterns are introduced, invariably interlocking together from one pattern to the next. Hear it once and you’ll be struck immediately by its iridescence. Wood or water buffalo horns striking metal. Reedy melodies from bamboo flutes dance in elliptical patterns. One minute it glistens quietly, like the inside of a mussel’s shell. The next, it builds furiously into a clacking, thunderous crescendo.

These orchestras are a fixture of Balinese culture, representative of how highly community is valued in Bali. Each players' individual contribution is essential; each passage is so reliant on other players’ parts weaving together that individually there can be no gamelan. As ensembles, they are as striking to behold as they are to listen to— awe-inducing rows of gilded metallophones, gongs, cymbals, and hand drums. Carved into the base of each instrument are bas-relief depictions of mythical creatures or gods. Percussionists wield hand-hewn wooden mallets, while other instrumentalists play delicately ornate bamboo flutes and spiked violins. Their robes are ornately decorated, flush with colors that pulse in the mind days later. Flashes of fuschia, violet, or fiery red.

 Growing up, my exposure to music outside the Western canon was limited. Though I studied classical music, it was jazz I loved most, along with every inch of ‘70s R&B I could get my hands on. I’ve always gravitated towards anything with a sense of propulsion to it. Music like this reflected back to me the confusing world I knew, but in doing so reordered it. And, it should be said, Western music is by nature very orderly. Western scales have 12 tones in them, with very clearly set intervals between each note. For many of us, this is what makes songs sound familiar, like the feeling of coming home, even if it’s something you’re hearing for the first time. Balinese music, however, features much wider intervals, giving it its airy, expansive quality. The music is not written down but instead passed down through the oral tradition. Members of each orchestra learn and memorize their parts individually.  Even at that concert, having never heard anything like it before, I knew what I was headed somewhere new. Somewhere I wanted to visit. Somewhere deeply exciting. It felt important.

As the music unfolded, the plain concert hall surrounding us evaporated within it. Subsequent melodic patterns rippled out, curling like scrolls of smoke, vibrating across the seats. Listening to the beat, unable to predict where they might travel next, my world diverged into two distinct halves. A before and after. Imagine experiencing film before sound or color, and the wonder of finally encountering all three at once. I attempted to follow the players’ ballet of mallets with my eyes, the players moved like hammers inside of a piano, dashing and pausing in perfect unison. Take one piece out, I observed, and the entire thing would come undone. This was beauty and strength in numbers. Cascades of sound, scales repeating then changing in the subtlest of ways. Pause. Repeat. A new pattern might appear, then vanish. It was a full blown explosion, music in technicolor.

As a teenager I dreaded introducing myself to new people. I imagine this fear of putting myself out there or, more likely, the fear I might be misunderstood, is what drove me to study music in the first place. Where the spoken word failed me, in music I was fluent. Its landscapes were a salve; one note weaving into the next, a private refuge I could climb inside. I soaked up this space. Bloomed inside of it quietly. Tried making it my own. Yet this world was not, nor should it ever have been, enough. Where my studies had fashioned a safe cocoon to express myself, gamelan showed just how wide of a color palette there was at our disposal. I began studying the music of Bali which quickly led me to experiment with new harmony voicings and polyrhythms. It taught me how to travel as a composer, a lesson I desperately needed to learn, and awakened in me a need to leave the confines of the familiar on a regular basis. This last lesson is something I’ve since tried welcoming into my life outside music, as well.

Even now, whenever I have the chance, I seek out Balinese gamelan performances. I still feel the same thrill as I approach my seat—wondering this time where it might take me, and what that journey might reveal.