The Revelry of the Gods that Went Down in Gaung

This article is the author’s response to the “Concert Lecture” entitled “Gaung” by Bilawa Respati and Ariel Orah on February 13, 2022 at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse.

This article is a translated version of an article by Umi Maisaroh. If you wish to read this article in its original Bahasa Indonesia (recommended), click here.

He hit the metal plate right in the middle. It vibrated, and spilled a sound that echoed in the dark room. A soft yet shrilling voice ringed. It came from someone who was blowing a device that looked, I think, like a microscope. The sound cracked like shards of sharp needles slicing the membranes of the sense of hearing. One familiar word caught my ear: “nina bobo” (lullaby). Once again, it was broken by the sound of metal plates being struck. The lound sound of “O” was chased by the vibrating vocal cords. Thus the voices grabbed each other and scattered throughout the room.

In an instant the voices were gone. The two actors, Bilawa and Ariel, then spoke in English.  One of them mentioned the word “sound”, followed by several explanations. Then the words “Syang Hyang Widhi”, “gamelan”, “laras”, and “gending”.  Words spewed out of their mouths, like collage pieces I had to pick up and stack up to figure out their meaning.  I could only catch that they were talking about the sacred sound of a Javanese musical instrument called the gamelan.  The sound of the gods or Syang Hyang Widhi. Maybe for those who do not understand the context of gamelan and Java, they would grope to find out what they were talking about. However, I found help from the information in the pamphlet that guided our understanding of the context of this lecture concert entitled Gaung.

There are many types of performing arts. For example performance, perfomative, event, drama, staging, and so on. However, Gaung was my first experience to the concept of a lecture concert. In it the actors played musical instruments and took turns to give explanations about the context of the performance itself. A pair of videos projected on the walls also accompanied this concert. The appendage “lecture” in this show seems to be a differentiator that the actor, apart from playing music, is also the actor who gives scientific explanations to the audience. So, besides being able to enjoy the show, the audience would also be presented with various scientific and historic facts about what was presented in the show.

Gaung carried gamelan, a traditional Javanese musical instrument, as its main resonance. A little introduction from me: gamelan is a set of musical instruments mainly made of metal or bronze consisting of various types and shapes. In Gaung, they presented 5 types of musical instruments: Gong, Gender, Bonang and two types of Saron. The oldest record of gamelan can be traced from one of the instruments, namely the gong, which is carved in the reliefs of the Borobudur temple.1  From this information, the tool may have existed since at least the 7th century in Java. Some studies say that gamelan was a musical instrument that is only played in the kingdoms. Gamelan was only played at certain times and required a special ritual to play it. Therefore, gamelan is often considered a sacred musical instrument. But apparently some records show that gamelan was also played outside the kingdoms, namely to accompany street dancers, namely teledek.2 Since this traditional street dance is a remnant of pre-colonial times, it is likely that gamelan was played outside the kingdom even before Java came into contact with the colonial period. In other words, the process of releasing gamelan from royal hegemony has existed since before the colonial period in Java.

After done with the Gong, the two actors moved on to the second instrument: the Saron.  They opened the explanation through a new chapter: Imaji (imagination). The projector displayed a black and white image of people playing wayang (javanese shadow puppet). For those who are not familiar with wayang, the video would feel strange for them, and it seemed as if they were separated from the explanations of the two actors. I also had a bit of a hard time capturing the correlation between the two actors’ explanations with the image from the projector. This section closed with Bilawa playing the saron and Ariel playing his electronic musical instruments.

They then moved further to the third instrument: Gender. Here they re-opened a new chapter: Kuasa (power).  Bilawa, who was only wearing white overalls at first, started to put on a patterned cloth (batik). While Ariel slowly opened his own white overalls. A colorful shirt and orange shorts started to peek and pop from behind his overalls. I still couldn’t really catch the words they were saying, but from the symbols of their clothes, I suspect they were trying to convey the influence of the entry of Western culture through colonialism in Java. They mentioned the period of “pujangga baru” (new poets) as a point whether Indonesia wanted to maintain traditions or open up to new cultural influences. Again, this explanation was closed with generous dose of music.

The actors then moved to the fourth gamelan: Saron. Again they opened a new chapter: Arah (direction). In this section, they discussed the uniqueness of gamelan notation. Bilawa was seen putting on a suit jacket. A jacket that seemed to be a symbol of a new culture. I saw it as an Eastern culture that is starting to accept new culture.

Finished with that discussion, they went to the fifth instrument: bonang, as they arrived at the last chapter: Gaung (echo). The image of Tan Malaka appeared on the projector. Bilawa inverted the sarong, and played is as in Klangtherapie or sound therapy. After they presented this chapter, they then played randomly from one gamelan to another. Bilawa was always loyal to the gamelan, while Ariel with his electronic musical instruments. The room vibrated again by the combination of these sounds. At the end of the show, Bilawa returned to holding the first gamelan: the gong, and Ariel followed through with the sound effects of her various electronic musical instruments. The show seems to be brought back to the beginning through the sound of “O”, gongs and “nina bobo”.

Gaung concert lecture could offer two texts at once: (1) the lecture text read by the actor, (2) as well as a symbol of the actor’s gestures and costumes. On the one hand, he can offer a show that is rich and complex at the same time. If the audience does not have at least an idea of the context of the lecture, the audience may be detached from the explanations given by the actor. Not to mention in terms of gamelan, there are many words that cannot be translated directly into English. For example: karawitan, laras, slendro, pelog, nyi glamprang, and so on. However, no matter how much the audience will grope about the purpose of the show, Gaung becomes a new strategy to twist “concert” with “lecture”. Apart from the various explanations in the “lecture” style that night, I enjoyed the echo more as a celebration of the gods who fell free to earth from heaven’s prison.

1  Brandon, James R. (1967). Theatre in Southeast Asia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. Pag.11.

2 Pigeaud, T. (1938). Javaanse Volksvertoningen. Bijdrage tot de Beschrijving van Land en Volk. [E-book]. Netherland: Volkslectuur. Pag. 323.

Published by

Azhari

Azhari

Not an artist, nor a musician, Azhari orbits around the amazing people in Berlin. Translating his admiration towards them into words.