Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The Art of Twentieth-Century Balinese Music, by Michael Tenzer

October 1, 2002

Gamelan Gong Kebyar Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The Art of Twentieth-Century Balinese Music, by Michael Tenzer. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 492 p. with 2 CDs. ISBN: 0-226-79281-1 (cloth), 0-226-79283-8 (paper).

 Gamelan, found primarily on the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali, are large orchestral ensembles consisting mostly of percussion instruments—xylophones, gongs, and chimes—but sometimes also including flutes, fiddles and voices. Since world music programs were first developed at UCLA and Wesleyan University in the 1950s and 60s and subsequently at many other institutions, gamelan has become a major presence in many American universities. Michael Tenzer's Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The Art of Twentieth-Century Balinese Music is significant for its rigorous analysis of a music that, though long well-known abroad, has rarely been so scrupulously analyzed. The book serves as an in-depth and detailed exploration of a single form of gamelan, gamelan gong kebyar, the ensemble most commonly studied in America. The models and structures of analysis Tenzer employs are potentially useful to musicologists and theorists approaching other kinds of music, and the work, through its incorporation of musical analysis, represents a shift in modern ethnomusicological discourse back towards the text itself and towards intellectual inclusiveness with musicology and music theory. Tenzer's work is only the second major published English-language monograph to discuss large Balinese gamelan ensembles in detail. Until now, Colin McPhee's enormously influential, closely researched, and beautifully written Music in Bali: A Study in Form and Instrumental Organization in Balinese Orchestral Music (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966) was the only major published work on these ensembles. (I must add that scores of dissertations, theses, articles, and recordings exist that document Balinese gamelan, and that major studies also exist on Balinese vocal forms.) Tenzer devotes the majority of this study to that style of music most detested by McPhee, the modern gong kebyar ensemble, an orchestra that was only in its infancy during McPhee's research on the island in the mid 1930s, the repertoire of which McPhee, in an article published in 1938, called the "negation of all that is classic in Balinese music."

Rather than only summarizing Tenzer's complex structural analyses, I aim in this review to uncover some of Tenzer's theoretical assumptions by engaging some of the metatheoretical aspects of his study. Let me state here, lest the reader later misunderstand, that despite the critical approach I undertake in this review I find the work on the whole to be brilliant, rigorous, richly nuanced with ethnographic and historical reflections and at times poetically written. In Gong Kebyar, Tenzer's deep knowledge and love of Balinese music and culture are elegantly revealed through the detailed analysis of several core works in the repertory.

Tenzer's work is largely theoretical and musicological rather than ethnographic; his writing here is primarily devoted to structural analysis. This fact alone makes Gong Kebyar a unique contribution to the recent ethnomusicological literature, which in recent years has been more concerned with anthropological rather than musicological approaches. Tenzer is dealing, unabashedly, with art for art's sake, suggesting that ethnomusicology's "ban" on the discussion of "so-called autonomous structural processes in isolation from the context in which the music is learned and performed" (13) has become a hardened cliché.

My review here deals primarily with Tenzer's musical analysis (part two, chapters 5-8) and not on his thorough and well written introductory section (chapters 1-4) which deals with cultural context and historical issues, or with his imaginative final section (chapters 9 and 10) which connects Balinese music to several forms of Western music and reveals Michael Tenzer, the universalist. An important part of Tenzer's analytical middle section deals with connecting the orchestration, interpart relations, syntax, and dance/music relations in gong kebyar to the older genres and repertories that are used as source materials for the kebyar repertory. Beyond these connections, Tenzer is primarily concerned with revealing structure and symmetry at all hierarchical levels of the orchestra, as well as discovering what he believes are the rules that govern a syntax of melody, figuration, meter, and drumming. In his analysis, Tenzer employs an interesting mixture of concepts and terminology derived from both Balinese and Western musical thought, while suggesting that any concepts he has generated himself are "grounded in existing Balinese theory" (9), a claim that I find to be susceptible to critical reflection. According to Tenzer, his aim is to "provide musicians and engaged audiences with a range of detailed information concerning this music, and to come as close as possible to furnishing a blueprint and tools for analyzing and perhaps even composing it in a stylistically credible way" (4). Tenzer is primarily a composer, known especially for his works for Balinese gamelan and at times sections of this book read as a composition manual for gong kebyar.


Tenzer's Analytic Method

Following Nattiez, Tenzer suggests that Balinese discourses surrounding music cannot describe completely all aspects of the local musical phenomena. Tenzer employs largely Western or Western-derived theoretical models in his investigation of gong kebyar while suggesting that his analysis resides at a "neutral level" (14) because, through the combination of "local knowledge systems and practices" (Ibid.) and foreign (Western) ways of thinking, hybrid, neutral knowledge is created. Tenzer responds to concerns that the use of Western music theory and notation in the analysis of non-Western music constitutes a "negative appropriation that further upsets the balance of world music ecology toward the West" (11) by providing the reader with a "heterogeneous, multirelational balance of local ideas" (Ibid.) that precedes the intervention of Western academic discourse. Furthermore, Tenzer suggests that Western-style discourses should be restrained from dominating the discussion. I suggest that despite Tenzer's fine contextualization of Balinese music-in-culture presented in his earlier chapters, Western discourse does dominate his analytical discussions and that this does represent a further shift in the ecology of world music toward the West. I believe that his analysis is solid and rigorous, but plainly not neutral.

Tenzer's use of Western notation ironically excludes the Balinese readership. Nearly all Balinese music is learned by rote and does not involve notational systems. The Balinese occasionally use cipher notations that are largely mnemonic and are not designed to represent vertical relations, an important component of Tenzer's analysis. To be fair, Tenzer really had no choice here; there are no indigenous systems that could adequately represent his ideas and the Balinese do not have any working familiarity with Western systems. Tenzer partly mediates this problem by often including Balinese solfege syllables under Western note heads. The use of Western notational systems, however, prevents most if not all Balinese musicians from understanding the core analytical moves and conclusions in this work—conclusions which are often ingenious and which every Balinese musician should have the opportunity to meditate upon and evaluate.

Tenzer's analysis deals primarily with structure in kebyar; he often employs linguistic metaphors in his efforts to tease out musical and affective "grammars." In his identification of the "subcompositional world of affect and topic" (146) Tenzer identifies topic classes which function as the music's core rhetoric—a language of musical ideas and structures which are largely derived from historical ensembles. While Tenzer devotes a great amount of writing explaining the historical connections between kebyar works and historical repertories and ensembles through the identification and discussion of topics, his analysis primarily attempts to get under these topics by analyzing and organizing their melodies and drum patterns by their "kinetic and tonal quality" (184). In his analysis, Tenzer removes these melodies from "the more conventional categories with which they are usually associated [in Bali] to spotlight the ways in which affect is shaped through structural processes" (Ibid.). By isolating these melodies from the indigenous categories of topic, Tenzer can analyze them purely on the basis of what he considers to be their significant structural aspects.

In his analysis of melodic form and quality, Tenzer uses increasing gong-midpoint scale tone displacement as the ordering criterion, employing the Balinese dichotomy ngubeng and majalan, terms meaning roughly static and active respectively, as analytical categories to describe melodies. Tenzer uses the term axis to describe the scale-tone displacement between gong and midpoint tone. He further segments melodies into four-note groupings called contour classes (CC). The CC, a concept that does not exist in any Balinese theoretical discourses, resembles the indigenous Javanese concept of gatra, but is significantly different in that it is scalable and can refer to melodic forms in any temporal or textural level of the gamelan. Furthermore, the CC is represented not by actual pitches but by positive or negative integers measuring scale-tone displacement from the final note, which is calibrated to 0. Thus, the CC represents only local, and not actual, intervallic, melodic contour. Tenzer can thus easily differentiate between more active (majalan) melodies—those with a higher kinetic quality—and less active (ngubeng) CC's and CC groups.

According to Tenzer, melodic stasis (or rhythmic or tonal stasis in the case of drumming) leads to tension (ngubeng) while melodic (rhythmic, tonal) change leads to release (majalan) (344). These are somewhat technical terms used mostly by urbanized Balinese musicians and theorists, and the semantic field surrounding these recondite terms is sufficiently vague to allow Tenzer to attach his own specific interpretations to them. Tenzer's interpretation of ngubeng and majalan recalls the rhetoric that has dominated Western analyses of sonata forms in which the home key (and to a lesser extent the dominant) is associated with release and any other tonal region is associated with varying degrees of stress. In Tenzer's analysis, increasing distance from the axis in CC's represents release. Majalan and ngubeng are also used by Tenzer to refer to the amount of variation in drumming patterns, in which a pattern that includes a greater amount of internal repetition is considered to be more ngubeng (tense). Tenzer's analysis, which identifies majalan and ngubeng elements in all levels of orchestral strata, seeks to suggest that successful Balinese gong kebyar works achieve a balance between these two qualities.


Neliti and Melody

As the basis of a large portion of his melodic analysis, Tenzer incorporates the Balinese term neliti, which he defines as the "melodic stratum characterized by a two-octave range and movement at the even rate of one tone per beat, or twice the density of the pokok" (452). The pokok (lit. main, central thing) is the melodic strata played by the mid-range single octave jublag typically played on every even beat (Balinese cycles stress even beats, i.e.: 4,8,16, etc.). Neliti has no standardized local definition. In fact it is not present in several major Balinese theoretical encyclopedias and studies. It does appear, however, in the work of Pande Made Sukerta (Ensiklopedi Mini Karawitan Bali, 1998), a Balinese native who has taught for nearly twenty years at the theoretically oriented conservatory for the arts in Solo, Java. According to Sukerta, the neliti, which he also refers to as nyelah, is the basic filling-in of jublag pokok tones on the two-octave range gangsa, sounding an octave higher. For instance, if the jublag play:

. 3 . 5 . 6 . 5 . 6 .


the neliti, or nyelah on the gangsa would be simply:

. 3 3 5 5 6 6 5 5 6 6


Or, if the tempo is slow enough:

. 33 33 55 55 66 66 55 55 66 66


But this is clearly not what Tenzer means. Tenzer relates the neliti to the ugal, a large metallophone that leads the gangsa section by often playing the "full" melody, filled in at a higher rhythmic density than the jublag. Tenzer tries to define this concept further by stating that the neliti are "provisional melodies that are routinely departed from in practice. Literal statement of the neliti appear compressed into the single octave span of the penyacah [an instrument sounding one octave above the jublag] (when they are used)" (206). (Note that this conflicts with Tenzer's earlier definition concerning the range of neliti as having a two-octave range.) Tenzer's conception of neliti as an object of analysis is furthermore problematized by that fact that: 1) the penyacah are often not used in kebyar ensembles; and 2) florid ugal improvisations which sometimes stray from the jublag and penyacah are highly prized in gong kebyar works. Ugal improvisations, according to Tenzer, "diverge from the neliti in order to ornament it, but they do not add a new structural dimension to the music" (207). If the ugal strays from the neliti, and the panyacah are not present, where exactly is the neliti? Is it only in the minds of the musicians, and if so, are there varying interpretations of it? Tenzer's melodic analysis examines neliti in order to explain constraints on kebyar syntax. The conclusions he arrives at may be suspect because his frame of reference, the neliti, is a concept that rests on relatively slippery semantic ground. It may not always actually exist in the music itself, but may at times represent Tenzer's identification of an abstracted "inner melody," a concept that has dominated recent theoretical analyses of central Javanese music.

Nevertheless, the generalizations Tenzer develops from the abstraction of top and lower level melodic textures in kebyar are noteworthy because they suggest that relatively common melodic concepts function throughout the strata of the gamelan (188). Tenzer's interpretation and analysis of neliti allows for ideas from both set theory and Javanese/American theoretical concepts such as inner melody to be aimed at Balinese musical structures, even though they do not exist, at least to my knowledge, locally.



The ways in which Tenzer employs his theoretical concepts are based directly on what he believes to be the significant features within the music. In his analysis of Balinese drumming patterns, Tenzer sometimes strips away much of the musical material in order to reveal what he believes are sequences that "highlight the metric structure" (267) of a given section or work. In a comparison of drumming styles from different villages, Tenzer suggests that all variants function in the same basic way to emphasize the metric structure. While Tenzer does an excellent job of theoretically defending such claims, one might wonder if the significant aspects he identifies in drumming structure are the same ones that his teachers identify, and if they are not, how such a realization would effect his analytical conclusions. In its most abstract moments, Tenzer's writing would have benefited from more ethnographic support.

Tenzer uses the phrase "tonal quality" in his melodic analysis, asking "Affect and other factors aside, how does the amount of scale-tone melodic displacement between gong tone and midpoint tone (or other significant arrivals) affect quality?" (180) Is this so-called tonal quality, the space between gong and midpoint tone, considered a significant feature indigenously? Tenzer admits that it is not, and that he can find no native terminology to describe such structures, all the while treating such relations as important in creating the quality of a gong kebyar work. I might suggest that other melodic elements may have more significance than these relations, as for instance in works in which the suling (flutes) or voices include pitches which are outside of the pitch gamut of the metal ensemble. Such moments have such an effect on the "tonal quality" of a work that they can change the patut (somewhat analogous to mode) or even laras (tuning system) of a section. Tenzer dismisses singing and flute melodies as only a fleeting surface or intermediate texture that does not represent a significant element in the overall form (310). How could such an assertion be maintained in the analyses of kebyar works such as Sampik Pegatsih by I Made Suartika, in which the voice and suling function to move the work out of pelog (a seven-tone hematonic tuning system) and into slendro (a five-tone anhematonic tuning system)? At times it seems that Tenzer is excessively concerned with categorizing and defining the rules of syntax for his Schenkerian-esque forms (i.e. p. 373) to the point that important "surface-level" material is wholly neglected as insignificant.



Tenzer's theoretical approach is very sophisticated and at times his language, figures, and charts become so complicated that the point of the analysis is obscured. Furthermore, his extremely detailed descriptions of melodic contour occasionally become redundant when accompanied by comparatively transparent notations (170). His complicated examples, the use of mathematics, and charts reinforce the sense that Tenzer, by attempting to provide a "rigorous perspective on the music's overall melodic coherence" (222) aspires to a scientific, objective accounting of Balinese music rather than at a kind of hermeneutics. Note for example the language Tenzer uses in attempting to uncover symmetries of form between stratified layers of the Balinese gamelan.

To see the symmetrical relationships between the two halves of an ubit-ubitan kCC we need a new tool, which I will call sum3. To use it, sum corresponding members of the two halves of the kCC and convert the results to mod 3. If the numbers are all the same, the two halves of the pattern are perfect inversions of one another in the wraparound system. Figure 6.11, for example, fits these conditions: adding corresponding numbers gives the result [-3,-3,-3,0]; in mod 3 this is [0,0,0,0]. The two halves are sum3 inversionally symmetrical. (222) (See also pp. 186, 189, 214 for similarly complex analyses.)

While complicated and inelegant, this is logical. I think it is important to tease apart Tenzer's language here, and then later to talk about his motives for constructing such rhetorics. First let me unpack some of his terminology. Tenzer's kCC is an adaptation of his CC concept for the interlocking (ubit-ubitan) figuration patterns in gamelan known more commonly as kotekan (k). These often are composed in two beat units, forming groups of eight notes at a 16th note level. As in his scalable CC model, Tenzer identifies the tone on the beat (a kind of goal tone that sometimes aligns with the tones of other instruments) as his "axis" and analyzes the structure of the kotekan in relation to axis tones. Tenzer divides the groups into two parts (four notes each), identifying his "corresponding members" for comparative analysis. After dividing the pattern he takes the two halves and "converts" the results in mod 3. What is mod? Imagine an analogue clock; the hands pass each of the numbers, going back to 1 after reaching twelve. So, if you wanted to express 13 hours in mod 12, you would say 1 (one o'clock). Imagine Tenzer's system as a 3 hour clock, starting on 0: 0,1,2. In the above excerpt Tenzer takes his already abstracted tones, considered as distance from axis and then runs another process on them, considering them in mod 3. Through the employment of sum3 technology, Tenzer finds that, when considered within a closed 3-tone system (as only three of the five possible kebyar tones are used here), the two halves are inversionally symmetrical. Tenzer later goes on to suggest that: "Adding 3 to each of the first four members of the kCC of figure 6.11, for instance, gives {1,2,1,0/-1,-2,-1,0}, a shape that is exactly the same as the neliti of figure 6.3C." (224).

This comparison is meant to suggest that interlocking patterns "feel like full-fledged neliti melodies that have been squeezed into a more limited scale-tone field" (222, emphasis in original). This is hardly a comparison when one considers that Tenzer added 3 to only the first half (and why not the second half as well?) of his example (figure 6.11). I am tempted to think that Tenzer is characterizing what may be coincidences as purposeful (if not verbalized by composers) symmetries in Balinese composition. Unless I was presented with a chart of scores of interlocking patterns and neliti, showing consistent relationships, I remain unconvinced. Furthermore, considering the heavy processing that Tenzer has performed on his interlocking pattern analysis, I'm not convinced that there even is a relationship between the provided examples. Tenzer's analysis does not allow for coincidence. The likelihood for "symmetries" increases as the overall amount of pitch information decreases. If he were dealing with 12 tone rows, or examples that included a wide pitch gamut, his symmetries might be more convincing, but considering we are only dealing with 5 tones in kebyar, and only three in the above interlocking example, the probability of finding symmetries either literal, inversional, retrograde, or inversional retrograde increases. In this section of Tenzer's analysis everything must fit into patterns of symmetry, and the music is portrayed as reflecting the secret and unconscious beauty and structure of the human mind—spinning out waves of culturally universal logic and symmetry in sound—whether or not we can actually hear it.

Tenzer tends to abstract his ideas too far, begging the question, what is the point of such abstraction when his often brilliant ideas could be expressed more simply? Is this simply a rhetorical effect? An institutional gesture? Is Tenzer merely moving to empower his own ideas by incorporating concepts so abstract that a number of readers become alienated by the time he reaches his final conclusions? Why are his analyses so abstract when the structures he attempts to reveal are, according to him, "completely audible" (222)? Tenzer's methods here remind one of Milton Babbitt's plea in 1972 for a more scientific and rigorous approach to music theory, and for the development of a codified theoretical language rather than a theory built upon mutual understanding.

The ways in which Tenzer uncovers symmetries and the rules governing structure is largely empirical; that is, based on rules derived from perception. However, the way in which he identifies structures that are significant is deductive or axiomatic; that is, what Tenzer thinks is significant is prior to his analysis. He thus starts from his own premises. Tenzer believes that symmetrical balance between tension and release and coherent structure (on several scales) are significant features in music, and he discovers these qualities in gong kebyar.


Intention and the Composer

There is some confusion in Tenzer's writing as to the relation between the work and its origins, but largely he does not buy into the so-called intentional fallacy which claims that the critic/analyst can either discover or should even consider authorial intent. In his focus on structural analysis, Tenzer largely removes the sticky variables of the producer and receiver, the composer and listener. Tenzer suggests that it is irrelevant if the composer is aware of the structures that he identifies in his analysis (378). For example, Tenzer writes, "Though Beratha gave it [his work Tabuh Pisan, Bangun Anyar] conventional elaboration and drumming, the idiosyncracies are evidence of his wish (conscious or not) to distort the inherited affect of the form" (194). This suggests that Tenzer is performing a kind of psychoanalytical music theory, explicating what he believes are the theoretical models buried in the subconscious of his teachers' minds and which are not necessarily implicit in their teachings (5). In a musical scene where explicit and formalized music theory are hard to come by, Tenzer attempts to give the reader access to the unspoken inner musical mechanics of Balinese gamelan: "To focus on sound is not to undervalue context but to conserve extra time and energy for understanding more of what may be in the inner sonic worlds of teachers and colleagues" (14).

Tenzer does not provide a great deal of ethnographic information on composers, and focuses almost exclusively on the works of two men, Wayan Beratha and Nyoman Windha. Beratha is portrayed as a great composer, a kind of Balinese Beethoven, and it is only his works that are analyzed in full. In the conclusion to his analysis of Beratha's compositions, Tenzer suggests that he has given a compositional perspective on form. One may wonder how has he done so without including the composer's words. We are presented with what Tenzer suggests are the subconscious structures of the Balinese compositional process, but what we are actually given is the ecology of Tenzer's compositional consciousness. Tenzer has provided us with the tools with which he composes Balinese gamelan works, and while the results may sound at times indistinguishable from those of Balinese composers, must we then necessarily assume that he has, as he claims, captured the inner imagination of the Balinese composer?

Tenzer has been composing gamelan works since 1979. He confesses, "Theory has been a way for me to understand structure and an intellectual foundation for my gamelan compositions" (8), and continues, "It was impossible to begin hearing and composing in the style without articulating theoretical concepts for myself in some way" (Ibid.). Through developing a theory on Balinese music, Tenzer has largely been able to compensate for the accumulated musical knowledge of a Balinese composer who is raised surrounded by the music. Through his theory, Tenzer seeks to reconcile his two musical halves (East and West), but like Balinese composers, he seems in some degree to be unaware of his own musical habitus: notions of tension, release, stress, dissonance, coherence, symmetry.

Tenzer employs a rigorous and well thought-out theoretical system intended to reveal what he perceives are the essences of Balinese music. Adding to earlier scholarship on Balinese music that focused largely on orchestration, form, tuning and especially interlocking patterns, Tenzer presents richly detailed discussions of neglected elements such as dynamics, tempo, affect, and drumming. His analytical discussions of these elements are finely nuanced, informed by his years of playing and composing gamelan music on a professional level. Furthermore, in his investigation of form and composition (chapter eight), Tenzer approaches each work idiosyncratically, looking at compositions as a whole rather than as a pastiche of topics. This is a fresh and greatly appreciated approach to the interpretation of gong kebyar. However, one must remember what in the end gets left out of Tenzer's structural analysis. Important elements such as voices and flutes are erased from the analysis by being branded as elements of surface texture. The connection between kebyar and modern (rather than historic) dance and choreography could have allowed Tenzer to further develop his discussion of affect—but this topic falls outside the scope of the already expansive study. This work, in spite of its density, will certainly lead to a greater and more rigorous understanding of the gamelan gong kebyar repertory. Its earlier chapters are accessible to most anyone interested in the gamelan traditions of Bali, while its analytical sections seem to be geared towards those who already have a fluency in performing and listening to the music. The accompanying CDs are of a high sound quality and most likely will greatly aid the average reader in following Tenzer's more abstract analytical discourses.


8080 Last modified on October 7, 2018