Reflections on latihan: one Javanese approach to learning Gamelan
Thow Xin Wei
Because gamelan is a performing art, one often thinks in terms of where and when it’s performed, but I’ve always been more interested in the way it is rehearsed. Perhaps this is because of my own real appreciation of gamelan began when I was invited to my first rehearsal—or latihan—with NUS’s Singa Nglaras Javanese Gamelan ensemble: I must’ve heard the music once or twice before I actually tried playing it but it hadn’t really more of an impression than just a vague memory of seemingly interminable tinkling percussion. And when I tried listening to recordings in those early days, I just wound up being rather confused: apart from the female vocalist, everything else seemed indistinct and complicated. So it was really through latihan that I began enjoying gamelan music.
When I recall those first few latihan today, I can still remember how impressed I was that every- thing held together without any apparent conductor, speeding up and slowing down casually and effortlessly, each part independent yet somehow in harmony, like a group of friends going out on a stroll. And the atmosphere was different in intensity from my secondary school and junior college choirs: it was relaxed and amiable, yet remaining dedicated and—somehow—productive.
To this day, I find it a little difficult to explain a latihan to non-gamelan friends. We usually say “rehearsal”, but then people often assume there’s an upcoming show, which might not always
be the case. “Practice” or “Training” captures the sense of open-ended improvement, but sound rather serious for what goes on—there a fair bit of chatting, and quite a lot of snacks. One friend of mine says we’re “jamming”, which captures the informality of the occasion, but—and I’m nit- picking, I know—that sounds like we’re improvising which isn’t exactly it. The best analogy I can think of is a bunch of friends who get together to play soccer on weekends and who might occasionally train up for a friendly competition – it’s nice to win and they hope to improve, but mostly they just want to play.
In 2011, I travelled to Surakarta to study gamelan for a year . This city, commonly called Solo, remains one of the Meccas for gamelan musicians. It is also famous for being the sister city of Yo- gyakarta just a couple of hours by road to the west. Both cities contain palaces which, divested of military strength during Dutch colonialism, expressed their rivalry in the cultural arena, resulting in distinctive styles in their traditions of batik painting, gamelan music, dance and theatre, and Wayang Kulit (shadow puppetry). Each city also contains institutes and high schools offering qualifications in traditional arts; they are further nourished by neighboring regions such as Klat- en and Wonogiri with many musician and Dhalang (shadow puppeteer) families.
Despite being less of a tourist destination than Yogyakarta, Solo still exerts its own considerable charm on the foreigners who come to it: during my stay I met people from all over the world who had stayed for years—sometimes decades—and others who returned as often as they could. Many of us were associated with the traditional arts in some way: besides those on the Darmasiswa pro- gramme there were also those who came at their own expense. Some were conducting ethnomu- sicological fieldwork, and many were professors, but at times the academia felt almost peripheral, as if just an excuse to come back and learn, play together, and drink tea.
Under the scholarship I was officially studying at the Institut Seni Indonesia (Surakarta), but a lot of my learning came from the latihan I attended while in Solo. There would usually be one pro- fessional or senior musician leading the group, and the participants were often a mix of experi- enced musicians and casual players. Some groups were fairly serious gatherings that played long, classical repertoire, while in some others the musicians would finish off the session with more upbeat langgam or Sragenan. The repertoire could be planned (especially if there was a show or broadcast coming up), or spontaneously chosen by the players (necessitating thick books of notation for the novice musician like myself who hadn’t memorized everything popular). Some- times the latihan felt more like an excuse for the neighbourhood to get together, while in others one could sense a stronger note of ambition. Some were easily accessible, while others you’d only go to if somebody invited you, or better yet, you knew the musician in charge. One of the more interesting groups started off as a club for employees at a train station: consequently the gamelan was in a room within the station’s garage and you climbed over an antique locomotive to get to it. And my favourite latihan played twice a week in an annexe of the Mangkunegaran palace, notable for having both musicians and dancers practicing together, and also for attracting a large number of young Solonese.
Despite their variety in skill, participants, repertoire, location and motivation, there are a few similarities in the way latihan are conducted. They tended to be regular, each one happening once (sometimes twice) a week, regardless of whether there was any event upcoming – and many of the foreign gamelan enthusiasts would order their schedules around them. Another similar- ity was the general etiquette of choosing your instrument. Newer members will generally place themselves (or be placed) at the balungan instruments whose parts are straightforward: one plays exactly what is notated, and has other musicians playing in unison as a reference. It’s perfectly acceptable to get lost on one of these instruments and copy the person next to you as long as nec- essary. A student learning the more technically demanding instruments might be allowed to play along on them if a better musician isn’t available, and people will usually reserve comment about the result. Still, it’s not good form to head straight for it even if nobody is there: one has to wait to be invited. This is true even if one can play the instrument – professional musicians at an unfa- miliar latihan will tend to sit at the side until invited into a particular spot. Inexperienced players normally avoid the gongs which mark key points in the music, because mistakes there are fatally jarring to experienced musicians—this was something I learned firsthand. And although it’s easy to make a sound from them, it’s often hard to get that sound exactly right in terms of quality and timing.
Another tendency in latihan is how pieces will often be “played through” without stopping, with learners making use of the inherently cyclical nature of the music to help work through tricky bits as they recur. Occasionally this gets carried to an extreme – at one particular latihan there were often moments where two or three musicians would soldier on while everyone else looked lost and embarrassed. But generally if the music does happen to break down, there’d be some tea and discussion before trying again . Most groups had at least some opportunity to perform: either for weddings, or at one of the routine events that provided a platform for such groups to play for an audience. Such events usually fell on specific days in the 35 day Javanese Month, and would sometimes, intriguingly, be termed as a “shift in rehearsal venue” (pindah latihan).
Although less structured than the lessons at the conservatory, and less instructive on technique than private lessons, latihan expose one to a wider range of music and musicians. And while the learning process is slower, I think the long term benefits are greater: one can start to play the music from intuition and familiarity, learn to hear how the parts and musicians relate to each other, and develop the ability to musically “joke”—much like speaking the language you’ve learnt in a class with locals. And as a further benefit, one becomes not just better at playing but also better at listening: as I’ve learned to play more instruments with other people I start to hear them more distinctly in recordings, discovering where the melodies converge and diverge, and finding delight at those little moments and idiosyncrasies that make what seems to be a very formulaic and structured music bukan matematika, in the words of one of my teachers.
Coming back to Singapore, the latihan are probably the part I missed most: despite spending an extended period in Indonesia, I rarely left Solo because I often settled so nicely into the routine. Over here numerous differences prevent a “latihan culture” from developing: the first of course is the relative difficulty of accessing a gamelan set in Singapore. These tend to be owned by educa- tional institutions since each set costs between SGD30,000–50,000 to commission and ship, and then needed to be housed, maintained and periodically tuned by an expert from Java. Such a sub- stantial investment means that sets may not be easily accessible to people outside the institution that houses them, limiting the venues and opportunities for a casual group to organize rehearsals. Furthermore, with all the money and effort spent there is then the pressure for the institution to justify their investment, necessitating performances, workshops and other events. All of these mean that rehearsals may need to be more focused and less relaxed, potentially straining the social interaction.
Another problem is the lack of experienced musicians: while Singapore does have a fair number of gamelan musicians who’ve played for a long time, differences in schedules mean that a latihan may not have enough confident players to keep the music going in moments of uncertainty. Thus, there is likely to be more explicit teaching and instruction, making it less informal. Additionally, there may not be enough musicians to consistently fill all the various positions in an ensemble, making it difficult for newer musicians to experience the totality of a piece as much as is ideal; they have lesser people to follow if they’re lost, and less guidance to the rasa, or “feeling” of the music. As a result, the latihan can be both more challenging and less rewarding than it could be.
Yet another factor is the expectations that come from learning other types of music: some may feel frustrated at the seeming lack of focus and instruction, or may insist on playing instruments that they aren’t ready for. This can, in some cases, disrupt the changes in tempo that signal transitions to different sections, causing the music to fall apart. And finally, the expectations of audi- ences here has a part in it as well – a group that is under pressure to perform frequently for the public is less likely to choose pieces spontaneously, nor rehearse the longer and more subtle pieces considered less accessible, especially for an audience in a primary or secondary school.
Despite these challenges, I still think it’s worth cultivating a space for latihan as we try to do at NUS. For one, it’s a way to build the bonds between musicians that is essential for a music that necessitates sensitivity and cooperation between players. Secondly, our experiences with different cultures in Singapore often takes place in short bursts, most commonly during a performance or a workshop. Regular latihan allows a deeper, longer engagement with not just the final presenta- tion, but also the process of crafting it. And in the end, latihan is simply a great way for people to enjoy making beautiful music together – surely, there is always more space for that! Hopefully, as more people become exposed to gamelan through the increasing number of performances, workshops, and opportunities at schools, more will be encouraged to come to latihan, and unfold the music for themselves.
Xin Wei graduated from NUS in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in Literature. He began playing gamelan with the NUS Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble in 2007, and today assists Dr. Jan Mrazek of the NUS Department of South East Asian Studies in managing the ensemble.
- This was done under the auspices of Indonesia’s Darmasiswa scholarships, offered to non‐Indonesians interested in any aspect of Indonesian language and culture (check it out: http://darmasiswa.kemdikbud.go.id/darmasiswa/)