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Extreme Heterophony: A Study in Javanese Gamelan for one or more pianists
by John Pitts
Published 2021
137 pages, paperback
Self published

John Pitts is a British composer, pianist and author from Bristol, England and has recently published this book. Gamelan is the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali, and the term heterophony refers to the simultaneous performance of two or more versions of the same melody. Gamelan expands on this concept and is often performed with 20 or more singers and instrumentalists, simultaneously performing their own versions while piecing together a layered tapestry of harmonies and rhythms. The book is intended for pianists, and aims to show pianists how to perform gamelan on one or more pianos. The main body of the book is divided into three parts. Part 1 describes gamelan and explains some of the key concepts and terminology. Part 2 describes the traditional instruments used for performing gamelan and how they are used. Part 3 uses the gamelan composition Ketawang Puspawarna as a model for demonstrating ideas and processes for converting un-notated Karawitan-style gamelan into usable scores for one or more pianists.

Ketawang Puspawarna was composed in 1809 by Prince Mangkunegara IV of Surakarta in Central Java, Indonesia, with a nine-verse poem and vocal melody sung by a male chorus. The song’s basic melody is called the balungan, or “skeleton melody”, from which all of the other melodies are derived. Ketawang Puspawarna can have as many as 12 layers, with each layer performing its own melody loosely based on the balungan with improvisations added. Each layer may be simple or complex, and may be played on gongs, chimes, bells, metallophones, rattles, zither, xylophone, flute, bowed instruments, drums or sung. Gamelan melodies are based on either a 5-note scale (slendro) or 7-note scale (pelog). Ketawang Puspawarna uses the 5-note scale slendro, labeled in the book as 12356, and roughly equivalent to the notes, C, D E, G and A. The precise tuning of the scales is unique to each ensemble and its instrumental make-up. The concept of rhythm in gamelan is also different. Generally, a small group of drums and gongs keep time by marking a 4-beat cycle and a 16-beat cycle. In place of the ensemble aiming to begin on the first beat, the goal of each layer is to anticipate and end on the all-important beat 4. John has provided eleven different scores for the piano corresponding to layers that would be performed by other instruments during a gamelan performance, with very detailed notes about derived melodies and rhythms. A backing track for the piano music in the book is provided here.

Bruce McCollum

An intriguing look into gamelan music concepts and possibilities.


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