(2) Gong chime orchestra
ASEAN-Korea Centre Reporter, Sanghun Lee
Last time, we had a taste of the various styles in the music of Southeast Asia. In this article, we will get to know about one important style that is prevalent in the region throughout. What grabbed the minds of the southeastern people were gongs.
The gong is an original Southeast Asian instrument that looks like a flat metal bowl. It is often suspended perpendicularly and hit with a stick that is covered with some soft material at one end. Gongs are mainly made from bronze or brass, and have an antique rusty-gold color. They usually emit low-tone notes that sound like “gong”, although some gongs, called tam-tams, make crashing symbals-like sounds (hence the name).
It is unclear where the first gongs were actually used, but Southeast Asia is credited for making a set of diverse gongs of different notes (called gong chime) and using the set in orchestraic music. This gong chime usually comprise of high-pitched bossed pot gongs that have a protruding boss in their center. The set, or array of gongs, is played by one to four musicians, each hitting the metal boss with two padded sticks.
Gong chimes are the most important instruments in many of the “gong chime orchestra” music, such as the Indonesian gamelan, the Philippine kulintang, and the Thai pi phat. Here, we will introduce these three most prominent styles of gong chime music.
Gamelan is a popular form of music in Indonesia, typically from the islands of Bali and Java. Gamelan existed before the Hindu-Buddhist culture that bloomed in Indonesia. Although many features of the culture of Indonesia seem to be influenced heavily by India, gamelan music is little influenced by Indian music and shows the spirit of native Indonesian culture.
It is suggested that the earliest image of the gamelan is on the 8th century Borobudur temple in Java. Gamelan ensembles were once performed in the palaces of Java, but today gamelan is enjoyed by many people throughout Indonesia. Gamelan music also influenced Western music, enthralling several great composers like Claude Debussy. Its beauty is still appreciated around the globe.
(A Balinese gamelan performance. Note the variety of gongs and gong chimes.
Looks like the entire museum of gongs!)
(A Balinese legong dance performance. Note the distinct gong sound.)
(A Javanese gamelan performance. Compare it with the Balinese gamelan.)
Kulintang is played in Southern Philippines, Eastern Indonesia, Eastern Malaysia, Brunei, and Timor. It is often considered the most developed form of gong chime music, having influenced by the music of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianty. Kulintang is based on the pentatonic scale, which divides one octave into five notes. Unlike gamelan music, the framework of kulintang is much more lenient, hence allowing improvisations. In improvising, the player of the gong chime acts as the composer and the conductor of the entire orchestra.
Kulintang is a waning tradition, extinct in many regions during the European colonization of Indochina. However, some players survived the hard times to revive the music. The future of kulintang is bright, as more and more people are taking up the challenge of learning the beautiful music.
(A kulintang binalig performance. We can see how solo players play the gong chime.)
(A kulintang Tidtu performance.
Tidtu is considered one of the oldes piecest pieces, played after binalig and sinulog.)
(3) Pi phat
The piphat music features many wind and percussion instruments in addition to gong chimes. The music is considered most sacred of the high-class compositions of Thailand, and it is also used to accompany traditional Thai dance and the famous shadow puppet theater.
Piphat has a set number of instrument arrangements. The smallest ensemble is called piphat khrueang ha, which has six instruments, and the largest piphat khrueang yai, which comprises ten instruments.
Piphat is often cited as Thai’s unique music, but similar music is also played in other regions like Cambodia. As the music embroiders the romance of masked dances and the humor of puppet theaters, it seems that more and more people throughout the world will come to enjoy piphat.
(A typical piphat ensemble near a temple. The circular set is the gong chime.
Note the fast tempo.)
(Note the various gong chimes and other percussion instruments.
Also note the monophonic music.)
The beauty of gong chime music is enthralling. Some Western composers, captured by the riveting sound, used gongs in their music from the early 19th century. Renowned composers like Rossini, Bellini, Wagner, and Shostakovich all used gongs to accompany their music. Gongs did not get such a deep attention in East Asia, but similar instruments like the bianzhong (a bell chime), was used in various music and rituals. The gong chime orchestra is truly the treasure of Southeast Asia.
(In this performance of the traditional Confucian ritual of Korea,
the bianzhong, or the bell chime, can be seen at the back.)
In the next article, we will see many faces of Vietnamese music.
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