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Among the many subtleties that can be found within gamelan music, I have always been struck by the exquisite rhythmic dichotomy between the main body of instruments and the upper layering of solo vocalist, flute and rebab fiddle – the one measured in a regular metre while the other soar above, with the apparent weightlessness of birds in flight. Generally these 'refined soloists' must judge their tempi carefully to arrive at the frequent cadence points at the same time as the larger group of instruments which carries the main melody. But in the palaran style it is the vocal soloist who sets the pace – and gong set up a steady, uninterrupted pulsation, their movement from one pitch to another is controlled by the whimsy of the singer.
The poetic forms of Javanese music, of which these are twelve basic types, each has a cluster of emotional associations, much like the Indian raga, or Arabic makam. Melodically these forms are capable of infinite variation; even the distinction between the basic pelog and slendro modes can be blurred with the use of expressive 'bending' (miring) of pitches. The poetry itself is often formalistic, rich with allusion and metaphor, and therefore resistant to lucid translation. The texts chosen here are drawn from tradition, and juxtapose images of love and pity with those of forcefulness and aggression. I am grateful to Budi for his guidance in the selection of the texts and to Yono for their translation.
– Jack Body
Commissioned by the Atlas Ensemble, Amsterdam