FWF - Virtual Gamelan Graz: Disclosing Implicit Musical Knowledge (Gerd Grupe)

The project aimed at investigating ways of unveiling tacit knowledge on musical concepts and current performance practice of classical Central Javanese gamelan music (karawitan) with the help of computer-assisted listening experiments. The two main areas to be studied were first, the way in which a given composition is actually transformed into a live performance (garap); second, the evaluation of the specific tuning of individual gamelan sets (embat). In the course of the project an attempt was made to program dedicated software that would emulate both an ensemble of gamelan musicians as well as the sound of various fixed-pitch gamelan instruments and drums.

In spite of some progress towards implementing musical rules and performance principles of karawitan as well as facilitating the control of sound and tuning of virtual gamelan instruments, it turned out that within the project’s time frame an operational, autonomous software implementation could not be achieved. Therefore, as far as musical rules are concerned efforts were focused on preparing computer-generated audio examples which manually incorporated existing explicit knowledge so that an evaluation by Javanese experts would reveal shortcomings due to tacit assumptions disregarded in our virtual renditions. Concerning embat published measurements of 12 traditional (6 sléndro and 6 pélog) and two American gamelans (just intonation) were chosen as well as two experimental ones (equidistant) resulting in some 1360 digital samples of sound generators which had to be calculated and manually retuned.Audio examples of 18 traditional compositions taken from both tuning systems (laras sléndro and pélog) and their respective modes (pathet) were presented to three renowned senior musicians who are also instructors at the Academy of Arts (ISI) in Surakarta, Bp. Suraji, Bp. Suyoto, and Bp. Prasadiyanto. Their comments on both aspects, i.e., the rendition of the pieces and the sound of the various virtual gamelans with respect to their tuning, were highly instructive. By adopting an analysis-by-synthesis approach which incorporated only explicit and mainly generic principles of performance practice while largely omitting tacit assumptions or specific knowledge pertaining to individual pieces, it could be demonstrated that accomplished karawitan musicians have a more holistic view of this art so that “correct” notes are equally important as – or sometimes even less so than – other factors such as idiomatically adequate timing, phrasing, embellishments, articulation, and dynamics as well as contextual considerations.

While most of these insights might not be surprising to gamelan experts they nevertheless underscore the necessity to approach the endeavor of letting a computer emulate a karawitan performance in a much broader way than merely refining “structural” paradigms on the level of a musical grammar. Regarding the assessment of various tunings listening to different ones in direct comparison proved to be conducive to an in-depth verbal discourse on matters which might otherwise remain rather vague or abstract.The shortcomings in the domain of music computing notwithstanding, the project has successfully demonstrated that listening experiments with local experts in which musical parameters such as melodic gestures, timing, tuning, etc. can be controlled individually can be a useful tool in investigating musical concepts and particularly in disclosing how actual performance practices are shaped by – usually implicit – norms.

Main collaborators

ISI Surakarta, Java
Bp. Suraji: senior musician, lecturer at ISI
Bp. Suyoto: senior musician, lecturer at ISI
Bp. Prasadiyanto: senior musician, lecturer at ISI

Southbank Centre London
Sophie Ransby, PhD: gamelan advisor, logistics
John Pawson, MA: gamelan advisor, translations
Jonathan Roberts, MA: gamelan advisor, transcriptions, translations
Charles Matthews, PhD: interactive gamelan software

University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz
Babak Nikzat, PhD: recordings, video editing, computer-based analysis

University of the Arts, Berlin
Dominik Hildebrand Marques Lopes, MA: SuperCollider programming

Special thanks to the members of the Southbank Gamelan Players who performed for us.