A (Javanese) gamelan rehearsal this afternoon, the first after a break of several months, with a group of Indonesian nurses and orderlies with whom I've now played for more than twenty years here in Frankfurt. Today, I played bonang panerus, the higher pitched of a pair of double-rowed small kettle gongs. I like playing bonang panerus because I can play repertoire that is unfamiliar (or forgotten) without notation, just by following the audible cues of other instruments, mainly the larger and lower bonang barung, with which part my instrument interlocks, and also because panerus plays continuously in the loud repertoire, among the instruments with the busiest or — more precisely — most dense, parts. One of the characteristic textures of the bonang is imbal, with the two bonang playing a repeated pattern, usually a scalar melody of four tones within the individual piece's pathet (a tonality within the pentatonic pelog or slendro tone system*), the tones distributed between the two instruments in alternation. Bonang barung plays in an even subdivision of the beat, coinciding with the tones of the trunk melody while bonang panerus plays the off beats in the pattern. BARUNG - panerus - Barung - panerus - BARUNG etc.. When I first started gamelan (in '79), playing continuously on the off beat was tricky for me; at first, I counted the combined pattern continuously in my head (one-Two-three-FOUR) , then later thought of my individual rhythm as out-of-phase by a quarter of the main pulse (something like a sixteenth rest followed by continuous eighths), but soon, after becoming more familiar with the sound of imbal and getting the mechanics of the mallet technique under control, I stopped intellectualizing it and it seemed to have internalized itself. I wouldn't call my internalization anything like having "a feel" for it, because I was in a particular musical zone in which thinking or feeling about my own individual actions was completely beside the point, and the better, the more accurate and sensitive to the entire ensemble I became, the less I thought or felt about my individual part and the more I was able to listen to the other parts in the ensemble. If you've ever heard a good gamelan group play live, you may have noticed a certain serene and distant look among the more accomplished musicians. That could well be a sign that they have reached that zone where mastery is no longer about technique but rather means being able to hear more.
* My description here is both idiosyncratic and skipping a lot of detail (most writers translate pathet as mode, but I've come to understand them more in terms of distinct — in terms of both interval profile and treatment — keys or tonalities within unequally-spaced tuning systems) , but I'd like to leave one observation with you: with the cascading interlocking patterns of imbal, occasionally cadenced with more florid melodic patterns, the bonang (or other instruments playing their own versions of imbal) are able to use four tones of a pentatonic scale to give a background harmonic color to a stretch or passage of music, against which the core melody of the piece is given depth, and is consonated or dissonated. The contrapuntal and harmonic resources of a pentatonic system are, logically, rather less than those of a seven- or more-toned system, but a technique like imbal shows that these resources are far from negligible musicially; even more than the bonang, the virtuoso, two-mallet technique of the gender barung, a keyed and resonated metallophone, shows the largest vocabulary of polyphonic techniques within the gamelan.