Identity and Genre in Gamelan Gong Kebyar: An Analytical Study of Gabor

Author: Roeder, John and Tenzer, Michael
Publication details: Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring 2012), pp. 78-122


Gabor is a piece for Balinese gamelan gong kebyar that deploys concurrent textural layers moving at different speeds, organized around a slow melody measured by recurring patterns of gong strokes. The melody, drumming, gong patterns, layer figuration, and tempo vary throughout the work, creating not only sectional articulations but also moments that Balinese find deeply expressive. Specialized ethnomusicological studies that analyze music such as this aim to link emic perception and terminology to those of outsiders. But by prioritizing the views of “others,” such analysis rarely achieves the depth and particularity toward which theorists strive in their unselfconscious, value-invested approaches to individual Western works.

This essay is a collaboration between an ethnomusicologist and a music theorist in search of ways to achieve richer analyses of non-Western music. We first address methodological issues that pertain to Gabor: what its essential features are, how they can be appropriately represented, and what theories those representations entail. The ontology of a Balinese “composition” is negotiable at multiple levels that bear crucially on what insider and outsider analyses deem structurally essential. We begin our study by comparing insider and outsider transcriptions, candidly assessing the possibilities and paradoxes they present. We then apply cross-cultural listening strategies, involving basic perceptions of tempo, interval repetition, and pitch focus, correlating our findings with insider perspectives. By integrating these and other analytical observations, we obtain a specific and broadly accessible appreciation of Gabor and of the possibilities of its kebyar style.