Suppanggah Rahayu and Garasi Seni Benawa’s Cokekan: Javanese Chamber Music

Cokekan is a collection of traditional central Javanese works designated in this recording as “chamber music.” The selections make use of the traditional gamelan in either slendro (seven-tone) or pelog (five-tone) tuning, and range from works usually performed to open a shadow-puppet performance to components of Javanese dance-dramas.

Krawitan” takes its name from the term for the traditional music of central Java and uses a solo vocal line with the gamelan. It is usually performed at the beginning of a shadow-puppet performance. I found it quite pleasing, almost a pastorale in effect: the image is of open, sunlit spaces, serene and, in a way, timeless. (I’m also happy to report that my ear seems finally to have accustomed itself to Javanese singing, which has been a kind of sketchy area for me in the past.) The “wandering” quality of Javanese composition, which is nonlinear, comes through strongly on this one.

The title of “Subasiti” is the name of a queen from the Majapahit dynasty (fourteenth century). This is a work that comes out of the Surakarta court tradition, and is rather more stately in feeling than the previous selection. There’s a more mellow flow to it, as well: one gets a distinct image of pillared halls open to the night, a certain mystery in the air. There’s a series of short vocal solos toward the end that, even to these Western ears, generated a great deal of dramatic tension.

Jineman” takes its title from the orchestra that is used, a small gamelan ensemble. It’s a genre that dates back to the thirteenth century, and is used as a transitional work in a concert setting, bridging the more serious krawitan that might be played to open the evening and the lighter pieces that follow. This is another work that displays an adept use of pauses and solo passages to build dramatic impact.

The final selection, “Sekardgadhung,” really is a pastorale: the theme is life in a farming village, and the texts contain dialogues between a man looking after his horse and a woman who has lost her children’s clothes doing laundry in the river. The ensemble is reinforced by a chorus. “Lebdasari” (a song about rice) and “Bronta Mentul” (a song about food) round out this performance. The feeling certainly is rural, even without understanding the texts and their everyday concerns. The music is serene, with a real sense of the timeless rhythms of the countryside.

This is an enjoyable collection, and presents a variety of works somewhat outside the court traditions of central Java. It was created by Garasi Seni Benawa (the “Benawi Arts Garage”), an informal forum for artists and aspiring artists from all branches of the performing arts. It’s worth noting that in spite of the length of the pieces — about ten to almost twenty-five minutes — one isn’t really aware of the passage of time while listening. That says something, I think.

(Felmay, 2008)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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