Out of the Shadows
Bali’s ritual shadow play theater (wayang) is believed to date back as far as 890 BC, its mastery handed down orally from teacher to student over the centuries. Brita Heimarck, associate professor of music, is the first scholar of shadow play music—called gender wayang—to transcribe numerous full pieces from the renowned village of Sukawati to the page, adapting its haunting strains to Western musical notation.
Woven into the cultures of many countries, shadow play is an ancient form of storytelling in which narratives are acted out with intricately carved leather puppets against an illuminated background. A specially matched set of instruments, called gamelan gender wayang, is used to infuse the Balinese plays with drama, suspense, and pathos.
When Heimarck’s transcriptions are published by A-R Editions in the next year, it will be possible for musicians everywhere to explore gender wayang, a complex genre that survived undocumented for centuries and was confined to a relatively narrow geographical compass. “The music is learned by ear in the oral tradition,” says Heimarck, as she kneels on the floor of a College of Fine Arts practice room and coaxes a traditional tune from an ornate bronze metallophone with alternate sweeping, tapping, and scooping motions. As Heimarck works the mallets across the 10 keys, she explains that all gender wayang compositions have a basic melody—called the polos—and a counterpart known as sangsih. The polos and sangsih, she says, “fit together with great precision. If one note or rhythm is out of place, the interlocking won’t work.”
Gender wayang is, therefore, a kind of musical conversation. In Heimarck’s area of study, southern Bali, it consists of four metallophones arranged in pairs—two lower and larger gender, and two smaller gender that sound an octave higher. Each pair of instruments consists of one that is slightly lower in pitch (known, somewhat counterintuitively, as the female instrument), and one instrument pitched slightly higher that is considered to be the male. The sounds of the two combine to form an ombak, or wave.
Why go to the trouble to transcribe such an arcane form?
According to Heimarck, the Balinese themselves don’t need the written notation. There, music is transferred from master to student in lessons centered on painstaking repetition—note by note, phrase by phrase, until the student absorbs the composition as a whole.
Transcription, however, “provides a record of the music, and it ensures that the formidable contributions of its teachers won’t be forgotten,” says Heimarck. “It also makes the music available for anyone else to play it, study it, and analyze it.” The process of transcribing oral traditions is time-consuming, but allows musicians from around the world to learn and adapt the scores.
Heimarck decided to use Western musical notation, although gender wayang music has no chromatics, for reasons of practicality. In past transcription projects, Heimarck has calculated the precise pitches of her instruments according to the cents system, where each pitch is divided into 100 cents. For this publication, however, an attempt to reflect the music’s original, precise pitches, she says, would prove “too esoteric. It wouldn’t be used. People wouldn’t take the time.”
President of the Northeast Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Heimarck is also a performer who studied gender wayang at the STSI Indonesian College of the Arts from 1985 to 1988, initially on a Fulbright Award. There she met her longtime mentor, Bapak I Wayan Loceng, who died in 2006. Heimarck’s transcriptions are in part a tribute to Loceng.
Recently, she has helped to cultivate an appreciation of gender wayang among audiences in the United States, by performing at percussion and world music concerts. Last January, she played with puppeteer Maria Bodmann—forming the first all-female wayang troupe—at Springstep in Medford, Massachusetts. For this event, Heimarck joined Erin McCoy in the premiere of Amrita: Gender Wayang Ensemble of Boston.
Heimarck’s work to translate the Balinese shadow play tradition for a Western audience goes well beyond the documentation of gender wayang. “The field of ethnomusicology encompasses music, culture, and cultural context,” says Heimarck. “Providing just musical notes would be, I feel, misleading. The music provides an important window into a given culture that can be profoundly meaningful.”