Abstract: Logic and paradox in the musics of southeast Asia, with reference
to the Thai pi-phat and Javanese gamelan
Bussakorn Sumrongthong and Neil Sorrell

This article explores shared concepts in these two percussion ensembles. Apart from the morphology of the instruments themselves, the two cultures have parallel concepts and terminology. In both, the processes of improvisation and elaboration on a basic melody turn out to be governed by another melody which is not actually performed. Thus, the thaang khong wong yai of the pi-phat ensemble and the balungan of the gamelan, often regarded as the basic melodies, are in fact abstractions of the melody. The balungan is a skeletal outline of the ‘true' lagu, but played within the range of one octave on the saron group of instruments, and the thaang khong wong yai literally means the ‘way of playing' (on the
Thai gong circle) the
neua phleeng (basic melody). The neua phleeng is comparable to the Javanese lagu in that it is conceived as the real melody governing the instruments of the ensemble, yet none plays it exactly. The sarons and khong wong yai are merely the instruments which come closest to this melody which is not performed but ‘heard' internally, so Thai and Javanese percussion ensembles share this intriguing and beautiful paradox. One distinction, however, must be made concerning the main bowed instruments of Javanese and Thai music. Many would argue that the rebab and closely allied part for female singer in the gamelan are closer to the lagu than are the sarons, whereas in the Thai ensemble the neua phleeng is not considered to have any vocal origin. The Javanese rebab and the Thai saw sam sai and saw duang have dissimilar functions. The Thai instruments are not part of the pi-phat ensemble. In the mahori ensemble the saw sam sai is important as an accompaniment to the vocal part and the saw duang is the leader of the ensemble. Neither instrument, however, plays the melody closest to the neua phleeng, which remains the function of the khong wong yai.

In both traditions the art of playing individual instruments is broadly the art of realizing the basic melody in terms of the instrument's idiomatic patterns. How this is done varies greatly from one tradition to the other, and within each ensemble. Theoretical constraints must also be considered. In both traditions rules must be observed of which the purpose is to create structures which are shaped and balanced in ways not only conveying aesthetic appeal but also suggesting more universal ideas about melodic organization and logic. Thai musicians tend to talk about what they do in terms of improvisation (
kaan phrae tamnong, literally ‘changing the melody'). A similar process may be observed in Javanese music, even if the notion of improvisation is not as prevalent. There the comparable term is garapan (literally ‘working on'). After reviewing other similarities between Thai and Javanese music, the paper will give examples of how kaan phrae tamnong and garapan work in specific pieces.