This is the second in a series of articles exploring the various instruments of the Javanese gamelan.
The peking is one instrument in a family group called balungan instruments. In the Javanese gamelan ensemble, these instruments all utilize similar performance techniques and play the balungan, or melodic line, in unison or with slight embellishments. Within this larger balungan family, there is a sub-group of instruments: the saron family. These three instruments—the peking, the saron, and the demung—together cover a range of three octaves, from high to low. The peking, also referred to as the saron panerus, covers the highest range in this family. The saron represents the middle of the range, and the demung renders the lowest part of the range. The latter is also referred to as saron barung.
Like the other instruments in this family, the peking is a struck metallophone made from bronze keys suspended over a hollow, ornately decorated wooden box, which serves both to support the keys and as a resonator. A peking has 7 keys in both the sléndro (5 note scale, with an additional note above and below the octave) and pélog (7 note scale) tunings. A small ensemble might only have two peking, one in each scale, and likewise two saron and two demung, one in each scale, whereas a larger ensemble might have as many as eight peking, four in each scale.
Peking are struck with a small mallet made of water buffalo horn, which produces a loud and bright sound. This, along with their high pitch, allows their sound to rise above that of the other instruments in the ensemble to be heard clearly by the other players and the audience. However, when required, peking are also capable of producing tones with a soft and dynamic sensibility. The bronze keys resonate freely and have a long decay. Because of this, when the mallet strikes one key, the player’s other hand grasps the key previously struck so it doesn’t continue to sound. This allows notes to sustain freely for a short time until the following note is played. A similar “damping” technique is used with other members of this family of instruments.
The peking players are seated near the ensemble’s director, who signals tempo changes and gives other cues to the musicians via the kendang (drum). Because they can thus see and hear the drummer’s signals more readily, and also because the sound of the peking can be heard clearly by the other players, the peking players have a special role: to reinforce the signals from the drummer, serving as a bridge between the drummer and the rest of the saron and other balungan instruments.