Beyond Repair: Suling

Suling sléndro

About the instrument

The suling is an end-blown flute from Indonesia, made from bamboo. Like the other instruments in the Javanese gamelan, sulings are tuned to one of two scales, sléndro or pélog. The sléndro suling is slightly shorter (20 inches long) and has four finger holes, while the pélog is longer (22 inches) and has five holes. Both sulings on display are missing a ring that would fit around the circumference of the bamboo at the very top, near the airway: this piece creates an opening that allows air to pass over a notch and into the instrument, creating a sound. Both sulings on display are from Wesleyan’s gamelan. Within the ensemble, the suling’s musical role is largely ornamental. Suling melodies are typically played at the end of melodic phrases, and their high pitch and free rhythm helps their sound carry above the rhythmic percussion. 

Becoming broken: how and why?

The suling pélog is cracked near the airway.

Like the animal skin on the janggo, the suling’s bamboo is sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. The hot, dry climate due to the indoor heating dries out the bamboo, and the effects of this can be seen on both sulings. The pélog suling is cracked near the airway at the very top of the instrument. The instrument is unplayable because the crack disrupts the steady airstream that would flow through the bamboo tube. The sléndro suling has also cracked in multiple places along the body of the instrument and has been bound at intervals and wrapped in plastic tape. Professor Sumarsam, director of Wesleyan’s gamelan, explains that this was an attempt by students to fix the instrument. While perhaps sufficient as a temporary fix, this was not effective long-term, and the instrument has not been played in the ensemble for some time.

A close-up of the tape repair for the suling sléndro.

Professor Sumarsam recalls other instances of instruments cracking over the years of teaching gamelan at Wesleyan: “Originally, the resonators of a few instruments of Weslelan gamelan (a set of gender and slenthem) were bamboo. As soon as we noticed many resonators were cracking, our students launched a project to make metal resonators for replacement.” Most if not all of the resonators in the gamelan have now been replaced with metal and are much better suited to the dry climate of the World Music Hall.

A Wesleyan gamelan concert, fall 2020.

Repair or retire?

Bamboo is relatively inexpensive and the instruments themselves are easy to make. During his semester as temporary director of the gamelan, Professor Al Suwardi made several sulings for the ensemble. Today in the World Music Hall, a large box filled with sulings can attest to the number of instruments that have been made and played over the years. Many are still in working condition, but some may have a better tone than others and are used more frequently. The less desirable instruments occupy a sort of limbo, not fully rejected but not in use for performance, either. A fully broken, non-functional suling is typically thrown away: the fragility of the bamboo makes repairs difficult, and any leak in the airflow will stop the suling from sounding. However, some of the sulings in the gamelan are made from PVC pipes, which are more resistant to the fluctuating humidity and harsh dryness that plagues many of the instruments on campus.

-Devanney Haruta, MA candidate in Ethnomusicology

Interview: Professor Sumarsam


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