The suling is an end-blown edge aerophone of the Javanese people of Indonesia. It is the only aerophone found in the Javanese gamelan (see Gamelan besi), but is also played solo throughout Java for personal entertainment. In the tourism marketplace, it has become an inexpensive and easily portable icon of Javanese culture that tourists can buy from vendors. The surfaces of such suling are oftentimes decorated with burned-on geometric designs to enhance their appearance.
A cylindrical bamboo endblown flute with a cylindrical bore, open at the bottom and closed at the top (blowing end) by a natural node (ros). The preferred type of thin-walled bamboo for this instrument is called pring wuluh (Kunst). A narrow and shallow notch is chiseled out of the ros and into the adjacent wall of the tube; the end of this notch is squared off and sharpened to create the edge (irung-irungan) against which the player's airstream is directed. A narrow bamboo ring (suh) is fastened around the ros in such a manner as to create a duct with the aforementioned notch; this duct ensures that the airstream will be directed against the irung-irungan to produce a sound (see detail image, which shows the ros-end of the instrument with the suh removed). This distinctive ring-and-notch duct design is why instrument classifiers refer to the suling as a ‘ring flute.’ Four equidistantly spaced fingerholes (1.9 inches between their centers) are drilled into the lower half of the side of the tube opposite that of the irung-irungan; suling do not have a thumbhole.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The suling player covers and uncovers this flute's four fingerholes with the fingertips of the second and fourth fingers of both hands, leaving the middle fingers and, on the opposite side, the thumbs to steady the instrument. This four-hole suling produces the Javanese sléndro scale over a range of nearly three octaves. Two other suling variants are used for the pélog scale: a five-hole suling (second gallery image) and a six-hole one (third gallery image; see Gamelan Besi (Iron) from Central Java for tuning and register information for the four- and five-hole suling in the Grinnell gamelan; see Pickvance p. 199 for a fingering chart for all three variants of this instrument). Only in the softer (lirehan) style of gamelan performance can the suling’s rounded, melancholy tone be heard, but in these pieces it plays a complex part, rich with ornamentation and melodic deviation. The performer produces florid, rhythmically free melodic patterns (cengkok) that lead up to important pitches (seleh) in the skeletal melody (balungan) of a piece (gendhing). The ornamental subtlety of the melodic lines created by musicians is produced through the coordination of breadth control (necessary not only for the selection of harmonic partials but also for volume fluctuations and pitch-bending inflections) and supple finger work resulting in grace notes, trills, bends, and other inflections.
The relatively wide distribution of ring flutes throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines suggests that this instrument concept has been around for a long time--just how long is not possible to determine. Given its simplicity of construction, the ready availability of material, and ease of sound production, we can speculate that the suling is more likely to have started out as an instrument of the villager that was subsequently integrated into gamelan performance rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, this conjecture cannot be proven due to a paucity of dependable documentation.
Kartomi, Margaret. 1984. “Suling,” NGDMI v.3: 473-474.
Kunst, Jaap.1973. Music in Java. 3rd ed. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Pickvance, Richard. 2005. A Gamelan Manual. London: Jaman Mas Books.