I'm enjoying the clips you posted, Loren. A few questions: Is this Balinese style? Why is are the musicians divided across the room?
Yes it is Baliese style. The musicians are divided to allow room for the dancers, music and dance are very much together and the dancers need to be close to communicate with the musicans.
I notice there are also women playing, in Gamelan are women traditionally allowed to play?
Well that is an interesting question and requires a complicated answer, but I will try to be short. In Bali the answer has mostly been no, but that is changing as more women have become interested in playing. Most people seem to think this has happened because of Western gamelan groups going to Bali and performing with mixed gender. When I first started going to Bali I never saw women involved in gamelan music expect as dancers. Then about ten years ago I started seeing all women groups at temple festivals playing older styles of temple music. I've heard now their are some mixed groups so its changing. In Java women have traditionally performed but usually as singers or on specific instruments. I think that is also changing and I have seen some all women groups but not as many as in Bali.
Is Javanese Gamelan strictly Muslim (would these kinds of dancers be allowed to perform, etc...) How did Gamelan adjust to Indonesia becoming Muslim, was there an attempt made to eradicate it? I am assuming it was just too ingrained in Indonesian life for that to ever happen.
Yes you are correct, gamelan predates Islam in Indonesia by several hundred years. As far as I know no one tried to eradicate it as part of some strict muslim code, instead what actually happened was gamelan music was used to bring people to Islam. The story I was told was a very large in size version of a gamelan called Sektan Gamelan
was made to be played inside the Mosque, people wanted to see the gamelan but where told they could only enter the Mosque if they were Muslim, so many people converted to Islam just to see the gamelan. That gamelan now plays outside the main Mosque for one week a year, I was fortunate enough to make some recordings of it back in 1994. I have some pictures of it on my website which you can see here:http://www.lorennerell.com/java.html
Do some Middle Eastern music forms or influences play a role in the Javanese Gamelan...
Not that I am aware of, the only exception might be the rebab (2 string fiddle) which came from the Middle East and is part of the gamelan.
for that matter, have any outside musics been influential on Gamelan in history, because Gamelan strikes me as a wholly insular and completely native type of music
Some people have spectulated on several outside influences, ranging from African drumming to Beethoven! But none have really been proven. Its hard to prove because their are very few written records and the few that do exist are mostly recent or hardly make reference to origins of gamelan. Probably the oldest records of music in Indonesia are carvings of musicians on the Bororbudur, the worlds largest Budda stupa which was built in the 9th century. Most of those instruments appear to be string/harp like with only a few percussion instruments appearing in the carvings.
there is just nothing out there that sounds like it at all...it is as if aliens came down to ancient Indonesia and left this music behind...
Yes this is generally true of most royal court music from Asia, and a great deal of gamelan music comes from that tradition. In fact most of the Central Java gamelan music you have been listening to is actually from the royal courts. Their are four royal courts in Central Java, after the Dutch took over the courts were not allowed to fight each other and were mostly disarmed. So, the theory goes they turned to the arts to conduct their battles, and the arts then took off and produced most of the classic central Java gamelan music and dance that we now know. This took place in the 14th/15th century.
As for other CDs of gamelan music. As Gordon mentioned the Nonsuch recordings are a good source. Their are three CDs of music from the four royal courts of Central Java (a fourth recording was made but never released). These were recording by my mentor Dr. Robert Brown, made mostly back in the 1960s/70s. Back in the 1990s King Records in Japan had a very interesting series of CDs which is worth looking for. JVC also released quite a few CDs of gamelan music back in the 1980s along with some videos.
I'll talk about Balinese gamelan in more detail at a later date.