This interview with Gamelan Madu Sari composers was conducted by email during May 2010.
Tony Reif: What initially attracted you to gamelan in general, and Javanese gamelan, in particular? And at what stage in your studies or career as a musician did composing for gamelan become a serious interest?
Kenneth Newby: I was initially not attracted to gamelan music. I had heard a recording of Balinese Semar Pegulingan and thought it all sounded the same. This was due to a misunderstanding of the way the music is constructed, with the characteristic melody of each piece being carried by the lower pitched and slower moving layers of the orchestra. I was listening to the high pitched and faster parts and misconstrued the elaborating parts as the core of the piece – hence my confusion. I got a second chance when I heard a recorded performance of Javanese music by the court gamelan of the Paku Alaman in Yogyakarta under the direction of the person who was later to become our group’s first teacher of karawitan, Bapak Cokro. The ethereal quality of that music captured my musical ear immediately and made me want to find out more about the people and place that would grow such a music. I traveled to Indonesia in 1984 and found a rich and generous culture of performing arts which I subsequently engaged in as a student for several more years of study there. I found my way into the Balinese way of making music through the music for the wayang kulit (shadow play), which corrected my initial inverted perception of the way the music is heard. I almost immediately began playing with my nascent understanding of the structures and methods of gamelan music in the form of compositional studies. The way the music was put together, its formal structures, timbres, scales and tuning system as well as its deep integration in the daily life of its community all attracted me as alternatives to the role that music takes in the culture I grew up in.
Michael O’Neill: I heard gamelan, Balinese gamelan, for the first time in a class of composer Gilles Tremblay in Montreal. I found it interesting but was just as impressed with Tremblay’s obvious enthusiasm. But it was the 3-hour performance of Balinese wayang tantri, by I Wayan Wija and his troupe, at the Asia Pacific Festival in Vancouver in 1985 that had a life-changing effect on me. I remember the tones and the scale striking me as being significantly different from anything that I’d ever heard. It was also the way the music was integrated with the flickering shadows of the puppets, the sound of the language, the story (or what I could grasp of it), etc., that added to the overall effect. And it was a few years later that I saw a Javanese shadow play and, sitting very close to the gamelan, was again thrilled at the full and solid sound of the gamelan. In both cases, it was hearing gamelan live and at close range that was most memorable.
It was Gamelan Madu Sari’s first Spring Sonoral concert in 1995, organized by Mark Parlett I think, that inspired some of us to write new pieces. I’d say it was a breakthrough. Few of us had really done much composing for gamelan until then (although Kenneth Newby, Matt Rogalsky and dancer Lorraine Thomson had created a full-length collaborative multimedia piece in 1991, A Sound is Heard in the World). I was impressed…
Mark Parlett: My initial attraction to the music of Indonesia came out of my own rather voracious appetite and interest in the traditional musics of the world, starting in the late 1970s. Through a lot of listening to obscure recordings from labels such as Smithsonian, Unesco, Nonesuch etc. I first latched on to the famous Nonesuch recordings of Javanese court gamelan from the Yogyakarta palace, as well as the Golden Rain recording of Balinese gamelan, and was rather entranced by the sonorous landscapes and rhythmic complexity of these rich classical traditions.
Throughout the mid-80s, as a practicing musician in an experimental electroacoustic world music ensemble, it seemed to me that the musical atmosphere was ripe for the seeds of meaningful cross-fertilizations of music making. I began to become aware of the rather large underground interest in the growing worldwide gamelan scene, and it was a specific event, the World Expo held in Vancouver in 1986, where I became more than just intrigued by this music. I was a musician/dancer in residence with Vancouver Moving Theatre for 6 months during Expo, and we performed our own original mythic street theatre which was rooted in musical and archetypal languages from many different cultural traditions. From the first day of the fair our troupe began to develop relationships with the musicians and dancers from the Indonesian pavilion. After our shows I would drop by daily at the back entrance of the pavilion to witness the music and dance first-hand, and I marveled at the unity and sophistication of music and gesture.
Following the fair, after developing some close relationships with some of the artists from Indonesia and with the addresses of teachers, I planned an extended visit to begin initial studies in Balinese drum and dance. During that same period there was a huge explosion of creativity in the gamelan worlds of Java and Bali. Many composers were exploring all sorts of innovative compositional practices, and the results were expanding the boundaries of the music. Contemporary gamelan music, from that period to today, is what has continued to interest me the most. Most of the new generation of Indonesian gamelan artists know that these orchestras are now owned worldwide and that the music being made from their limitless potential has enchanted many composers’ ears. I’m one of them, and have been composing for Javanese gamelan for almost 20 years now.
Ben Rogalsky: I was introduced to gamelan as a teenager. My oldest brother Matt was one of the earliest members of Gamelan Madu Sari, and I saw quite a few of his gamelan-related projects. Around the same time I spent a summer traveling in Southeast Asia and was fortunate to catch performances in Bali and Java. So by the time I finished high school I had some sense of gamelan music, a great curiosity about it, and a strong attraction to its unique soundworld. Gamelan was one of the reasons I was drawn to Simon Fraser University as an undergrad – and by the end of my first year I’d dived into studying it, joined Gamelan Madu Sari and had some of my first professional performing experiences. I was hooked.
Andrew Czink: Being an insatiably curious music student back in the mid-80s had me constantly looking for fresh musical experiences. As recordings and performances of music outside the western tradition became more prevalent I too immersed myself in the musics of as many cultures as I could ‘get my ears on’ as it were. One of the most compelling was that of gamelan, especially from Java and Bali. The tone of the Javanese instruments was particularly seductive for me. As I read and studied and talked with people about this music my understanding deepened and influenced my musical production in timbral, rhythmic, gestural and structural ways.
I didn’t get directly involved in gamelan until 2005 when I joined Gamelan Madu Sari after beginning studies with Sutrisno Hartana at SFU. Performing the music, both traditional and contemporary, brought a completely new perspective to how I heard and understood gamelan music, and how it may be a vehicle for my own compositional thought. At that point it was inevitable that I would compose for the group.
Sutrisno Hartana: My early experience in learning and associating with Javanese traditional arts including gamelan reflects a traditional cultural process. When I was small I would sneak out and watch the shadow play way past my bedtime, until my parents would yell at me that I would be asleep at school the next day if I did not come home (usually at the wayang performance I was transfixed, and stayed too late – even until I started to nod off I could not get enough).
I began to develop as a singer of the Javanese poetry known as tembang, and eventually, in later years, I went on to win two singing competitions in Yogyakarta province, one sponsored by the Yogyakarta palace and the other by the Paku Alaman palace. Since that time I’ve decided to live a life close to the land and very close to wayang and the Javanese performing arts, including dance and gamelan. I survived doing what I could while developing my talents as a musician, dancer, and puppeteer, and from those experiences I developed my own unique perspective on the human condition. I am lucky for having so many good opportunities to be involved in the cross-fertilization of the arts with many artists in different fields, creating contemporary arts alongside the traditional practices of dance, gamelan, and wayang.
TR: Who, in particular, were important influences for your development as a musician, dancer etc.?
SH: While I was studying at the Indonesian [high] School of the Performing Arts (SMKI) in Yogyakarta, and the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI) there, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in Traditional Javanese Performing Arts, I also performed and trained both inside and outside of formal school with some of Java`s most famous artists – most notably Pak Cokro, also known as KPH Notoprojo (passed away in 2007), a teacher, composer, and leader of gamelan groups both at the Paku Alaman Palace and Yogyakarta Radio (RRI) who taught at CalArts in Valencia for more than 15 years; Pak Suhardi, also known as Mas Panewu Wignyo Bremoro (passed away 2000), a most respected gamelan musician in Yogyakarta who was also leader of the Yogyakarta Radio (RRI) gamelan; Pak Mloyo Widodo and Pak Turahjo (both were well known as great gamelan teachers in Surakarta); and Pak Djoko Walujo, one of the directors of gamelan at ISI Yogyakarta and currently teaching Javanese gamelan at CalArts. In addition, from 1986 to 1994 I also danced, composed music for dance, and played music at Pusat Latihan Tari, a dance school under the direction of the late Pak Bagong Kussudiardja (died in 2004), the foremost exponent of the dance and theatre form called sendratari (Javanese dance drama). I was also trained at Siswa Among Beksa Ngayogyakarta (student dance foundation in Yogyakarta). I continued to perform with many groups and toured internationally through Asia, Europe and North America, both playing and creating new works for gamelan and dance.
In March 2004 I received the great honour of being recognized as an official court musician at the royal palace of the Paku Alaman in Yogyakarta and received the title of Mas Lurah Lebda Swara (which means master vocalist – a special title given by the king of the Paku Alaman palace). In 2006 I received an MA in Ethnomusicology from the School of Music at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and I am now in a Ph.D. program in interdisciplinary studies at UVic in Victoria.
TR: You all have various musical backgrounds, but have come together to perform and create gamelan music – how does your interaction with gamelan serve your own musical development as it relates to your chosen genre(s) of music? How do these many different musics come together to affect Gamelan Madu Sari? Has your work in the group influenced your performance or composing when you are working outside of its confines? And what particular kinds of opportunities for expression does gamelan offer that western music traditions (classical, folk, whatever) perhaps do not?
Ben Rogalsky: As I’ve developed as a musician and composer over the years, gamelan has always been there. It was one of my earliest musical influences when I was starting out as a creator and performer. As diverse and wide-ranging as my activities have been since then, it has continued to be a profound influence. Gamelan-like ideas such as how to elaborate on a melody, or how to indicate strong and weak beats, have seeped into my approach to improvisation and composition. I’m not necessarily aware of it in the moment, but periodically I’ll hear something I’ve done and realize there’s something strangely Javanese about it – a solo in a bluegrass tune perhaps, or a compositional structure of repeating cycles. In other projects I’ve taken direct inspiration from gamelan – using bonang-style hocketing in a piece for Uzume Taiko, for example, or composing for a culturally mixed ensemble including gamelan instruments.
Other, less tangible influences have come from working with wise teachers, and getting deeper into social and philosophical elements of playing gamelan music. I think my sense of community, and of how to be a good member of an ensemble, have been influenced by gamelan/Javanese ideals and values.
Compositionally, the gamelan is an incredibly rich sonic palette, it’s totally inspiring. And because I’ve now spent 17-odd years studying the music and playing it regularly, the instruments are really like old friends. The sounds of each instrument have a personality and character that have grown familiar to me. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a feeling of being among friends.
Michael O’Neill: Somehow I’ve always found writing music for gamelan liberating. I did feel the weight of the classical music tradition when writing for Western instruments – does what I’m working on fit into the tradition? Is it innovative enough? – etc. When I’m working with gamelan, somehow I just focus on the material and work away!
The creation of gamelan music in the West (by Westerners) is a rather recent development. There isn’t an established way of doing it. The Western way (at least as it was 20 years ago) of a composer writing the work in private and showing up with a fully notated score that everyone learns is not Gamelan Madu Sari’s approach. Each composer’s approach to notation and composition has been somewhat different. It gives rehearsals a workshop or laboratory quality. It gives us the opportunity for experimentation, discussion, and social interaction.
Kenneth Newby: I think for me the main usefulness of the traditions of Balinese gender wayang and Javanese karawitan have been in the suggestions of new ways of thinking about music. I’ve been interested since an early stage in my musical life in creating models of my personal understanding of music in both composition and performance using new technological approaches. Encountering the music of another culture expanded my musical consciousness and suggested alternative approaches that have informed my subsequent compositions in both music and media art.
Mark Parlett: One of the immediate challenges of gamelan, traditional practice firstly, is that it pushed my compositional thinking beyond my own personal idiosyncratic tendencies and made me aware of other notions of structuring music, as well as the idea of a type of codified improvisation characteristic of Javanese gamelan. It also made me aware of controlled masses of sound, a layering or stratification effect revealing a lot of timbral information. There really is a lot of sonic information coming at you when you have many wooden mallets hitting tuned bronze. Gamelan Madu Sari is a rather unique gamelan group and it has definitely begun to find its own voice from the wildly different compositional notions which many of its members have brought to it over the years. For example, composers who have been into electroacoustic music have done pieces which utilized Madu Sari as a rich timbral palette of harmonic capability, using tape, sampling and processing techniques, often to great effect. Many of us are influenced by the wide vocabulary of jazz, and perhaps surprisingly the results have been totally intriguing. These are just a couple of examples of these different approaches. Another thing, we are definitely not bound by feeling that being able to execute traditional music at the highest level is a requirement for creating new music – I don’t think that’s been our approach for a long time (although we do continue to perform traditional music).
Andrew Czink: For me the embodied practice of music-making in any form and from any tradition adds to, expands, influences and re-shapes my own musical and artistic practices. Every new perspective, whether it’s from an individual musician or an entire artistic tradition, becomes inextricably entangled with my own understanding of my life-world. Working with Gamelan Madu Sari has added a fresh nuance to how I listen, and to how I create music. I suspect that my own work with gamelan has done the same for my colleagues as we work collectively on music. You just end up hearing things that you didn’t before when someone brings something unique to rehearsal.
There isn’t really a hard and fast boundary between the various aspects of my musical work. I think it would be difficult to unravel the influences on my music from any and all of the practices that I’ve been involved in, from Western classical piano performance, to jazz and popular forms of music, to improvisation, experimentation, electroacoustic practices, gamelan, Cuban and African drumming and so on.
TR: Sutrisno, for you the question is more or less the opposite – what difference to your composing has living in the west and studying music here made? And has your background as a Javanese performing artist led to any interesting collaborations, in Indonesia or elsewhere, with composers or performers who come from outside the gamelan tradition?
Sutrisno Hartana: To answer the second question first: in Canada and the US I have collaborated for example with renowned teachers and scholars Trichy Sankaran of York University in Toronto (“Nada Rasa,” 2002) and Jarrad Powell of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle (Gamelan Pacifica and Friends, 2004 and 2009). And of course since 1999 when I started teaching gamelan in the spring semesters at the School for the Contemporary Arts at SFU I have also been working, practicing and composing with Gamelan Madu Sari members, notably on our shadow play Semar’s Journey, where different scenes were created by Kenneth, Mark, Ben, Michael, Andrew and myself.
TR: How do you think the many different musics that members of Gamelan Madu Sari are involved in outside the group come together to influence the music that gets made in the group?
SH: Part of it is geography – Vancouver is well-known as a multicultural city.
Mark Parlett: Yes, the proliferation and profile of many styles of music from all over the globe is now a familiar experience here. I’m not sure about other cities, but it’s almost as commonplace now to see an ensemble of, let’s say, pipa, upright bass, soprano saxophone, erhu, electronics, tabla, and piano in Vancouver as it is to see….girl with guitar and accordion – well, almost. The climate of willingness to work on and to write for any combination of instruments is no longer perceived as unconscious cultural slander, and with that freedom composers seem to be honing a deeper sense of respect towards traditional musics and how they are incorporated into their instrumental choices.
SH: Also, in Madu Sari there’s a sort of group consciousness among the musicians based on mutual understanding, which is influenced by the ‘group’ character of gamelan music itself. This consciousness is sustained by an openness/willingness among the main group members, as composers and teachers, to look for multicultural understandings, both musically and socially. This model can be contrasted with western music traditions, where there’s often an emphasis on the individual creator/performer.
Regarding composing for gamelan and the influence of the West on me, the point is not how long I have been living in certain places, but rather who I have been studying and working with. As a student at SMKI, ISI, and UBC School of Music I studied the different styles of gamelan (Javanese, Balinese, Sundanese) and music from other countries as well. Of course, as a Javanese gamelan teacher I have to know traditional composition – the gendhing forms for longer pieces, which vary according to the number of beats between ketuk strokes (every 2, 4, or 8 beats), as well as shorter forms such as ladrang, ketawang, lancaran, ayak-ayak, srepeg, sampak, etc., and also how to combine these gamelan forms with western instruments, as in the traditional fusions such as langgam and kroncong and modern ones such as campursari. (In Indonesia today gamelan instruments are added to all kinds of popular music styles such as dangdut,, rock’n rool, jazz, metal/hard rock, etc.)
But there are much more important factors in composing for gamelan, things like the ability to transpose/transcribe one’s imagination, how to grasp inspiration and maintain momentum with intelligent musical creativity, how to imitate an abstract feeling through one’s personal internal melody and critical thinking, and the total understanding of sound in terms of rhythm, melody, dynamics, and timbre.
TR: Could you provide some specific examples? For example, in “Ganjil,” where did the idea to compose the piece in a 7-beat rather than 4- or 8-beat time signature come from? In “Nang Ning Nong” also there are some interesting rhythmic syncopations that you don’t hear in traditional Javanese gamelan.
SH: I got my inspiration from various music classes as well as studies with professors Michael Tenzer and Alan Thrasher. I started composing “Ganjil” about the time I was studying ethnomusicology at UBC, where I was introduced to South Indian rhythms, native Indian music, and Western composition.
“Nang Ning Nong,” it seems to me, is a semi-new arrangement of gamelan music combining elements from different gamelan genres – traditional Central Javanese gendhing, langgam Jawa, Sundanese gamelan degung, and Balinese gender wayang. The new style of bonangan (especially in the first and the final parts of the song), which I call a bonang canon, was a little bit inspired by Beethoven’s 9th symphony (I love to listen Western classical music).
To me, gamelan, as part of world music, with its typical sounds and timbres, offers composers quite a lot flexibility in adapting it to various ends. South Indian music divides up the beat cycle in many different ways, African music has multiple rhythmic layers, and gamelan must not be limited to its traditional forms. Of course if we’re talking about authenticity we should follow the traditional way of thinking. For sure “Ganjil” and “Nang Ning Nong” will not be accepted in the Javanese palaces because they are not authentic anymore.
TR: You Canadian composers have all spent time in Java and most of you have studied gamelan there as well as in Canada – what effect has studying and performing Javanese gamelan (and in some cases other gamelan styles) for years or decades had on your composing for gamelan? And have other musics of the world influenced your work for gamelan? I’m thinking here not just of stylistic or formal aspects of music, but of the effects of cultural, social and personal interactions and experiences.
Michael O’Neill: In Indonesia I’ve only studied Balinese gender wayang, the form that accompanies Balinese shadowplay. Also, in Canada, I’ve focused quite a bit on gender wayang. In fact my composing for Javanese gamelan has had a strong Balinese influence as well as a Western classical music one. In my first work for Javanese gamelan, “Lessons of the Garden: Gate Path Waterway,” (on New Nectar) I set the sarons (loud keyed metallophnes) in positions akin to gender wayang – that is, the players face each other in pairs. The pairs play interlocking parts, combining pitches from the two tuning systems slendro and pelog, and this positioning facilitates that. In “Bonessongs” I’m still working, at times, with interlocking structures which are common to both Balinese and Javanese gamelan.
I often think that my training in Western music has made some aspects of playing gamelan more …challenging. I have set habits and expectations which are not met in learning, rehearsing, and playing gamelan. For instance, the role of notation in gamelan is not as pronounced as it is in the Western classical music world. This shifts the emphasis to listening, memory, and interaction within the group, which can be difficult at times but, in the end, deeply rewarding.
Andrew Czink: For me as well the biggest influence of working with gamelan has been learning music through more of an oral than written tradition. While we regularly use notation even for traditional music, the process relies much more on orality. It’s important to listen and imitate whoever is teaching the music. There is much less reliance on written notation. This is a direction that my own solo piano music had been going in for quite a while, and working with gamelan really consolidated this practice. Part of this, in the group setting of gamelan, is a fundamentally more social form of music making than we typically experience in Western ensembles (with notable exceptions no doubt!).
Mark Parlett: At this point I feel rather free to stray into any musical notion that I fancy, and less bound to the giant shadow of The Tradition. At the same time there’s always a small voice in me that wants to honour this great tradition by letting its colours occasionally waft through whatever individual eccentricities I may be enamoured of at the time. There are interesting technical practices that are fun to recreate exactly, or to subvert, coming up with new variations even though the root of the new idea comes from a very traditional aspect of Javanese practice. I think doing this expands both traditional and shall we say “western” gamelan composition. The biggest influences on me outside of gamelan practice that influence my gamelan composition are Indian, Persian, minimalism and a wide but specific array of contemporary jazz and new music. But really the greatest influences have been the relationships and the individuality of a person’s particular style. No matter where my travels have taken me, the musical influences that have been strongest have been when I’ve studied under a unique individual who had something to say from their heart and who was not just repeating another faceless execution of a particular music. Such people are usually concerned with pushing the boundaries of the obvious.
Ben Rogalsky: I have a deep feeling of humility and gratitude at the generosity of my Indonesian colleagues and mentors. On every one of my trips there I have come away with new insight, a deeper connection to the global gamelan community, and inspiration to keep working with gamelan. While there, in addition to studying gamelan, I’ve delved into various kinds of Indonesian sub-cultures and non-gamelan music. Research into string band traditions, pop music, the world of shadow puppetry, Javanese mysticism – all of these, in large or small ways, find their way back into my compositional work.
One particularly influential example would be working with the dalang Ki Seno Nugroho, and performing with his wayang ensemble. For those who haven’t experienced a wayang in Java, it’s a virtuosic all-night performance by a single puppeteer and a full gamelan orchestra that runs the range from formal drama and highly charged spirituality to low-brow comedy and satire. Seno is one of the bigger stars of the younger generation of dalangs, and always attracts huge crowds at his performances.
I first met Seno in 2002 at a wayang performance in Yogyakarta. I was there with Sutrisno, who is an old friend of his and was sitting in with the band. At one point during one of the more comedic sections, Sutrisno mischievously passed a note to Seno, and I found myself announced to the crowd as a guest singer who would perform a Javanese pop song (using lyrics hastily scribbled to jog my memory). Probably I butchered it, but the novelty of a white guy singing familiar songs proved popular enough with the crowd that Seno invited me to his next performance. Being the butt of plenty of jokes certainly added to the crowd appeal as well. Anyway, this started an ongoing relationship throughout that performance season where I toured with his group performing all over Java, building wonderful friendships with him and his musicians. I got so much out of it, playing with a group at such a high level – total immersion learning first-hand night after night about wayang, gamelan, Javanese culture in general. Most of the night I played in the gamelan, just one of the musicians. And then once or twice a night I’d get up and sing a solo or duet and Seno would crack plenty of jokes at my expense, all to the great hilarity of the crowd, all in good fun.
One outcome of all this was that as I learned more of these pop songs, I ended up getting deeper into studying Indonesian pop genres, and the historic genres out of which they had grown. I’m fascinated anyway by indigenous popular music and where it comes from, how in Indonesia gamelan traditions have been joining western influences for hundreds of years to create incredible hybrids. And the same process is going on there for influences from everywhere else – from medieval Arabic singing and instruments to Bollywood. Much like here in North America, pop music is by and large frowned upon by the cultural elite (at least until a safe distance of a few decades after its decline), but is in many ways much more immediately relevant to the cultural lives of most citizens. As a folk musician and songwriter I’m fascinated by this tension between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, and by the inevitability of human curiosity leading to new sounds. And by the mysterious process through which a new kind of music will speak to large numbers of people, and tap into something in them that is heartfelt and genuine.
That exploration led directly to composing “From Heaven To Earth” – playing with some of the elements of current and historic Indonesian pop genres.
TR: Art music in the west is often thought of as somehow beyond politics or at any rate beyond political or social messages, but several of you certainly have used music to convey ideas about the state of the world, or to pose questions about our social awareness and shared responsibilities. Others are perhaps more interested in how your music affects listeners sensuously and emotionally, how to create a bridge between the performance and the listener to evoke states that are more intangible. I don’t mean to set up a diametric opposition here, certainly these things almost always overlap – but working bi-culturally or multi-culturally has its own challenges, potential pitfalls, and rewards, and I’m curious how each of you thinks about and articulates that process.
Kenneth Newby: It’s not so much about politics or social messages per se as much as a heightened awareness of the way cultural practices such as music, dance, theatre and other media practices can be embedded in the place where they occur. In Bali there’s the concept of desa kala patra (time/place/identity), which places any given performance in a specific time and location context, with the result that the performance can speak directly to the people who participate in it as performers, audience and spectators. In a significant sense everyone participates in the making of meaning when a shadow play is performed and draws everyone within earshot under an umbrella of situated meaning as it connects the local shape of a contemporary community with the oldest forms of wisdom that are preserved in the stories being told. I’d like my art to be as grounded as that.
Andrew Czink: I agree that there isn’t a simple opposition between the social/political and ‘pure’ music – it’s more of a tension between these aspects. For me it also varies from project to project, where my focus and intent lies. Ultimately it’s possible to analyze any musical project either in terms of ‘pure’ musical ideas or from social and political perspectives. There are so many ways of listening even from a single person’s perspective depending on their attention and agenda at any point in time, not to mention social, political, economic, philosophical, religious etc. points of view that everyone brings to the table, whether consciously or not. I think that both the beauty and the challenge in multi-cultural work lie exactly there – in the interaction of many multi-faceted, nuanced views of musical practice. And I think it’s important to keep the notion of ‘musical practice’ very wide – as a practice situated in a historical, geographical, social, economic, artistic, philosophical, and political context. I believe increasingly that notions of the ‘autonomy’ of music are dated and incorrect, or at least incomplete. The collective, social, and oral approach to Javanese music making brings that to the fore in my mind.
It seems in our ‘age of globalization’ that it becomes increasingly difficult to be clear about terms like Eastern and Western culture for example. What does it mean to say that Vancouver is a Western city in a Western nation, when the majority of its populace is no longer from Europe or North America? There is a level of mutual interpenetration that is, again, difficult to unravel. I attended a talk at a conference in Beijing last year where the panel’s subject was ‘Eastern views of the West’s view of the East.’ It was a compelling discussion that brought these somewhat colonial views into crisis. Gamelan is yet another form of cultural entanglement that we participate in and within which we are situated. For me the common resonances by far outweigh the occasional dissonances.
Mark Parlett: From my perspective, after many years of practicing and performing gamelan, a few specific questions still regularly enter my consciousness, and they are as simple and profound as this: What does it mean to perform the music of another culture? And how deep does one continue to go? Anyone who studies and continues to study and perform the music of another culture, at some point, is usually faced with these same daunting questions. As with the study of any music there is a never-ending well of material to learn, that’s for sure, but the inner dialogue that often comes up, for some more than others, is that you can never entirely forget that you are recreating and emulating another culture’s expression. Obviously, the challenge is to render it with as much technical care and feeling as one can muster, but even then one can frequently feel conflicted about the nature of what one is performing, especially in vocal music, as a culture’s language is the most primal mode of conveyance.
The other side of the argument, which speaks to the universality and emotional power of sound and music, is that some people who are engaged with music on a performance level feel perfectly content and resolved about performing within the boundaries of the traditional music of another culture. The majority of musicians I know who have been engaged in the study and performance of music out of one’s tribe feel somewhat distant from the endless machinations around cultural custody and appropriation. Often they take the position that the color of one’s skin or ethnicity is hardly of any consequence – playing music itself can become a transcendent act that cuts through much of the discourse around boundaries, and to be involved in a sonic space and rasa that one inhabits from inside the music is more than satisfying enough. In the end though, one reaches the irresolvable conclusion that both sides in this argument, both of these positions, are held, and I would say HAVE to be held, simultaneously.
Some questions….Are we still somehow chained on a deeper unconscious level to the code of our own when faced with someone doing something which is not of our own? By ‘our own’ I mean our ethnic group, our kind. Is there still a degree to which we sit in some sort of silent judgment around someone doing something out of one’s tribe? Does the visual oddity or impact of seeing another person perform, create, or take part in a different culture’s tradition create an impairment in our ability to be receptive towards the work itself? It seems to me that we are working through this stuff slowly as familiarity begets familiarity…and I am implying the dominance of the visual in influencing our culture’s judgments around these issues. As a musician and composer though I’m more concerned with the ear, and having frequently witnessed the merging of different musical instruments and styles, at this point I’m mostly interested in the only real enduring criteria for art – is it compelling? Am I moved by the work? I find myself closing my eyes more often at live concerts, no matter what the music, to lessen the implications and connotations of the visual and increase my listening receptivity.
Still, there is often an elusive strangeness of communication that happens between individuals coming together from somewhere else (I think that’s the long forgotten translation of the word Canada – “from somewhere else”). The values, ethics and beliefs contained within the art form are brought here through the individual, and misunderstandings can occur around power and status during the transmission of that knowledge that you never even knew were there; there is also a negotiation and reworking of acquired musical skills while consciously pushing musical boundaries with mutual respect.
Ben Rogalsky: I’m a folk musician and songwriter as much as a composer of ‘art’ music. I’ve spent more time playing folk festivals and touring with bands than behaving like a serious composer – I imagine a puffy shirt and a feather quill and a desk at a window! I’m very much a player and performer, and so my composition process is very hands-on, experiential and experimental. For me, finding an emotional connection to the material myself is really important as a performer, and just as much as a composer. I don’t always know what that connection is to begin with, but it emerges as the work develops.
Similarly, making an emotional connection with the listener is key. Fundamentally, I guess I want to make people dance – not always literally, but to feel moved in some way, even in the context of less accessible or more experimental music. That being said, the spontaneous community that emerges when a group of people are moved at the same time is a powerful, and political, thing. I believe in the power of music to bring about change both externally and internally. Music affects us in profoundly personal ways, and can also be a powerful force for rallying people together. It kind of has to do both at once. I have in the past written and performed really overtly political music. I’m doing less of that these days, but my values haven’t changed. Just subtler in the delivery maybe.
TR: Sutrisno, do you think there is a socio-political dimension to your own work as a composer/performer working within the Javanese tradition as well as, to some extent, inter-culturally?
SH: Absolutely. To quote Pak Sus (Hardjo Susilo), I strongly oppose the orthodox concept stated by many Javanese musicians in Java, ngene wae wis payu, which loosely translated means “It sells as is, so why improve on it?”; they don’t want to pursue a higher level. Myself, I’m seeking not only technical and socio-political dimensions, but also mutual understanding across cultures, because gamelan is part of the world.