Memories from a Night in Old Java

A while ago I went to an unusual performance in Seattle, at the Cornish art school’s auditorium. An ensemble of baroque musicians and a local gamelan orchestra took turns playing pieces from their repertoires, to explore the similarities and differences between the European and Javanese musical traditions, which both reached their artistic peaks at about the same time. The concept was ingenious, and the music was well-performed all round, but something about it left me a bit uneasy.

We were in an auditorium. It was a warm, dry, crowded room full of people who remained mostly still, and quiet. Everyone was staring right at the performers, who were all dressed in black and stood or sat still on the stage. The stage’s backdrop was black, the room’s walls were some other neutral color. The room smelled like a worn school auditorium, which it was. People were there for an educational experience. They had dressed for the cold, but not dressed up. The program discussed similarities in the music’s structure, emphasizing qualities like counterpoint and voice and improvisation. It was all very serious, and everyone was very serious about it.

The only things that could not be made serious were the instruments, which for one reason or another could not be painted black. The baroque instruments were decorated in subtle ways—some lines of gold leaf along the sides of the harpsichord, a contrasting blond tiger-striped maple tailpiece and fingerboard on a dark cello, and some silver bands around a flute carved from highly figured wood. The gamelan was even more out of place. The whole thing had a serpent theme—carved serpents writhed on top of most of the instruments. Those that could not support serpents had flowers or scrollwork. Some of the larger instruments had all these things combined, and the serpents had crowns. I’m not sure why the craftsmen thought that flowers and crowns and serpents go together, but it must have made sense at the time. Obviously, the instruments were made for a different context.

The patterns on the instruments reminded me of a very different gamelan performance I had attended, in a village outside Yogyakarta. It was part of a wayang performance held to celebrate a successful harvest. Bowo’s relatives had invited us, and as an unusual visitor, I was going to be an honored guest.  Wayang shadow puppet performances, like the gamelan, are an element of Javanese culture that has drawn a lot of attention—maybe too much—from anthropologists. They go from dusk until dawn, and at the end, the puppets themselves are ritually destroyed—thrown into the sea, Bowo said. A set of wayang kulit puppets alone costs a huge sum, plus the cost of the dalang (puppeteer), musicians and other performers, so it’s not something that anyone can organize—usually the performances are sponsored by a village orang kaya. Now, of course, tourists can go see a first-rate wayang performance in Jogja or Jakarta at any time, in a comfortable auditorium or something like that, but the traditional ones are still tied to the cycles of village life, and just as chaotic as village life tends to be.

We arrived at a large outdoor pavilion where the performance was to take place. First we went backstage and mingled with some of the villagers. The backstage was behind the translucent screen onto which the shadows of the puppets are projected, so the show could be seen and heard from both sides—though the “front” allows viewers to see the ornate painting and gilding on each of the puppets. There was a sound system for the dalang and the singers, but the gamelan needed no amplification. There was a huge spread of snacks, and tea saturated with sugar in proper Indonesian style. Each guest got a box of sweets. As the show was about to start, we moved into the seats in front of the stage, and we were ushered into a couple of gilded chairs with plush cushions, real seats of honor, right in front of the stage and next to a very talkative village elder who, like about half the audience, was chain-smoking kretek clove cigarettes. People moved in and out of the seats. Children ran around. It was kind of chaotic.

The gamelan orchestra and the dalang made preparatory motions and noises. The whole set of puppets, formed from leather (kulit) shaped, pierced, painted and gilded into the bodies of heroes and villains and in-between characters from the Ramayana, was arrayed to the left and right of the screen. Everyone was dressed to the traditional nines, in intricate batik sarungs and shirts. The women had elaborate hairstyles, and were decked out in gold and silk. The men and boys wore blangkon, the traditional turban-like headgear of central Java. Each of the older men also had a kris, a ceremonial dagger that one finds throughout much of Island Southeast Asia, in a gold or silver scabbard, stuck in the back of his sarung. The hilt and handguard of each kris was different, carved out of exotic wood, sometimes of contrasting colors, or, in a couple cases, of ivory. Kretek smoke pervaded everything. The stage was basically outside, covered with a large tent, but open on the sides, so that the night air could mix with the kretek smoke. Everything was anticipation. We made small talk, Bowo and the orang kaya and I, though I was still having trouble understanding the Javanese accent and dialect. The orang kaya offered me one of his kreteks—a gigantic, unfiltered Dji Sam Soe, so full of nicotine that it’s probably illegal everywhere except Indonesia. Who was I to refuse? It went well with the tea. Finally, the orchestra began to play, slowly.

The audience did not become less chaotic—people came and went, chatting, albeit in respectful moderation. After all, it would be a twelve hour performance. The dalang began to narrate a story from the Ramayana in Javanese. Of course I couldn’t understand a word of it, but it didn’t matter. The music of the gamelan undulated like waves, and the voices of the women who accompanied it in song floated on top of it like ships. The dalang flashed each figure back and forth, projecting a strange, distorted version of the story he was telling onto the screen behind the stage. He accentuated every rolled R, and tapped a stick against the base of the screen for dramatic effect. People in the audience joked with each other. There was smoke everywhere. Every so often, the bass gong of the gamelan spoke with an authoritative, resounding boom. It was sublime.

I can’t say that I’ve ever been to a really authentic baroque performance. After all, the style had its puncak kejayaan (peak of glory, to use an Indonesian phrase), in a cultural context that is basically irreproducible today. Perhaps we, in the present, could reproduce the outfits, the architecture, the food and drink, and with a lifetime’s worth of effort on the part of everyone involved, the language and the turns of phrase that were current at the time that a particular Baroque piece was composed. But we can’t possibly recreate the full cultural context, social structure and all. However much it was documented, not having grown up in it, we cannot reproduce the way that it shaped our thinking, at least not exactly. In many cases, we probably wouldn’t want to. How could we understand what it was like to live in a world where fox tossing and public executions were common, and even generally enjoyed? We can imagine intellectually sophisticated, even logically consistent rationalizations for these uglier elements of the past, but it’s harder to understand how some of them could have coexisted with, say, a Telemann recorder concerto. In that way, there is no such thing as a period-correct baroque performance anymore.

In the strictest sense, that is also true for gamelan music. The social world that surrounded gamelan performances at their peak has changed radically: though there is still a sultan in Yogyakarta, his role now is very different than it was three hundred years ago. The language has changed, as have the surroundings. It would be reductive to claim that Javanese culture has remained frozen in time, and as a westerner observing Javanese culture from the outside, I have to guard against concluding that it has changed little based only on my very superficial experience of it.

Yet, gamelan music remains an indisputably living form in a way that Baroque music, for the most part, does not. Children still come to gamelan performances for reasons other than education. The context in which it originated—local festivals, weddings, events that brought small communities together—persist, though perhaps in a slightly attenuated form (as with folk traditions in many places, the younger generation risks abandoning Javanese music in favor of a more global culture). Alas, you don’t see baroque music played much at Euro-American wedding receptions anymore, though some of the more nauseating baroque pieces are now often inflicted upon the world as elevator music surrounding the ceremony itself. The context that surrounded baroque music in the past, the setting for the gemstone, has been removed, so that now we are left measuring the angles of each facet, or just staring at the thing through the glass of a museum case.

To remove these musical styles from their context is almost to neuter them. Performing the music without the original trappings—the food that was served, the sights and smells and tactile sensations of the original environment, the emotional associations of the moment the music was designed to adorn—is not to deny the music its ability to reproduce. Indeed, you can at least partially reconstruct these lost elements with a bit of research and hermeneutic inquiry. Yet, if the audience as a whole does not understand all these nuances of context, to which the music was necessarily tailored, they are missing a crucial element of understanding, and in that sense the music becomes something like a neutered animal, deprived of its raison d’être.

The performance in Seattle emphasized the music’s cerebral qualities—the program was all about structure, about the more quantifiable elements of each musical style. Really, it was about instruction. To the extent that the audience was expected to enjoy the music, it was supposed to be an intellectual, abstract kind of enjoyment. The performance near Jogja was a strange mix of delectation, comedy, and moral instruction. The moral instruction came from the tales that the dalang acted out in front of the screen: Rama, the model of a refined Javanese gentleman, moved though a world populated by dwarves, monsters, buffoons, and jealous relatives. Wayang shows always have an element of the morality play about them, but heavily overlaid with ornaments and temptations (there remains a traditional association between pesindhen, the female gamelan vocalists, and prostitutes, though this is changing). And yes, there was comedy.

After about an hour of playing, the gamelan slowed down and stopped (just as it had begun to speed up, really). The dalang was narrating an incomprehensible story with some goofy looking puppets… it seemed to have departed from the heroic narrative. That was when the transvestite clowns got onto the stage. Well, that phrase is probably misleading. They were two men dressed somewhere between the two genders. One of them may have been wearing a blangkon. They had longish hair, lipstick, and eyeliner, and some of their teeth had been blackened. They both had strange, leering expressions, and exaggerated, creaky voices. They were acting out some kind of comedy routine—walking among the gamelan, insulting the performers and some of the elders. The performance’s sponsor eventually got on stage with them, and began giving a speech. They continued to make fun of him.

This was all a bit strange to me. My image of Javanese culture as refined, modest, polite, and stately did not have room for this kind of thing. I should also say that watching a comedy routine in a mostly incomprehensible foreign language was trying my patience, and I eagerly awaited the return of polite, noble Rama to the screen. I was having thoughts along these lines when I heard the word “America” in the orang kaya’s speech, and saw him gesturing towards me. My chain-smoking friend in the next seat almost grabbed me, and started shooing me up toward the stage, where I found myself with a microphone, standing next to the orang kaya and the two strange gender-ambiguous clowns.

The clowns asked me a few questions which I couldn’t understand, and pointed out that my pinstripe pants looked ridiculous. Indeed they did, in a room full of be-sarunged dudes with daggers. The orang kaya removed his blangkon and gave it to me, and eventually I understood that I was supposed to put it on my head, which I did. The whole audience was bent over laughing. I tried, as respectfully as possible, to return the blangkon, and eventually succeeded.  They asked me what I was doing in Indonesia, and I stumbled through a few words of explanation. I think I managed to thank everyone for their hospitality. Eventually I was able to escape the clowns and the orang kaya. Then I sat back down in my chair, and Bowo said that the orang kaya had accorded me a great honor by roasting me in front of everyone. The lesson from this is that if you’re traveling in Java, and have good local connections, and it happens to be during a season when you might end up at a wayang performance, be sure to have a short standup routine prepared in Indonesian, preferably one that makes fun of westerners and their pants.

Actually, that was not the end of the strangeness. The orang kaya next to me offered me another Dji Sam Soe, and asked me which of the three pesindhen on stage I thought was the prettiest. At this point I was suspicious of everything, and imagined that any answer would put me up on stage again—would they make me dance? Fortunately, nothing came of it when I picked one singer out at random; the old man seemed partly satisfied. Though the wayang performance proper started to pick up steam again, Bowo said that his relatives’ children were getting tired, so we would have to depart. Probably for the best, I thought, though a bit sadly, as I had weathered the roast, and had looked forward to becoming a passive, slightly reddish-colored spectator again.

Looking back on it, this bizarre mixture makes sense in the context of a twelve-hour long performance. The dalang and the gamelan need breaks (a practical concern), and the audience can’t be expected to sit through that much moral edification, no matter how brilliantly adorned, without the occasional change of pace (a more aesthetic one). You can see the same variation of pace in a baroque concerto that alternates between fast and slow movements, and operas and suites usually introduce some deliberate variety to keep the audience’s attention. But I imagine that the way baroque music was originally performed, there would have to be even more variety, more breaks in the music. A combination of logistics and human nature dictate that this had to be the case.

Really, the practice of sitting in an auditorium and listening passively to high art music, presented in an austere and didactic environment, seems to be a recent invention, tied to academic values that seek to separate the skill of composing and playing music from music’s function as an object of pleasure. Sometimes I wonder if academics who study music consider it to be pleasant at all. The archaeologist James Deetz, who had a great fondness for bluegrass music, still describes it in his landmark book In Small Things Forgotten as a “technomic” artifact—in other words, as a tool, whose purpose lies mostly outside of the social realm. Perhaps he was thinking that music’s utilitarian function was to produce pleasure, but this must be read between the lines. Scholars—especially those who tend toward the more scientific end of the spectrum—seem to have a very hard time integrating pleasure into their theories. It has only recently become quantifiable… and good luck hauling that MRI machine to a concert! To the extent that archaeologists deal with pleasure, it’s usually mediated through an evolutionary perspective, though perhaps some post-processualists are making more humanistic efforts.

In many ways, the performers in Seattle made the best of the environment in which they played—they were obviously enjoying it, and they had put together a truly unconventional performance. Yet they couldn’t do anything about the expectations that come with classical music these days: the auditorium they performed in had certain rules, explicit or implicit. The fact that they were performing at an art school, as well, meant that they had to frame their performance in educational terms. They were doing their part for the education industry, which has imposed a really dull set of constraints on how an audience is supposed to appreciate music played in an academic setting. We, the audience, were supposed to contemplate the music in a detached, analytical sort of way. The village performance was a different thing entirely, with the music performing its true “technomic” function, and some other ones besides.

I am painfully aware that art schools and conservatories are too strapped for cash to bother adding the kind of contextual elements that make a living performance so much more pleasant than an academic one, and so even if they have a change of heart about what audiences should get out of a performance, we’re stuck with the current mode of appreciating high art music, at least for now. I worry that it goes beyond that, however: the academic community has been pretty jealous about appropriating art for its own goals, with predictably dulling consequences (the writer and art critic Dave Hickey has written eloquently about this topic, and he deserves mention in another post). This may leave only American Idol free from the ivory tower, in some hideous dystopian future.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Despite the establishment of officially sanctioned gamelan and wayang academies in Indonesia, that seek to elevate traditional arts to prestigious, academic pursuits, those arts also remain genuinely alive (messy context, gender-queer clowns and all) in Javanese popular culture. I may be too optimistic to hope for a reinvention and rebirth of baroque music that puts it back into an equally chaotic context, but hell, it’s worth a try.

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One Response to Memories from a Night in Old Java

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