Sunday, October 2, 2011

Allergies, Gamelan, and The "Universal Language,"

When my allergies hit, it usually starts as a subtle and distinctively raw numbness behind my nose that inevitably progresses into at least a head-bloated daze, if not an uncontrollable cough, within a few days. I’ve learned to suppress it somewhat, thanks to my wife’s insistence that I adopt the neti pot. Things happen, however, in the two or three days that it takes for me to chase it out, and I never know what form it will take in the end. This time around, I lost my voice. By Wednesday morning, I could barely croak anything out. There was a temptation to stay home, of course, but I really didn’t feel bad – I just could not talk. My stupid work ethic compelled me to go ahead and push through a day of teaching band.

I gotta say that I was pretty proud of my kids for having a productive day. Aside from taking roll with the assistance of a loudspeaker, I spoke probably a total of two sentences in each class. I had a few generalized cues written on the board for reference, but I mostly modeled and mimed my instructions and feedback all morning. As long as I could keep their attention and play, we got things done. In some classes, we even had an improvement in focus and behavior.

It is commonly stated that “music is the universal language,” and stories of effective non-verbal communication between musicians like this one often serve as a justification for this claim. It’s a really problematic assumption, though. Granted, both language and music are forms of communication, and they are universal features of humanity, but they are not the same thing. Language is very good at relating cognitive ideas, but music conveys something that is implicitly non-verbal. Its essential meaning lies beyond the capacity of words, which is why talking about it is so difficult.

For example, I have been getting my ethno on listening to Gamelan of Central Java vol. XII: Pangkur One for the past couple of weeks. I have some experience in gamelan, but mainly in the Balinese style.  In the 16th century, Islam was introduced into Indonesia and displaced the Hindu/Buddhist population to Bali, causing a divergence in the two styles. The structure of Balinese and Javanese gamelan is fundamentally the same, but they realize this underlying construction in a radically different way.

Having only a superficial knowledge of Islam, and even less comfort with its Javanese iteration, I can only speculate as to the way that its worldview is expressed through its gamelan styles. From a practical standpoint, however, the emergence of Muslim courts had a profound effect. The loud, flashy, attention-grabbling styles that are now found in Balinese outdoor festivals would most likely be cacophonous in an indoor format. Instead, Javanese styles seem more austere and contemplative.

The liner notes for Pangkur One are described as “authoritative,” but they still assume a lot about the listener. They provide structural observations based on time cues, but the explanations freely use insider’s language. The translations of the text, however, depict themes and advice for good, moral living 
We set aside the needs of the self
For the pleasure of educating children
Through good songs
Worded beautifully and with care
That's not from this particular clip, but it did catch my eye in the liner notes.  Preach on, sisters!

Topics like this are relatively ubiquitous across many cultures, but in this case, the music that serves as their vehicle emanates my way from across a cultural border. As an outsider, I can’t glean the musician’s meaning or intention without crossing this border and embedding myself within the history that is embedded in every note. As a “universal language,” gamelan, like any music, is pretty opaque from the exterior. I don’t think, however, that because of this it is impossible for me to appreciate its sublime beauty and respect its status as an essentially human form of expression.

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