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JMM 2, Spring 2004, section 10 — JMM book review

Tenzer, Michael. Gamelan Gong Kebyar: the Art of Twentieth-Century Balinese Music. Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press, 2000. xxv, 492 pp., analytic illustrations, transcriptions, photographs, glossary, bibliography, index, two compact discs with musical examples cued to the text. ISBN: 0226792838.

(Reviewed by Edward Green)

10.1. Ethnomusicological Syncretism

In this innovative, carefully reasoned book, Michael Tenzer provides a comprehensive, technical account of modern Balinese music. Surprisingly, he approaches the task in a boldly syncretic manner, making coordinated use of indigenous Balinese musical concepts as well as Western analytic tools, such as the mathematics of “contour classes.” In chapter 9 we see Tenzer’s syncretism in full force as he compares, for the purpose of mutual illumination, a blues by Jackie Byard and Wayan Sinti’s important l982 gamelan composition Wilet Mayura. He also makes use of passages by Mozart, Ives and Lutoslawski.

Many ethnomusicologists would, on methodological grounds, object to such syncretism, asserting that music can only be understood from “within” a culture, and that any use of theoretical concepts arising from an “outside” culture can only distort. Tenzer plainly disagrees. “The politics of irreducible difference,” he writes in Chapter 10, “continues to color our perspectives.” These scholarly politics prevent us, he argues, from seeing the inter-explanatory nature of all music. He gives this example on page 435: “Nelitti [melodic strata moving one tone per beat] behave according to a Balinese grammar, but the grammatical structure reflects a need to balance motion and stasis, cadence and progression, symmetry and asymmetry…a phenomenon that is not culturally unique.”

Tenzer clearly feels Balinese music is illuminated by “dialectic” reasoning, and he asserts, in many passages, that the most fundamental dialectic in Balinese music, underlying all its technical particulars, concerns the relation of ngubeng and majalan [stability and activity]. In Chapter 6 he deals with these opposites in terms of melody. (Here, incidentally, is where he also makes his most telling use of strictly mathematical analysis.) In Chapter 7 the concepts of ngubeng and majalan are used to clarify Balinese meter and rhythm; in Chapter 8, large-scale form.

Perhaps Chapter 7 is Tenzer’s most innovative. Titled “Meter and Drumming,” in it he asserts the critical role of kendang drumming in the rhythmic life of the modern gamelan. Previous scholars (at least in the West) have taken for granted that the responsibility for delineating colotomic metric structure in any form of gamelan, including kebyar, lay with the gongs. Certainly that is how Colin McPhee, in his l966 classic, Music in Bali, presents the matter. Even as recent, and as excellent, a work as Michael Bakan’s Music of Death and New Creation (1999) follows this conception. Tenzer disagrees; he asserts that colotomic meter can only be conceived as a compound of regularity and irregularity, with the two rhythms intensifying and clarifying each other. If this is true, then it follows that kendang drumming is not subsidiary to the music of the gongs, but rather a full partner to it.

10.2. Context, Continuity and Origin

Complementing the highly technical “core” of this book—(some of which was so unremittingly mathematical that this reviewer found it hard to believe any flesh-and-blood listener could actually hear such “tonal” relations in “real time”)—are many sections in which the author widens his focus, and provides a view of the larger cultural context for kebyar. In Chapter 2 we meet a 1750 Balinese text, Prakempa, in which the scale tones of pelog and slendro are presented as the part of a spiritual mandala—“a vibrant…interconnected network of spiritual sound, color, and thought, ‘running,’ as it were, on powers provided by the gods.” (p.36). Chapter 3, continues in this philosophic vein, as Tenzer presents the deep linkage between the fundamental world-view of the Balinese—who value, at once, the seemingly contradictory ideals of hierarchy and democratic cooperation—and the highly stratified, yet interlocking nature of gamelan music-making. The chapter is entitled, “The Social Construction of Kebyar Ensemble Virtuosity.” This linkage is solid ethnography.

Tenzer makes further clear that for all its “revolutionary” musical character, kebyar, by holding fast to these fundamental (albeit contradictory) Balinese values, must be judged a continuation of the island’s culture rather than a rebuke to it. Here he provides a very valuable corrective to McPhee who, as late as l966, in his otherwise authoritative Music in Bali, lamented the impact of kebyar on Balinese music. (McPhee saw Gamelan Gong Kebyar as undermining genres he considered more deeply authentic, such as Gamelan Pelogongan).

Innovative, too, is Tenzer’s account of the origin of kebyar. The mass suicide (puputan) of the Balinese royalty on the field of battle as they faced Dutch armies” is well known—as is the fact that the loss of the court as a focus for Balinese politics and music made possible a new spirit of independence in the outlying villages. Where the author breaks new ground is by documenting the emergence of kebyar “as a result of the attempt to fuse pepaosan [poetry] competitions with…the addition of gamelan accompaniment” (p.86).

That these poetry readings, suffused with anti-Dutch sentiment, might engender a revolutionary music is hardly surprising; yet prior to this book, no mention is made, at least in Western scholarship, of this signally important historical connection. It is not written of in McPhee’s monumental 1966 study, Ruby Sue Ornstein’s important 1971 dissertation, or Bakkan’s 1999 book. Even Tenzer is silent on the subject in his Balinese Music of 1991.

10.3. Universals in World Music

Much more could be said in praise of this remarkable work. One might think, for example, that a theorist so adept at “abstract” analysis might shortchange the “programmatic” aspect of Balinese music. But this is hardly the case; the author devotes his pivotal fifth chapter, entitled “History, Repertoire, Topic, and Structure,” to just these matters. We learn that even in the most seemingly “abstract” of Balinese gending [compositions] there are always implicit references—via musical gestures of melody, rhythm, or timbre—to “topics” explored explicitly in Balinese dance, religion, and theater. Strikingly, and in keeping with his “syncretic method,” Tenzer relates the desire of kebyar composers to integrate such “topics” into their formal designs with the procedures followed by Haydn and Mozart in the days of High Viennese Classicism.

Once again, some ethnomusicologists might find this “syncretism” questionable. This reviewer, however, finds it thrilling. He only wishes there were more of it in the book! Certainly Tenzer’s work is in keeping with a growing trend among scholars (Jay Rahn of York University, Toronto is another) to revisit sympathetically the concept of universals in world music—indeed in world art. The great American poet and philosopher Eli Siegel said it best when, in the l940’s, he gave this principle of Aesthetic Realism which gives the relation of art and life a solid scientific foundation: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In his emphasis on dialectics as a means of making meaningful cross-cultural comparisons, Tenzer supports Siegel. Through the on-going impact of Aesthetic Realism, and of its intellectual allies, a new scholarly orientation is emerging and a new methodology is being established—one in which researchers consciously aim at being fair, simultaneously, to the uniqueness of a musical culture and its relations to other cultures, seemingly very different. It augurs well for 21st-century musicology.

If there is any flaw in Tenzer’s book—(leaving aside the unfortunate production decision to use black and white photographs exclusively)—it lies in the lack of clarity concerning some of the text’s musical examples. I am not referring to any imprecision in the transcriptions, for as far as one can discern there isn’t any. Instead the problem lies in the fact that while certain transcriptions are listed as corresponding to a certain track on the CD, the transcription may be significantly shorter than the track: perhaps only 10 seconds of music, while the track lasts several minutes. For persons who want to “train their ears” to grasp Balinese musical structure, it is deeply frustrating not to have more precise information regarding when to listen to such transcribed passages.

This, however, is quibbling. The central fact about this book is that it is thrilling, ear-opening, mind-enhancing: a magisterial work.





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