Trouble with Travel
How much have war and epidemic blocked international scholarship?
crises of this kind have a major impact on the ability of scholars
Kathryn Yount, Associate Professor of Public Health
Emory resources for faculty travel
Unrest has affected student travel in varying degrees
Exchange: Talk about the development of your collaborations
with Indonesian artists and how recent political events have affected
Steven Everett: I flew into Jakarta in 1996 when
I was given the opportunity to meet the dissident writer Pramoedya
Ananta Toer. From the beginning, the political situation was difficult.
Since his works were banned in Indonesia, we had to use code names
to avoid phone taps and meet rather secretly. Ultimately, he offered
to allow me to set to music a play he had written while imprisoned.
Over the next few years, I worked with a Javanese shadow puppeteer
and a filmmaker from Berlin to integrate the music into an interactive
shadow play based on Toer’s work. Though it’s set in
the sixteenth century, the play really speaks to the socio-political
situation in Java today.
Travel to Indonesia, though, had been difficult even before September
11, 2001. The fall of the Suharto regime in 1999 loosed the floodgates
of protest in the country, which is 96 percent Muslim. As the country
has struggled towards democracy and away from a regime that repressed
all political speech, the situation has actually grown more dangerous
And it just so happens that the
city in Java I visit for my collaborations, Surakarta, is home to
number of fundamentalists groups, including that of the radical
Islamic cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, widely considered the spiritual
leader of Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate. The State
Department has issued a travel advisory for the area, and I had
to cancel a trip in 1999 and postpone another in 2001 because of
social unrest there.
Since September 11 and the war with Iraq, the number and frequency
of attacks directed toward Westerners has only escalated, including
the Bali nightclub bombing last year and the recent attack at the
Jakarta Marriott Hotel.
AE: In the age of Internet and video communications,
why must you go to Indonesia to learn and perform its indigenous
SE: As a composer I explore the idea of cross-cultural
artistic creation and reception. Because of the history of Western
colonialism in the Southeast Asia, there has been a tendency by
Western composers to exoticize or merely appropriate elements of
the musical traditions of Indonesia. Not only does that often offend
that culture, it can dilute the clarity of the musical meaning and
produce a hybrid with superficial qualities
of both traditions. As a composer, I am attempting to develop an
approach that avoids this pattern.
Gamelan music—ensemble music produced by a set of gongs, chimes,
flute, and stringed instruments—dates back to around the third
century and is deeply embedded in the social practices of its culture.
When you study the Gamelan, you are studying a system of ethics
as well as music, the master teachers say. Listening to and coordinating
with the other twenty-four or so musicians to perform this music
can cultivate alus—an enlightened understanding of
humility, gentleness, tolerance, and refinement. This is often not
the primary goal of Western music, but I have tried to study how
this music is embedded in its cultural value system in order to
write music in my own language that also has potential relevance
within Indonesian culture. Therefore, performing for an Indonesian
audience is a test of this compositional approach. I wrote this
piece attempting to capture a Javanese aesthetic, and I hope it
will be able to be performed in Java.
AE: Any prospects for travel there in the near
SE: The shadow puppeteer I work with has invited
me this year to visit the small, remote village where he lives,
and I’m actually considering it. I will be traveling to Singapore
this fall, so he may be able to join me there instead. As long as
I keep a low profile in Surakarta, it may be safe, but my wife thinks
AE: If you can’t travel there again in
the near future, what you do see as the impact on your work?
SE: I hope we will perform the work in Berlin and
some other European cities. But at the moment, I have to postpone
the goal of performing this project in Java. For that to happen,
I would have to be there to set it up. The current political situation
has meant that I have to consider how prudent it is to be visible
as an American at a large arts festival in Indonesia. Plus, I am
concerned for the musicians I’d have to bring with me and
concerned about exposing my colleague in Java to repercussions for
working on a play by a banned Indonesian author. I may, however,
make an interactive computer version of the work, so I do not have
to bring as many musicians.