The Trouble with Travel

At the moment, I have to postpone the goal of performing this project in Java.

—Steven Everett, Associate Professor of Music


The Trouble with Travel
How much have war and epidemic blocked international scholarship?


International crises of this kind have a major impact on the ability of scholars to collaborate.
Kathryn Yount, Associate Professor of Public Health


Before you go
Emory resources for faculty travel


Travel and students
Unrest has affected student travel in varying degrees

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Academic Exchange: Talk about the development of your collaborations with Indonesian artists and how recent political events have affected your work.

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 for Westerners.

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 music?

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 future?

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 I’m crazy.

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.