Learning the cultural values expressed in Asian music

A change in music professor Steve Everett's interests is demonstrated by the equipment jammed into his Burlington Road Building office. In one corner sits a large, modern music synthesizer; in the other is a set of 100-year old large bronze gongs, bar metallophones and horizontal gong chimes that are part of a Javanese Gamelan ensemble.

That shift, however, isn't just in the instruments Everett uses to make music. "Now I've become more interested in the expression of music and how the arts are used to express ideas of culture," he said. Drawing on his earlier study of drumming in south India, he said, "In these Asian traditions, such as the Javanese Gamelan, music is used to express a spiritual energy. There's a glorification of spirituality. In the West since the Renaissance, our tradition has become more secularized and music is often created for its enterainment value. I'm interested in looking at music's capacity to express spirit and thought."

While Everett's interest in Asian music fits in nicely with the growing momentum of Asian Studies at Emory, the timing of the two initiatives is purely coincidental. "Asian Studies is a response to a collective need by many departments who were interested in focusing on Asian cultures," he said. "Asian Studies makes it a more integrated effort. I think the study of music of another culture can expand one's awareness of how to perform the music of his or her own culture."

It took a bit of pushing by Everett to acquire the gamelan ensemble instruments. "Last fall I began to identify some sources of funding at Emory to purchase a gamelan set of instruments," said Everett. "Then last spring, Cherry Emerson '38C '39G who is a member of Friends of Music, gave some funds, and the College office and music department provided some start-up funds." Everett used the money to purchase the Javanese Gamelan instruments. "We were able to buy a set in the five-note tuning system, known as `slendro,'" he said. "There is another set, based on a seven-note scale that we weren't able to buy. These `slendro' instruments are used primarily to accompany shadow puppet theater in Java and Bali." Everett also was able to study with Javanese teachers at the Center for World Music in Bali for two months this past summer to learn the gamelan repertoire.

In Bali, Everett learned first-hand that the arts are intrinsically woven into the Indonesian culture. "At the music school this summer the teacher said, `You are not here to learn music; you are here to learn respect for yourselves, each other, our culture and our instruments,'" said Everett. "Then he said, `When you learn that, then you will know how to play the music.'"

Everett's attendance at a puppet show also showed him how the arts express cultural values in Java. "The shadow puppet theater is still the most important art form there," he said. "These performances typically last from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and are based on two Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as the primary texts. The entire village attends the puppet show, some 10,000 people including women and children. People sleep, eat, walk around and talk throughout the performance, but they know these stories and experience these characters.

"It's a form of ritual participation where the values of the culture are being taught; in all these stories there is a sense of how to deal with each other and with society," Everett said.

Now that he has the set of gamelan instruments, Everett plans to write an opera for them based on an unpublished play by novelist Pramoedya Toer, a Javanese dissident who was imprisoned from 1965-79, following a military coup, and who has been under house arrest since 1979. Everett was able to arrange a meeting with Toer this summer.

"Toer is quite a historian," said Everett. "He looks at the history of Java as a repeated cycle; in the 16th century, Islamic forces pushed out the ruling Hindu; in the 17th century, the Dutch pushed out the Islamic regime. In 1945, the Japanese pushed out the Dutch, and then Indonesia was created in 1945 after allied forces defeated the Japanese. Toer says that the tolerance felt by the Javanese creates these cyclical political problems."

Everett will base his opera on Toer's 1979 play, Ki Ageng Mangir which is set in the 16th century and describes the struggles in one of the first Islamic palaces in central Java after they had eclipsed Hindu rule. "I plan to juxtapose the expression of power made by 16th century traditional gamelan arts of puppet theater, dance and music with today's source of power--computers and technology," said Everett. "I'm interested in bringing in the issue of music as an economic power force in today's culture."

Everett also will use the gamelan ensemble instruments in an Indonesian arts class next fall and hopes to put together an ensemble. "I've had a lot of interest in playing these instruments from people in the community, some

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra players and some Emory faculty who are associated with Asian Studies," said Everett. He plans to offer workshops on Nov. 16 and 17 so people can experience playing in a gamelan ensemble. Call Everett at 727-7937 for information. Everett hopes that students in his Indonesian arts class

will join the ensemble. "I hope that we can debut the ensemble at the April 26, 1997, "Empty Minds" concert," he said.

Some 100 universities in the United States have a gamelan ensemble, but Emory is the only school in the Southeast with a Javanese Gamelan ensemble.

Exploring the ways that art expresses culture is now Everett's main interest. "We can no longer maintain our eurocentric approach to music," he said. "There's so much out there that the West has not embraced. In Indonesian music, there is no concept of a soloist; the focus is on community and the experience of self in society."

--Jan Gleason

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