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
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
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,
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
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."
to the October 14, 1996 contents page