Scene Change

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While my teacher has been busy cooking up new compositions for this year’s Bali Arts Festival, I have taken to studying gender music with his father instead. Pak Dig belongs to an older generation of musicians for whom music is just another facet of village life rather than a full-time profession. He has a deep understanding of the music from a lifetime of performance but was never formally trained in an academic setting. Pak Dig’s musical tastes are somewhat dated and many of the pieces we learn are not commonly played today. His teaching style is similarly old-fashioned, using virtually no verbal explanation. He simply plays the piece, often at full speed, and I follow along. Working with Pak Dig can be a challenge, as our communication is very limited, but it has also given me a new perspective on Bali’s musical tradition.

This week’s lesson included an unexpected visitor and with him a brief glimpse into a forgotten corner of Balinese music. Towards the end of our session a short old man in a ball cap wandered into the family compound and came to sit with us on the open pavilion. The man turned out to be an old friend of Pak Dig’s from the same village of Batuyang. When my brain reached full saturation I slid over and the visitor took my place at the gender.  They started playing a tune I had never heard, and after refreshing their memories for a minute Pak Dig leaned over and asked me to record the piece. I dug my field recorder out of my bag and they started again from the top.

The song is called ‘Rundah,’ a general name for pieces used as scene change music in shadow puppet plays. The reason this ‘Rundah‘ was unfamiliar to me is that it comes from a gender repertoire unique to Batuyang. This village once had its own set pieces for accompanying shadow-puppet plays, but much of this music has been forgotten. What’s left is known only by a handful of people, most of them old men. This ‘Rundah‘ probably hasn’t been played in an actual shadow play for years. Today, wayang in this village simply use music originally from one of the larger towns, a sign of the changes sweeping over the island’s musical landscape.

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Bali has long been renowned for its musical density. This island the size of Delaware hosts over 1500 music groups playing at least a dozen different types of gamelan ensembles. More impressive than the sheer quantity, however, is the diversity of musical traditions within such a small area. Because the island was once divided into separate kingdoms, different areas still have distinct styles and repertoires. This is especially true of gender music. The ensemble can be played by as few as two people, so distinct gender traditions can be sustained even in small communities such as Batuyang, a village of a few hundred families that is not even marked on most maps.

A piece like ‘Rundah‘ could have ten or twenty versions scattered across the island, each a unique composition sharing little more than a name with its counterparts from other regions. The number is almost certainly shrinking, as local styles in places like Batuyang fade from memory. This loss of diversity is part of a larger trend towards homogeneity in the island’s music tradition. Rising affluence and new technologies are a big part of this change, integrating once isolated communities into an island-wide culture. A second factor is the emergence of formal music education at both the primary and university level. For musicians of Pak Dig’s generation, music was a village affair. He most likely learned gender from his father or by participating in the local gamelan club. Today it is typical for serious musicians to study at the arts conservatory here in Denpasar. The students come from all over Bali to learn the same music with the same teachers. The unavoidable result is greater standardization of both playing style and repertoire.

The disappearance of local repertoires and playing styles does not necessarily indicate a decline Balinese music, which remains a vigorous and dynamic part of the island’s culture. In some ways, the shedding of old music is a sign of the tradition’s vitality, a necessary loss to make room for new styles and compositions. This process of renewal has always been part of Balinese arts. In the early 20th century, music clubs were literally melting down the keys of old gamelan sets to build instruments in the then new style. That time’s cutting-edge music is now considered ‘tradisi,’ while today new ‘kreasi’ and ‘kontemporer’ (see the cognates) pieces continue the same progressive tradition. These days Bali’s avante-garde shakes things up by taking a disc grinder to a sacred gong or playing gamelan music on typewriters. These new creations bring their own kind of diversity, one based more on individual aesthetics and innovation than regional divisions.

Although musicians differentiate between ‘tradisi,’ ‘kreasi,’ and ‘kontemporer’ styles, in truth there is no division. They are all part of the same unbroken stream, a living tradition in the fullest sense. The disappearance of Batuyang’s gender style will be a loss, but it is not a musical dead-end to be mourned like the dying polar bears. The line is still strong, it just took a different course this generation. Bits and pieces of the village style will undoubtedly work their way into young minds and find new life. I recently performed with a shadow-puppet play in a nearby village and found that the music they play is not quite what I learned from Pak Dig. Apparently I have already absorbed some of the unique flourishes and variations of Batuyang style.

I am not entirely sure why Pak Dig asked me to record the ‘Rundah.’ He has never made such a request. I don’t think he expects me to learn the piece or disseminate it in the wider world. Maybe I am being romantic, but I think his motive was preservation, to make some permanent record of what may soon be forgotten music. The performance may not be perfect but the piece’s unique identity is wholly intact, accompanying, at least in my mind, one last change of scene.

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