In the beginning of the school year, our social studies teacher asked the 6th Grade students to complete a simple task: draw a map of the world. The results could pass for abstract art. I mean, the western hemisphere was ok: a reasonable outline of the USA that tapered at the bottom then ballooned into a blob. But the other side of the map was a mess: distorted and compressed beyond recognition, and absent a few minor details like Australia and the Middle East.
The students at my school are predominantly low-income, and for most their world is pretty small: Dorchester, Mattapan, Dunkin Donuts, “the mall,” even downtown Boston is just the skyline in the distance. Few have left the country and some don’t seem to have left the state, so when the class began a unit on Southeast Asia, I decided it was time to introduce them to Indonesian gamelan music. I swaddled my instruments in a blanket to keep the bamboo resonators from cracking in the cold, and brought them to school one Tuesday morning. At 7:50 when the first period of the day began, this is what my students heard:
I wasn’t sure what reaction I should expect, but teeth sucking, eye rolling, and ear covering would not have surprised me. At the least, I figured that the music would cement the feeling that the world beyond our borders was weird and beyond comprehension. In fact, maybe that was my point: to just freak them out with clanging metal and pictures of tooth-filing and cremation ceremonies. If so, the presentation was a failure. My 11-year old students were not only curious and attentive throughout, they made astute observations, asked good questions, and connected what they saw and heard with their own musical knowledge—they made sense of something that western listeners have historically regarded as the epitome of otherness.
Every student found his or her own way of comparing the actual sound of gamelan music to something that they knew:
“It sounds like a doorbell”
“An ice cream truck!”
“It reminds of me videogame music”
“The music from Mulan”
“Like a carnival”
Some of these responses suggest a real depth of observation. Rather than thinking of the pure and rounded tone of a vibraphone, he hears the more harsh sound of a doorbell with its ringing overtones. The reference to Mulan shows that on some level she recognized the 5-tone scale we associate so strongly with Asian music in general. Even the video games and ice cream truck, with their tinny, repetitive, and winding melodies, could be seen as a reasonable comparison to the sound of a solo gamelan instrument.
While my students’ reactions to the sound itself were interesting, I was most impressed by their analysis of how the sound was actually produced. The whole class immediately recognized the parallels between gamelan instruments and the vibraphones they use in music class: the metal keys, tube-shaped resonators, and ascending scale. They also managed to grasp the basics of the playing technique. One student saw that I was using part of my hand to dampen the notes I had already struck; another saw that my two hands sometimes moved in parallel and sometimes followed their own lines. The same child also noticed when one hand settled into a repeating pattern while the other played a longer melody.
Some of these observations may seem rather rudimentary, but they are impressive in the way that they move past the strangeness of the sound, to look squarely at the music’s structure. You might be surprised how rare this is in a western audience, which in my experience prefers awe to analysis, and mystery to comprehension. The tendency goes back a long time. Writing in the 1950s, a British traveler named John Coast raved that the gamelan was played with “such intricacy, such crisscross elusiveness, and with such a dazzling, brilliant zeal, as was most assuredly outside my comprehension.” Many since have echoed his sentiment. It seems that East Asia, and Bali in particular, has developed such a mystique in Western culture that most listeners simply assume that its music cannot be understood. Perhaps my students, who couldn’t even produce a crude outline of the continent, are better suited to the task than us worldly adults.