Distant Explosions: Kebyar and The Rite of Spring
By Wayne Vitale
The birth of the kebyar style of music and dance took place in North Bali around 1914. Scholars who have intensively investigated the style have focused on this watershed musical event locally. They have framed the birth of kebyar in the context of shifts in Balinese culture, particularly those engendered by the Dutch colonial incursion into Bali and resulting puputan suicides at two Balinese palaces. This article attempts to reframe the question of kebyar’s origins within larger international currents and contexts by asking a few simple questions. How could it be that kebyar and “The Rite of Spring,” which share so many stylistic features and had parallel impacts in their respective and remote artistic universes, were born at the same instant? Were there any direct cross-influences between them, or did they share some fundamental cultural DNA? Were each of them artistic responses to the same shifts in societal norms and attitudes that were felt worldwide and resulted in other, strikingly similar stylistic explosions, such as jazz and tango? Did surface impressions or misinterpretations—so-called mondegreens—play a role, as they did eighty years later in the emergence of experimental musik kontemporer styles? In addressing these questions, I explore essential features of kebyar performing arts in detail, particularly in comparison to parallel features in “The Rite of Spring” as a progenitor and icon of modernism in Western art music.
The music and dance style kebyar, which sparked to life a century ago in villages of North Bali, ran like a wildfire over the island’s music and dance landscape. Within a few decades of its appearance, music groups throughout Central and South Bali were refashioning their ceremonial gamelan—orchestras of suspended gongs, bronze-keyed metallophones, tuned gong chimes, and drums—to accommodate the new style (McPhee 1966:328).1 Additional keys were added to extend instrumental ranges. Some groups brought their heirloom instruments to gongsmiths to be completely melted down and reforged into kebyar-capable sets. Musicians wanted lighter bronze keys and more of them, as well as longer racks of gong chimes, to play the rapid melodies and sharp accents of kebyar. As the instruments changed, playing techniques further expanded, and innovations in one realm fueled innovations in the other.
Not only kebyar’s popularity but also its materials were characterized by an explosive quality. Often starting with a full gamelan—that is, full orchestra— outburst of jagged unison rhythms, kebyar pieces surprise at every opportunity. Rapid changes in tempo and dynamics became the hallmark of the style. A piece might shift, without transition, from raging tumult to a whisper. Razor-edge interlocking rhythms were executed with precision by kebyar ensembles of twenty-five or more musicians. Compositional design developed a baroque complexity, with multiple sections of contrasting character and musical structure. Two early foreign observers noted kebyar’s strange fusions in the romantic terms of their day, declaring that kebyar “has elements which are as old as anything in Bali; for old themes jostle new in its fantastic pot-pourri, and they are hinged together in subtle and surprising ways, with intricate variations, paraphrases, cadenzas and rhythmic inventions, till the pattern of the melody almost disappears under the luxuriance of ornament. Around it all kinds of rhythmic somersaults and syncopations spread rings of disturbance as round as a stone in the water; the surface is shaken and a new pattern appears” (de Zoete and Spies 1938:232).
Dance was integral to kebyar almost from the start. By the early 1920s, fully choreographed dances appeared that embodied kebyar’s restless energy (Bandem and deBoer 1995:75), with sudden shifts in the dancer’s expression—now coy or sweetly seductive, then fierce or stern. “Frenzied accents and lyric sweetness interchange; he will sweep forward like a whirlwind, then freeze in a gesture, as if filled to rigidity with the beating sound” (de Zoete and Spies 1938:234). Male and female energies collided and intermingled, as elements of baris (the male warrior dance) were combined with legong (the dance of heavenly nymphs) and gandrung (a dance of flirtation, performed by men in drag). Kebyar was a modernist’s hallucinogenic dream, cast in bronze.
At the same historical instant, 12,330 kilometers away, another, seemingly unrelated musical revolution flared. Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (Le Sacre du Printemps) was premiered on May 29, 2013, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The ballet, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, caused a sensation and a near-riot in the audience. Opera composer Giacomo Puccini described the choreography as ridiculous and the music cacophonous, “the work of a madman. The public hissed, laughed—and applauded” (Adami 1974:251). Stravinsky adapted Russian folk melodies in several sections and “proceeded to pulverize them into motivic bits, pile them up in layers, and reassemble them in cubistic collages and montages” (Ross 2008:98). The work’s complex metric design, fragmented melodies, and “great crunching, snarling chords from the brass and thundering thumps from the timpani” (Henahan 1984) brought both derision at its premiere and enduring admiration. Within days, “confusion turned into pleasure, boos into bravos” (Ross 2008:82), starting a trajectory that continues a century later. Leonard Bernstein regarded “The Rite” as the most important piece of music of the twentieth century. It is also one of the most widely recorded. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than a hundred recordings of the piece were commercially available (Hill 2000).
Was it mere coincidence that one of the icons of modernism in Western music, and the first kebyar works—both of which played key roles in the formation of vast stylistic ecosystems—came into being simultaneously? The scale was different—kebyar engulfed only a small island—but their musical characteristics and profile of explosive growth seemed tantalizingly similar. The gamelan musicians of Bali lived in a remote musical universe, unaware of Stravinsky’s work. Indeed, there is little chance that any North Balinese musician of 1914 had ever seen a cello or a piano, much less a symphony orchestra. Concepts such as “chord” and “harmony” were also unknown in the island’s musical tradition. Stravinsky was unaware of kebyar at that point, since the premiere of “The Rite” preceded kebyar’s appearance by a year or two. Yet, did Stravinsky and kebyar artists share some deep cultural commonality—a homology that transcended direct musical links?
The effects of the kebyar explosion have radiated steadily outward. Over the past century thousands of kebyar orchestras have been formed, and thousands of kebyar-style music and dance pieces created. In the process, the repertoire and musical language of kebyar have absorbed rhythms, techniques, melodies, and formal designs from many other of the island’s diverse musical genres. (Like a tropical rainforest, Bali boasts a rich artistic ecology within a concentrated area, with more than twenty distinct musical genres and three thousand active gamelan ensembles.)2 Since the 1960s, when island-wide gamelan competitions became an annual event, mabarung—battle-of-the-bands contests that showcase new and traditional kebyar pieces—are attended by cheering crowds that fill stadiums in Denpasar, Bali’s capital, and at regional venues. Foreign scholars have contributed commentary and analysis, from Colin McPhee’s first begrudging recognition of kebyar in his landmark study Music in Bali (McPhee 1966) to Michael Tenzer’s detailed formal and stylistic analysis (Tenzer 2000) to Edward Herbst’s restoration and analysis of the earliest kebyar recordings of the late 1920s (Herbst 1999; Herbst 2011). Over the past few years the radiant warmth has increased, as centenary celebrations in Bali inspired renewed reflection by players, scholars, and cultural figures.
As an object of study, one attractive feature of kebyar is its compact historical frame, temporally and spatially. The birth of the style is traceable to a tiny handful of gamelan ensembles, artists, and founding works, all well known in Bali’s history and folklore. No film or sound recording (or musical score) of kebyar’s initial moments exists, but we can imagine them with vivid clarity owing to the continuous nature of the tradition. All of the style’s genesis works have been played and reinterpreted by thousands of gamelan ensembles over the past century, interrupted only by the Japanese occupation during World War II and the eruption of Gunung Agung in 1963. Though born suddenly, kebyar was resilient.
The style’s geographic boundaries are likewise distinct. Kebyar was indisputably an innovation of North Bali, and despite keen international interest throughout its century of existence, it remains unequivocally and quintessentially Balinese. This is partly the result of the interdependence of music and instruments. Owing to the non-Western scales, tunings, and inharmonic sound spectra of gamelan gong kebyar, the bronze instruments on which kebyar music is played, it defies easy combination with Western instruments in equal-tempered, twelve-tone tuning (Sethares 2005). As a result, and in contrast to other non-Western musics such as those of India and Africa, kebyar has undergone relatively little combination with foreign music. No Balinese musician or group has ever brought the type of popular stardom to kebyar that Ravi Shankar accomplished for Indian classical music through his appearance with the Beatles. So neat are these historical, geographic, and aesthetic frames that Balinese performing arts—music, dance, theater, and kebyar in particular—appear to me at times like a miniature diorama in a clear glass bottle, with delicate moving parts meant to delight the senses.
Kebyar offers a great origin story, too. It was ignited in the heat of competition (Bandem and deBoer 1995; Steele 2013:172), urged into existence through unfettered experimentation on makeshift stages, with cut-and-paste juxtapositions of music, dance, costumes, and extant styles. Rival groups freely intermingled diverse non-musical elements into their presentations. In kebyar’s earliest moments, bronze-percussive music alternated with dance, magic acts, recitation, and sleight-of-hand (Gusti Bagus Tikeh, personal communication, October 19, 1997). Its mash-up popular appeal made it the hip-hop of its day but in a scene that would be unrecognizable to an urban dancer of today. Kebyar first appeared in religious festivals—cremations, temple anniversaries, and other mass ceremonies—as instrumental interludes between readings of sacred texts (McPhee 1966: 343). The functional contrast between devotional context and popular intent eventually altered not only performing arts but also religious boundaries. Among its many lasting side effects, kebyar attached new twists to Bali’s practice of Hinduism, ushering in distinctions between “concert performance” and “sacred performance” in a culture that had never much distinguished between the two (Picard 1996b).
But wait—is kebyar really so self-contained? Isn’t the clear bottle an illusion? Alongside the local aspects of its origin story lies a dramatic international one, in which kebyar was a popular artistic expression born of conflict. Holland had consolidated colonial control of Bali just eight years earlier, finally knocking over, like chess pieces on a board, the few remaining kingdoms that had resisted its military advance since it began in the mid-nineteenth century. In the process, the Dutch disrupted cultural patterns that had developed over centuries with little external military intervention. The kingdoms of Bali had fought, for the most part, only with each other and with those of neighboring Java and Lombok. During those centuries, an elaborate ceremonial culture had developed in the Balinese courts, as each raja and prince sought to outdo his rivals not only with military force but also with spiritual magnificence. By sponsoring elaborate ceremonies, offerings, and rituals, each raja hoped to elevate his status further heavenward and align himself more perfectly with the deified ancestors, whose ranks he expected to ultimately join. With the Dutch onslaught, the “theater states” of nineteenth-century Bali (Geertz 1980) were upended, co-opted, manipulated, and in large part shattered. The two southern palaces of Badung and Klungkung, the last to fall, staged their final confrontations in the form of mass ritual suicides. Princes, priests, ministers, and their families marched, bejeweled and in white ceremonial robes, directly into the gunfire of advancing Dutch troops. They died in a gory mass, bodies upon bodies, felled both by Dutch bullets and by each other’s keris swords, plunged into the hearts of young and old alike to the dawning horror of the colonial troops.
One hundred paces from the startled Dutch, the Raja halted his bearers, stepped from his palanquin, and the ghastly ceremony began. A priest plunged his dagger into the Radja’s breast, and others of the company began turning their daggers upon themselves or upon one another. The Dutch troops, startled into action by a stray gunshot and reacting to attack by lance and sword, directed rifle and even artillery fire into the surging crowd. Some of the women mockingly threw jewels and gold coins to the soldiers, and as more and more people kept emerging from the palace gate, the mounds of corpses rose higher and higher (quoted in Pringle 2004:104).
These ritual confrontations, puputan, took place in 1906, at the palace of Badung in the current-day capital of Denpasar, and in 1908 at the palace of Klungkung, the seat of Bali’s most prestigious raja. They signaled “the end”—the literal meaning of puputan—not only for each kingdom’s immediate power but also for an entire mode of cultural interaction. The theater states exited the stage in appropriately theatrical fashion, as the old order “expired as it had lived: absorbed in a pageant” (Geertz 1980:13). There was no second act. Although feudal power did not fully dissipate, neither did Bali’s kingdoms ever fully recover. Instead, they became tethered for decades thereafter to colonial power manipulations. The deathly performances of the puputan were of such potency that they captured not only the consciences of Dutch administrators, who framed their “Ethical Policy” of light colonial control in embarrassed response (Vickers 2012; Pringle 2004), but also the imaginations of those in Bali who commemorate the puputan—interpreted as fearless acts of contempt for colonial authority (Wiener 1995:325–27)—in annual festivals, ceremonies, performances, and seminars.
Origins and Growth of Kebyar
The account of Dutch subjugation is routinely invoked in descriptions of kebyar’s birth. The narrative of foreign intervention, the smashing of the feudal order, and the subsequent spontaneous flowering of artistic expression is compelling. Edward Herbst has unearthed and restored the earliest known recordings of Balinese gamelan from the late 1920s and has devoted decades of study to the early years of kebyar, including interviews with many elder Balinese musicians and dancers only a generation removed from the style’s origins. He presents this narrative succinctly. In the notes to the first of the restored recordings, he provides the explanation (under the heading “The Early Years of Kebyar”) more by context and reference than by declaration.
Bali was then part of the Dutch East Indies (now the Republic of Indonesia). Although the Dutch fully administered Java, Bali’s rajas were not conquered and placed under Dutch control until 1908. By 1914, innovations were brewing around North Bali’s Buléleng region, the center of Dutch colonial administration. Most notably, it was in the villages of Jagaraga and Bungkulan that this explosive musical style came into being (Herbst 1999).
Michael Tenzer, in his detailed study of kebyar (Tenzer 2000), frames its early years in greater depth, but ultimately in much the same way on this point. He traces the style’s antecedents through the changing dynamics of life within the puri (courts), pura (temples), and banjar (village associations) over the previous century, emphasizing the social collectivity clearly expressed in gamelan performance practice. Of special significance for Tenzer is the sekaha, a voluntary, self-organized collective formed for a common purpose, such as temple upkeep, irrigation, rice harvesting, or borrowing-lending. Within this profusion of clubiness, the sekaha gong, or gamelan club, has always been the highest expression of the sekaha ideal. Large ensemble, multipart music of extraordinary rhythmic complexity is worked out in every detail and inflection through intensive rehearsal and learned entirely by heart, without notation.
With kebyar, Balinese performance practice reached a high plateau of collective interdependence, expressed in ensemble virtuosity of an astounding nature. Mantle Hood observed, “In Bali, where Balinese Hinduism as the foundation of social structure has produced something approaching the ideal of communal spirit, we find the highest standards of ensemble performance known to me in any part of the world” (Hood 1982). Near-perfect unanimity among the musicians is heard in the execution of interlocking rhythms and melodic patterns, accelerating to breakneck speeds or suddenly stopping with no apparent momentum. The slightest lack of synchronicity among the parts is noted and corrected through further rehearsal; the moving parts are lovingly tuned, like those of a race car. The ability to maintain such perfect ensemble in the midst of both great complexity and frequent tempo change influenced American composer Elliott Carter as he developed his techniques of metric modulation (Schiff 1998).
In Tenzer’s view, expressions of social interdependence were more a characteristic than a cause of kebyar. When he considers the style’s emergence, under the heading “The Changing Sekaha: The Birth of Kebyar,” he also marches the Dutch troops front and center.
In the centuries prior to Dutch rule, people’s affiliations and obligation to pura and puri had grown numerous, complex, and often fractious. This dispersion of power and human resources was straining social cohesion by the time of the 1846–49 Dutch military incursions into North Bali. . . . The Dutch completed their takeover after the infamous puputan (“the end”) at Badung (1906) and Klungkung (1908), in which the overwhelmed local kings and their armies were inspired to mass suicide on the battlefield (Tenzer 2000:86).
Over the past few years, as Bali finishes marking kebyar’s centenary anniversary with festivals, seminars, and other ruminations on its cultural prize, there has been renewed focus on the exact circumstances of kebyar’s birth and on its viability going forward. Kebyar remains a potent creative style for young Balinese composers and choreographers, who continue to generate scores of new music and dance works each year, combining kebyar with other cultural elements—from Javanese folk tunes to ritual dance styles—in an absorptive process that has characterized it from the start.
The challenge for many observers is that new elements are arriving from ever more distant points, resulting in ever-stranger amalgams. The same local hybridizing forces that shaped early kebyar works now reach easily across oceans, as young composers with international teaching and touring experience and internet access incorporate ideas from Western art and popular music. The “Celebration of One Hundred Years of Kebyar in Ubud” (Perayaan Seratus Tahun Kebyar Ubud), organized by composer I Wayan Sudirana and presented in May and July 2014, featured not only reconstructed kebyar pieces from the early and mid-twentieth century but also non-kebyar gamelan, such as gong suling and semar pegulingan; choreographies based on modern (i.e., Western) dance with recorded, digitally processed music; a “drum circle” using African djembe (made in Bali); and pieces written by foreign composers. (My own was among them.) Sudirana, who received his doctoral degree at the University of British Columbia,3 is among a handful of composers concentrated in the Ubud area who clearly regard kebyar more as a point of departure than as a carefully demarcated style.
In the work of the most prominent composer among them, I Dewa Ketut Alit of Pengosekan, the result of such cross-fertilization has been extended compositions of towering complexity and abstract beauty. Alit’s recent opus includes the forty-minute instrumental work “Genetik” and the thirty-minute “Tanah Sedang Bicara.” Listening to a rehearsal of “Genetik” at Alit’s home in 2011, I thought of biochemical interactions of genes and chromosomes, as musical parts seemed to combine and recombine in complex processes, proceeding at various rates of speed. I asked Alit about his conception. Yes, he agreed, “Genetik” is about genetics, but of his own musical heritage and not of biochemical processes. His goal in the piece was to unravel, like DNA, the many strands of musical knowledge—playing techniques, tuning systems, orchestrations, styles—that have converged within him (someone, he admits, who was “born into kebyar”) and within the collective knowledge of his fellow musicians. That sounded almost postmodern to me, hardly a familiar paradigm in a tradition closely allied with the tropical environment, in which dancers and musicians have long drawn inspiration from lizards skidding across water or the bending of rice stalks in the wind. Here, the twenty-year-old performers of Alit’s ensemble sat in rapt concentration, some with their eyes closed in intense internal focus, playing “Genetik”s metric patterns of fifteen beats interacting with cycles of five, seven, and nine. One foreign observer seated beside me commented that it resembled Julliard students playing Stockhausen.
Such work, even for the most open-minded of Balinese observers, challenges common-sense notions of the boundaries of the kebyar style. (Alit himself emphatically claims his work is not kebyar.) Unable to find a recognizable melody, drum pattern, or gong cycle, most audiences find it difficult to accommodate such experimentation within a musical style that is characterized by widely shared and recognizable materials. Even if local audiences accept such experimentation—and most do, in a culture known for its openness to creative variation—many feel these works have abandoned kebyar’s popular appeal and stepped into different territory. This fault line is not new. In the 1990s the stylistic category musik kontemporer (contemporary music) was coined to denote such experimental trends that were already underway a decade or more earlier (McGraw 2005). The work of Alit and his colleagues is now challenging such boundaries more forcefully than before in their unconstrained recombination of genres, tuning systems, repertoires, and cultural frames (McGraw 2013a; Vitale 2002; Steele 2013:229). This is evident in the fact that the gamelan semaradana, a newly devised hybrid gamelan that utilizes a seven-tone (rather than pentatonic) scale, is quickly replacing the gamelan gong kebyar as the most popular instrumental vehicle for kebyar compositions in two urban centers of gamelan activity, Ubud and Denpasar. A stylistic identity crisis could not be plainer.
North and South
Two perspectives, the historical and the predictive, were evident at the Festival and Seminar of North Balinese Culture, held in the city of Singaraja in the summer of 2013. Artists and scholars from Bali, Europe, the United States, Japan, Australia, and other countries discussed North Balinese performing arts, history, architecture, economy, and cultural trends. Among points of debate, one of the more inflammatory issues in Balinese cultural history—the rivalry between North and South Bali—suddenly came to the fore. North Bali might be the undisputed point of origin of kebyar and other artistic innovations, but it is equally unquestioned that over the ensuing century the locus of cultural and economic activity moved to South Bali, along with the capital city. (Denpasar replaced Singaraja as Bali’s capital in 1958.) As the kebyar wildfire spread southward in the 1920s and 1930s, and especially during the creative wave following Indonesian independence in 1949, musicians and dancers from the south were not only engulfed but started a thousand fires of their own. Kebyar became their music and dance, too. It was rehearsed in hundreds of village pavilions and was featured prominently in temple festivals and at civic events. With the opening of KOKAR, Bali’s first music and dance academy, in 1962, the launch of annual island-wide gamelan competitions in 1968, and the exponential growth of international tourism that supported much artistic activity, South Bali became the hegemonic center of Balinese performing arts, with kebyar as its preeminent style.4
Meanwhile, northern Balinese towns and villages were left behind, economically and culturally. The village of Bungkulan, one of the origin points of kebyar, has maintained a strong performing arts tradition but otherwise hosted an uneventful lifestyle based on farming, fishing, and labor. Ambitious young people flee to the south to work in international hotels or restaurants. The tensions of this lopsided north vs. south dynamic were evident among northern artists from the 1960s onward, as they felt increasingly oppressed by the cultural power brokers of the newly formed academies and government arts committees. These were the teachers and bureaucrats who, among other acts of artistic domination, dictated the rules of gamelan competitions and staffed the panels that judged them. Groups from the north, forced to perform pieces and adhere to guidelines created in the south, were seldom victorious. In a culture in which a winning sekaha gong can confer as much regional pride as a winning soccer team, the bitterness in the north was often palpable.
In an otherwise convivial seminar, these tensions rose to the surface over a seemingly academic point: What year did kebyar actually come into being? As with many authorship debates in Bali, and particularly those concerning kebyar pieces of later periods (see Tenzer 2005 for a recent example), variant claims have been put forth, placing its birth in 1913, 1914, or 1915, and in one or another of a few North Balinese villages (Tenzer 2000:88). The exact year mattered because of a scheduling issue. Centenary festivities were being planned on both ends of the island, including Buleleng, where the next Festival of North Balinese Culture would be held. Would artists and scholars of the North (who think 1915 is correct) allow their compatriots of the South (who lean toward 1914) to override them in designating the official year? It would be another in a long series of indignities. I whispered a question to Professor I Wayan Dibia, who was seated next to me: Who should decide this? A few minutes later, Dibia, the well-known choreographer, scholar, and past director of the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Denpasar, Bali’s preeminent performing arts academy, stood up and spoke in a moment of cultural diplomacy: North Balinese artists—i.e., those hosting and attending the seminar—should have the final say. They agreed on 1915.
Returning home to San Francisco and thinking about the presentations, my mind filled again with imaginations of kebyar’s first wild juxtapositions and spectacle. I was able to regain some of the simple wonder I had when I first encountered this music thirty-four years earlier. What could have inspired such a thing? In a tradition previously characterized by the steady, predictable pace of ceremonial and courtly music, where could this fascination with sudden and kaleidoscopic change have originated? The explanation of Dutch intervention and spontaneous creative response suddenly seemed simplistic, almost too easy. Recent histories of the island (e.g., Pringle 2004) have made it clear that Bali had experienced tremendous conflict and had considerable interaction with foreigners, long before the twentieth century. It continued long after as well. World War II, Indonesian independence, the mass killings of 1965, and even the current period of international tourism in Bali, which is regarded by many as an invasion of its own, have dotted the century with turmoil. Why did this particular upheaval, and not another, usher in kebyar?
With those thoughts in mind, I attended another centenary celebration, this one from a remote cultural universe. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (Le Sacre du Printemps) was being performed, admired, and discussed in a thousand forums. (Technically, the anniversary of its Paris premiere fell on May 29, 2013, but activities continued into the late summer and fall of 2014.) The piece was performed and feted by major orchestras throughout the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony. As I witnessed all the activity, a question that had flickered across my mind years earlier reappeared in living color. How could it be that “The Rite of Spring” and the kebyar style were created at almost the same instant? Despite the geographic and cultural distance, they seemed to be speaking the same language, and adjusting for scale, their profiles of rapid influence were nearly identical.
Thus regarded, many similarities came into view. The most immediate is in their rhythmic materials. “Kebyar Legong,” one of the three founding dance pieces of kebyar,5 is characterized, just as “The Rite of Spring,” by a kind of rhythmic impulsiveness, an unabashed celebration of irregularity, of the disturbance of steady metric flow. These qualities were intentional, not accidental or secondary (e.g., the metric consequences of text-setting), and were showcased to a previously unknown degree. They became affirmations of unpredictability and irrationality. Tilman Seebass sees kebyar’s emergence as being indicative of a fundamental change in mentality and a condensed, heightened perception of time. He contrasts the sharp dynamic profile of early kebyar pieces with the slowly changing, cyclical, and “static” form of traditional works (Seebass 1996). “Kebyar Legong” uses, for its opening section, the quintessential gambit of the kebyar style: a full orchestra tutti, with no beat or meter, played fortissimo, tumbling forward in cascades of angular rhythms. Bronze metallophones, cymbals, large gongs, tuned gong-chimes, and drums are all united in the rhythmic melee, which might last a minute or more. These startling passages so characterize the style—and indeed are probably its stylistic origin point (McPhee 1966:342)—that they themselves are simply called “kebyar” (as in, “Let’s take it from the kebyar”). To represent such music in Western staff notation, a well-equipped, modern notational arsenal is needed, with tuplets of five or seven, dotted and double-dotted rhythms, unspecified note-lengths, and a profusion of fermatas to indicate kebyar’s many tense pauses. Stravinsky had all of these notational tools at his disposal, while Balinese kebyar musicians and composers achieved such sophistication in an oral tradition and through intensive rehearsal. The musical end products, however, were strikingly similar.
On top of these jagged rhythms, and indeed through them, both pieces also demonstrate a shared fascination with extreme contrast. Both are sensationalist in intent, deploying not only irregular full-orchestra outbursts and dense textures but also their affective opposites. Sweet, gentle passages are found in both (assuming we adjust for sonic differences. A “sweet” section performed by a twenty-five-piece bronze percussion orchestra has a different acoustic profile than, say, the string section of a symphony orchestra.) Dynamic contrast is common in music worldwide; the distinguishing aspect here lay in the use of such juxtapositions as a dramatic strategy. I think of the plaintive cry of the single bassoon in its highest register that begins “The Rite of Spring,” followed only moments later by a full-throttled, dissonant charge of rhythm by a huge orchestra with a fortified percussion section. Balinese performers usually do this in the reverse order. The fortissimo kebyar section that opens many pieces often leads, with little or no transition, to a section of expansive tranquility.
Kebyar’s earliest works showed another strategy that Stravinsky also exploited: the evocation of the remote, mythologized past. In Bali this was part of a broader tradition in which divergent cultural strata were combined into a high-low mix, synthesizing popular culture with religious or high art forms (see McPhee 1966:343 for the Balinese case). In “The Rite,” Stravinsky fused folk melodies and a story of primitive, ritualistic acts with sophisticated, extended techniques in the symphonic tradition. The high-low combo thus worked in two, parallel ways, as he turned his composer’s regard simultaneously to the past and to the future, both “downward” to the spontaneous tunes of the common folk and “upward” to the intellectual high ground of the Western musical elite.
In Bali, admixtures of past and present, of high and low, were already well established in performing arts traditions by the early twentieth century. These were part of a complex of literary and linguistic practices in which ancient and modern languages (and modes of delivery, such as theater, speech, poetry, and song) were used, and widely understood, in the interpenetration of ancient ideas, thoughts, and customs with modern ones (Wallis 1980). This dualism—ancient/modern, left/right, good/evil, sacred/profane—is not restricted to Bali. (See Sumarsam’s introduction for the larger Indonesian case.) Recitation was one of the most popular delivery modes. Two vocalists read from sacred texts in stylized tonalities, with one singing the rarefied ancient language of Kawi (also known as Old Javanese) and alternating with a partner’s paraphrase in modern High Balinese delivered in a singsong sprechstimme, “an extemporaneous rendering of the text’s meaning in stylized vernacular” (Zurbuchen 1987:91). (Kawi is the Latin of Bali. Only priests and other literati understand it, so translations are necessary.)6 These texts opened a modern window to the mythologized past, bringing to life the great Hindu stories, such as the dynastic struggles between the warring princes of the Mahabharata.
How did kebyar fit in to these vocal traditions? In its first appearances, kebyar was the stuff in-between, the instrumental interludes between readings, provided by the gamelan orchestra seated just behind the two vocalists (McPhee 1966:343). The gamelan players interjected music of extreme contrast—short outbursts of percussive cadenza-like unison rhythms—before the vocalists took up another measured reading of poetic texts. This was music to jolt listeners awake, in case the ancient language was lulling them into serene contemplation. (Haydn would be pleased.) The very word kebyar expresses the intended shock. The root is /byar/, which in Balinese is akin to the “bang!” or “pow!” or “zap!” of Batman comics. Byar! is a sudden explosion.
The sensational qualities of kebyar also served another goal or, in the opinion of one Balinese expert and his American coauthor, were the consequences of another impulse, since the readings were not only devotional but also competitive (Bandem and deBoer 1995:74). Pairs of vocalists, with their respective gamelan orchestras, engaged in head-to-head competitions with opposing teams that could last up to three days. In the festival context, shock tactics could be decisive, bringing enough popular approval to tilt the match. This sensationalist one-upmanship became permanently attached to kebyar and lives on in modern gamelan competitions, which often resemble sporting events. In today’s urban, stadium-sized gamelan face-offs, crowds have been known to jeer the opposing groups, throw things at them, or sabotage their performances, while the groups themselves play to the crowds with elaborately staged gestures and movement. Folklore from the earliest years of kebyar is rich with stories of musicians taking extreme measures to win gamelan matches, all the way up to espionage. One group dispatched a team of players to sneak covertly into the rehearsals of a rival gamelan ensemble in an effort to memorize and steal their rhythms and techniques (individual spies were assigned different sections of the kebyar orchestra), teach them to their own group, and later brandish them in competition ahead of their opponents, demoralizing them.
Another essential strategy exploited by these geographically distant artists was the fusing of disciplines: Dance was wedded to music. Kebyar’s initial moments might have been as instrumental interludes, but movement was quickly added to the mix. The first self-standing kebyar pieces, which appeared by the mid-1920s, were all dances. Movement was no simple overlay; the fusion was integral, expressed on all levels of form, articulation, and accent- a perfect example of the porousness of Balinese artistic categories. “Palewakya,” one of the founding kebyar works, features a solo dancer, but it also weaves recitation into the artistic design, a direct consequence of kebyar’s origins. Alternating with fast, energetic sections are sweeter, slower, evenly paced ones—the characteristic kebyar contrast—in which the solo dancer launches into recitations of palewakya, pastoral poems declaimed in a manner similar to kekawin, the sacred vocal genre of recitation competitions. Midway through “Palewakya,” the musical flow abruptly halts, and the dancer-reciter adds yet another role, that of musician. She picks up two long mallets, and plays a few improvisatory notes on the long trompong (a row of gong chimes) with stylized, twirling gestures that punctuate and underline her recitations. A translator, seated among the gamelan musicians, provides interpretations in High Balinese. She proceeds in this way to the end of the piece, interweaving roles as dancer, singer, and musician. Like the shuddering and whirling dancers of “The Rite,” her movement becomes, in a thrilling final section, infused with an irrepressible rhythmic power, as if animated by subterranean forces almost too great to control. Vaslav Nijinsky would have taken notes.
Seed Crystals of Innovation
The fascination with dramatic contrast points to another shared sensibility. Both European modernists and early kebyar artists were intoxicated with narratives of freedom, with the urge to break boundaries. With the modernists, we encounter the historical context of giddy experimentation familiar to Western musicians and artists. The century’s first decade saw the appearance of early atonal music, as composers left behind traditional harmonic constraints in search of new organizing principles. In Italy and soon elsewhere, the Futurists became enamored with themes of technology and speed, amped up in violent expression of Industrial Age products, such as automobiles, aeroplanes, and the mechanized city. Braque, Picasso, and other Cubists envisioned fractured, rearranged faces and bodies imbued with musical rhythms and discords. Freedom of expression defined the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist.
But how so in Bali? Where could artists find opportunities for freedom of expression—or expressions of freedom? Hadn’t the Dutch just completed colonial control rather than liberation? The Dutch succeeded well enough in their Balinese project. Following the puputan, the colonial government lasted for more than thirty years, undone only by the Japanese invasion during World War II. In the well-practiced tradition of European colonialism, the Dutch employed an efficient top-down approach to subjugation. A keen focus on exploiting the Balinese ruling class—haughty princes with names like Anak Agung (The Great One) and Cokorda Dewa (Feet of God)—brought them quick control of land and resources. Most of the Balinese elite, eager to protect dwindling realms and prestige, succumbed to the trade agreements, gifts, threats, or strategic pacts of “protection” that the Dutch offered. Cooperation inevitably brought them reassigned status. The Dutch tweaked and stiffened aspects of Bali’s caste system, with themselves at the top. Like the British in India, they subverted local hierarchies to their own ends, doling out such titles as stedehouders (representatives) and negara-bestuurders (kingdom-rulers). It worked. They, like the British in India, ran their colonial enterprise with surprisingly few administrators.
Inevitably, as colonial control was consolidated and the Balinese rajas were confounded by their new masters, a narrative of freedom and liberation found fertile soil among commoners. Alit, the composer of “Genetik,” sees the outbursts of kebyar as an assertion of self-determination and individuality, an artistic manifestation of something already in the air well before the puputan suicides (Alit, personal communication, 2011; see also Steele 2013:173).7 Seen in this light, the period following the horror of the puputan created, for those not directly preoccupied with Dutch machinations, an outlet for accumulated cultural expression. I Nyoman Catra (quoted in Herbst 2009:7) regards this creative growth to a kind of cultural medicine, healing the traumas of social upheaval caused by colonial occupation. It was felt on a mass popular level. Enormous festivals, cremations, and ceremonies took place—the crucibles of kebyar’s birth. These were gatherings of a free and hitherto unknown atmosphere, apparently unconstrained by royal or colonial oversight (Tikeh, personal communication, 1997). Religious celebrations took on the atmosphere of rock music festivals. They took place in spacious temple courtyards or wide-open fields with temporary stages erected from slats of bamboo. Early twentieth-century audiences in northern Bali witnessed not only recitation contests with proto-kebyar interludes but also magicians stabbing their cheeks with long needles, dancers bursting out of papier-mâché flowers, and other carnival-like spectacles (Panji, personal communication, 1992). The Dutch evidently tolerated these gatherings, calculating that only the rajas and other elite could mobilize any real threat to their colonial enterprise. A positive spin was also possible, since such events could be interpreted as demonstrations that their “Ethical Policy” of light control was allowing Balinese culture—of which a series of Dutch officials had become avid scholars—to flourish.
In fact, the Ethical Policy was soon given additional spin beyond redirecting international attention away from the puputan. It became a romanticized self-justification for continued Dutch presence. The native culture on this “enchanted isle” required the occupier’s “protection” from the destructive effects of the twentieth century. Some Dutch administrators claimed that they were there to save Bali’s culture from modernism, unaware of the irony that they might be enabling its introduction. The former director of the Bali Instituut, founded in 1915—the very moment of kebyar’s birth—used the emerging colonial tendency to regard Bali in sexual terms (Vickers 2012) in his advice to the administration.
Let the Balinese live their own beautiful native life as undisturbed as possible. Their agriculture, their village-life, their own forms of worship, their religious art, their own literature—all bear witness to an autonomous native civilization of rare versatility and richness. . . . Let the colonial administration, with the strong backing of the Netherlands government, treat the island of Bali as a rare jewel, that we must protect and whose virginity must remain intact (quoted in Pringle 2004:124).
Imagined side-by-side, Stravinsky’s primitivistic ballet and kebyar’s strange meldings can be understood not only as seed crystals of later innovation but also as manifestations of global currents of the time. At the same instant, musicians elsewhere in the world were combining sensational contrasts, angular rhythms, dance, and narratives of self-determination to launch similar waves of innovation. Jazz was generating a frenzy of excitement in American dance halls that reached all the way to Europe. Although no precise birth date can be assigned to jazz—its roots, like those of kebyar, reach far back into the nineteenth century—the period just before World War I was one of explosive growth. Meanwhile, thousands of miles south, tango was rocking a different set of dance halls. Tango also had no clear birth date, with origins in the tenements of nineteenth-century Buenos Aires (Denniston 2003), but the style showed the same profile of rapid diffusion and popularity at the same historical instant.8 Like kebyar and jazz, within a decade or two tango’s wild new rhythms and dance moves were known to millions.
My original question, then, had grown larger. Were these music and dance styles all of a family, siblings born simultaneously at great distances? If they shared so many features, did they somehow share (to use Alit’s artistic conception) a common genetic background, some strands of artistic or cultural DNA? If Bali were disregarded, those strands would be difficult to unravel. Musical styles in European, American, and Argentinean cultures—art music, jazz, and tango—shared too many intertwined influences that were formed over centuries of contact. Bali, however, presents a special case by virtue of its relative isolation, thereby making the larger question not only potentially more answerable but also potentially more revealing of subtle influence. Was it possible that the same factors, operating across a great distance, shaped musical experimentation in Paris and in North Bali in the first decade of the twentieth century?
Initially at least, the question must be addressed narrowly, in terms of possible direct musical influence. From that perspective, the limits of influence in the eastward direction are clear enough. There was scant chance that early twentieth-century Balinese musicians had any contact with, or knowledge of, contemporary musical developments in European art music. Dutch officials and merchants in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bali were preoccupied with control and exploitation, with slaves and opium. Those of a more scholarly bent focused their studies on adat (traditional law) and hereditary land rights. Although several Dutch administrators became fluent in Balinese, a rich and multileveled language, and most knew Malay, it is inconceivable that revolutionary aspects of meter and harmonic structure in European art music were topics of discussion with their Balinese subjects. Devoid of context or musical encounter, such concepts would be virtually meaningless. No one played Scriabin or Ravel at Balinese night markets. In fact, there is no evidence that anyone in North Bali at that time had ever seen a cello or a piano, much less a symphony orchestra. Moreover, concepts such as “chord” and “harmony” were unknown in the gamelan tradition, which utilizes a different system of internal organization. The gamelan musicians of Bali lived, indeed, in a remote musical universe.
What about indirect information or influence in the exchange of ideas? Ethnomusicologist Andrew McGraw has investigated this possibility vis-à-vis current music making in Bali (McGraw 2009). He has described how experimental or “avant-garde” styles that have emerged over the past few decades, first in the Javanese city of Surakarta and later in Bali, showed uncanny resemblances to experimental styles and pieces in the West, but almost entirely without any substantial musical understanding across cultures. The parallels were, instead, the result of miscommunications—a process of “idea diffusion” in which ideas were received, in a meme-like fashion, but became unintentionally altered in their new cultural settings. For McGraw, the concept of “mondegreen” playfully defines this process. First coined by the American writer Sylvia Wright in 1954, a mondegreen refers to her mishearing the final couplet of the Scottish ballad “The Bonney Earl o’ Murray.”
Thay hae slain the Earl o’ Murray, and hae laid him on the green.
She heard instead:
Thay hae slain the Earl o’ Murray, and Lady Mondegreen.
Meaning is conveyed, but it is askew from the original. Lady Mondegreen is born (and dies) of a mishearing. Was it possible that Balinese musicians indirectly received, in some mondegreen-like fashion, ideas from European culture that were transformed and integrated into their work?
Dutch Marching Band Theory
At this point we come to an interesting hypothesis, which I call the Dutch Marching Band Theory. As it turns out, the Dutch did not come to Bali musically unequipped. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, they brought military marching bands. This music did not go unnoticed by the Balinese. One of North Bali’s most revered cultural figures is Ida Gede Bagus Sudhyatmaka Sugriwa, the former head of the Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) station in North Bali (and now a religious figure known by the title of Ida Resi). He believes Dutch military music was popular among the Balinese, who were especially impressed by the new rhythms and the sound of trumpets, previously unknown in Bali. The Dutch scholar Heidi Hinzler, whose grandfather went to the Indies in 1860, heard from him that Balinese audiences even had favorites in the military band repertoire. One popular tune was “Blanus Music” (Hinzler, personal communication, 2014).
I was intrigued. This is anecdotal evidence of a direct, cross-cultural musical encounter. Might this have figured into kebyar’s genesis? It reminded me of a conversation I had in the early 1990s with I Gusti Ngurah Panji, the former head of KOKAR, Bali’s first music and dance academy. Pak Panji believed one of the distinctive features of kebyar—starting a piece with a bang (that is, an explosive full-orchestra outburst)—might have been inspired by the music of Dutch military marching bands. Their pieces began with a crash of cymbals and launched directly into a dotted-rhythm theme. Pak Panji imagined audiences were struck by the strangeness of this basic musical feature. Most Balinese pieces up to that point involved a gradual introduction, in the form of an improvisatory lead-in by one player, or a few preparatory drum strokes. This music started with an explosion, like breaking down the door rather than knocking first.
If Pak Panji’s theory is correct, it might explain the origins, in strictly musical terms, of kebyar’s most essential feature—its “bang,” “pow,” and “zap” factor, the byar! of kebyar. It would also be a near-perfect mondegreen of skewed perception. Like all marching band players, the Dutch musicians had other matters to preoccupy them: voicings, breathing, ensemble blend, playing in tune, marching in step. For the Balinese, the simple idea of starting with a crash caught their fancy. This was a feature to which the Dutch musicians were so long accustomed that it no longer held much, if any, significance. Yet, in reverse engineering it for their own musical world, if that is indeed what they did, Balinese musicians acquired the most crucial component of the kebyar explosion—the blast itself.
Idea diffusion, appropriation, and misappropriation are ubiquitous in human affairs. They appear in realms both lofty and mundane, with a range of impacts from deep to superficial. Hinzler told me of her research into the sudden popularity of buttons, previously not part of Balinese dress, in North Bali in the early twentieth century. Made of silver or gold coins, they were affixed to jackets—another new item—that looked suspiciously like those of Dutch colonial administrators. She traced the fashion’s spread eastward via Muslims and Chinese from neighboring Java, where the Dutch had by then firmly established themselves. (It eventually infiltrated kebyar performing arts, too. Uniforms of high-collared jackets with bright buttons still appear in modern gamelan competitions.) Hinzler sees this as part of a typical Balinese attraction for new things, which are then freely adopted and enjoyed “for their own sake” (Heidi Hinzler, personal communication, 2013).
I am skeptical that any such adaptations are so simple. Even buttons carry associations—in this case, to authority and power. The more interesting question for this inquiry is how such emblems become tied to different subsurface meanings in a new cultural context. Hinzler has pondered this question in other artistic realms. She has immersed herself in Dutch archives and museum collections, investigating how drawing, sculpture, and painting changed in late nineteenth-century colonial Bali. Her work, and that of Adrian Vickers of the University of Sydney, reveals that startling innovations in visual arts were already well underway, with experimentation in “palette, style, and composition” clearly not copied from Western styles (Hinzler 1986–87:35). Categories such as “traditional” and “modern” made as little sense at that point as they do today. Balinese artists, like their European counterparts, restlessly sought new ideas and techniques.
Other tidbits—historical trinkets, perhaps, like those buttons—appeared to me, likewise suggestive of cultural interactions that were far more subtle and emblematic than the usual histories of princely battles and colonial trade pacts. I fast-forwarded to another cultural encounter, decades after kebyar’s birth but seemingly struck from the same gold coin as those buttons. In 1932 Charlie Chaplin toured Bali and gave performances that were not only wildly popular but also left a curious artifact. Sixty years later, I witnessed performances of janger, the light-hearted popular form of dance and music involving rows of young men and women. This is the same form noted by Ed Herbst as a possible early twentieth-century antecedent to kebyar in its free stylistic fusions, combining “musical elements from Sang Hyang trance ritual, Malay pantun sung poetry, and cakepung palm-wine drinking songs with gamelan geguntangan, . . . gamelan tambour which included a rebana drum of Arabic origin” (Herbst 1997). In the janger performance I attended, all the male dancers wore painted-on moustaches and were called caplin (pronounced “chop-lin”). Afterwards I asked the young dancers if they knew where the name caplin and that stroke of upper-lip make-up originated. None had any idea.
Debussy and Gamelan
Thinking about these strange and indelible influences across cultures brought me, in this ever-shifting mirror, back to the other side of my question. What musical influences from the Dutch East Indies, however misconstrued, might have found their way to Europe in the decades before Stravinsky took pen to page for his infamous ballet? Did kebyar’s antecedents, in any form or fashion, make their way westward? Here we come to an historical point of well-documented and direct musical exchange that has been much discussed by international gamelan students and scholars. At the 1889 Paris Exposition, Claude Debussy encountered for the first time Sundanese gamelan music (frequently misidentified as Javanese court music; see Sumarsam in this volume), which is closely related in structure and instrumentation to Balinese music. Debussy was, by his own admission, profoundly affected. In an 1895 letter to his friend Pierre Louÿs, he wrote, “But my poor friend! Do you remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades. . . which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts, for use by naughty little children?” (quoted in Borgeaud 1945:41).
Could this be a missing link, a twisted musical conduit from Bali to Stravinsky via Sundanese music on the one side and his famed French colleague on the other? Scholars have attempted to identify borrowed gamelan melodies, textures, and scales in Debussy’s works as evidence of direct influence. The piano piece “Pagodes” from Estampes is often cited for its pentatonic scales and supposed evocations of gongs and other gamelan timbres (Howat 1994; Hugh 1997; Tamagawa 1988). These searches might be as misleading as they are revealing, directing our attention to surface musical features rather than underlying creative impulses. The reason is simple: in his brief encounters with gamelan—a few hours of listening—the possibility of Debussy attaining any true comprehension of the music, by Sundanese or Javanese reckoning, was slim. This is the exact converse of the marching band phenomenon. The meaning of a stroke on kempul or kethuk—two punctuating gongs that are sounded to mark important arrivals in the musical flow, functionally much like the resolutions of Western harmony—would have been, even if noticed, incomprehensible to him, having been prepared by similarly unfamiliar melodic and drum patterns. Fundamental concepts such as balungan, the core or trunk melody that is the basis of melodic elaboration, would be likewise obscure. What Debussy experienced, instead, was a moment of artistic revelation. Here was a musical system that was intentional (worked out in detail and largely non-improvised), highly developed, and capable of the most variegated musical expression, but it had nothing to do with the western European musical principles of harmony or counterpoint he had learned.
On the other hand, this was no mondegreen in the strict sense, since Debussy understood his misunderstanding. It was for him a known unknown of transnational cultural relations. Years later—in 1913, in fact, just as “The Rite” and kebyar were being born—he reflected on this encounter in an article in La Revue S.I.M., a Paris-based musical revue.
There used to be—indeed, despite the troubles that civilization has brought, there still are—some wonderful peoples who learn music as easily as one learns to breathe. Their school consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises, which they listen to with great care, without ever having consulted any of those dubious treatises. Their traditions are preserved only in ancient songs, sometimes involving dance, to which each individual adds his own contribution century by century. Thus Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint which make Palestrina seem like child’s play. And if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus (quoted in Smith 1977).
Unlike many contemporaries, Debussy heard not music that was “monotonous” or “cacophonous,” performed by people from a “semi-civilized race” (see Sumarsam), but an intelligent one, guided by detailed principles and operating according to musical laws invisible to him. Not only were tonic or dominant gone—mere “ghosts”—but the entire system of harmony intrinsic to Western music was absent. The key question, then, becomes not whether he borrowed a tune or took a few sonic snapshots (gold button impressionism, we might say), but whether he reverse-engineered this experience for his own musical purposes on a more profound level. Is it possible that whole-tone scales, harmonic ambiguities, novel orchestrations, new chordal voicings, and textures—the very features of Debussy’s new language that musicologists have analyzed in abundant detail within the context of Western music history—might be, at least in part, the end result of his encounter with the musical world of these “wonderful peoples,” reimagined and reconstructed for Western instruments?9
If true, we can trace a musical line from traditional Sundanese gamelan to Debussy to Stravinsky, his peer and rival composer, but it would be a narrow and tenuous line indeed, involving a musical tradition related only peripherally to that of Bali, then reinterpreted by another composer in Stravinsky’s sphere. Could that account for any of the similarities of Stravinsky’s infamous ballet with kebyar? And again, what of the Balinese musicians, striking up wild orchestral interludes between recitations, with little or no knowledge of musical revolutions halfway around the world? Could royal suicides, Dutch marching bands, and gold buttons explain it?
Clearly all are mere clues, maddening hints of a larger and more multilayered process of idea diffusion, as older paradigms and conventions were being quickly displaced in both locations. Balinese painters were intensively experimenting not only with new techniques but also with new perspectives, new ways of regarding their own relationships to their work. Adrian Vickers has discovered what may be the first self-portrait in Balinese art, created as early as the mid-nineteenth century, which he regards as implying “a new form of subjectivity . . . usually associated with the modern” (Vickers 1996). He points to the earlier, Southeast Asia-wide narratives known as the Panji stories, in which the lives of wandering princes were described in new terms that emphasize individual autonomy and dynamic change as the princes encountered shifting political and economic realities. For Vickers, Bali “cannot be thought of as a timeless, unchanging place, isolated from the rest of the world, and thus only disturbed by the coming of the ‘modern’ via Dutch imperialism” (Vickers 1996). He notes how proto-nationalists and intellectuals in Java, at the turn of the twentieth century, were undergoing a political and social awakening, advancing notions of self-achievement and educated wisdom. Benedict Anderson has traced particular conduits and forms of these transformations in Java. Newspapers appeared in the 1860s, telegraph and railways in the 1880s (Anderson 1990). Technologies that were spinning the minds of the Futurists in Italy were having similar effects just across the strait from Bali.
For me, these questions point both to the elusiveness and potency of the musical genetics that might be part of both “The Rite of Spring” and “Kebyar Legong.” A tide of new ideas and change was sweeping across Europe and the Dutch East Indies. Actual musical exchange may have been limited to mondegreens or momentary impressions—Dutch military bands or Debussy’s hearing the “ancient songs” of Javanese musicians. Yet, the musical results were all of a style, an elusive meta-style operating beneath, between, and behind localized creative impulses. It was as if those first Balinese kebyar artists, dizzy with the pandemic fever of experimentation and change, lit a fuse under their traditional forms only to reassemble the pieces in new ways, and they did so in unwitting synchrony with another artistic explosion half a world away.
- 1. For a succinct but detailed description of kebyar by an author close to its historical source, see McPhee 1966, chap. 19, “Kebyar–The Latest Style.” (McPhee spent about a decade in Bali before World War II.) For restored and annotated recordings of kebyar music from 1928, with extensive descriptive text, see Herbst 2009 and Herbst 2011. For an in-depth analysis of kebyar from a more contemporary ethnomusicological and analytical perspective, see Tenzer 2000.
- 2. Tenzer quotes a 1992 government report showing 2,836 active gamelan ensembles in Bali, of which most are gamelan gong kebyar and gamelan angklung (Tenzer 2000:108). If correct, and based on the continued strong sales of gamelan instruments I have witnessed over the past twenty years, I estimate more than three thousand ensembles are active today.
- 3. Sudirana pursued his graduate studies and directed the university gamelan ensemble under Michael Tenzer, Professor of Musicology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The relationship is essential: Tenzer is a vital link of transnational artistic and scholarly interaction with Sudirana and other key players in Bali’s new music scene.
- 4. Artists of South Bali took great pride in the interest of Indonesian president Sukarno (whose mother was Balinese) in kebyar dances. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he invited prominent kebyar groups to perform at his presidential palace in Tampaksiring, Bali (Tenzer 2000:95).
- 5. Those three are “Kebyar Legong,” “Kebyar Duduk” (originally simply called “Kebyar”), and “Palawakya.” If we include instrumental works, the short list would add “Kebyar Ding.”
- 6. As Michel Picard pointed out in a personal communication, “This is not the whole story, as polyglossia is not only a necessity but also a pleasure for the Balinese.” See Keeler 2006:204–23.
- 7. In his most recent release of early Balinese recordings, Ed Herbst notes the emergence of the popular form janger as early as the 1890s. Janger shows fusions of disparate elements: trance ritual, sung poetry, palm-wine drinking songs, courtly legong dance, and acrobatics (Herbst 2011).
- 8. In fact, at that instant tango bumped into Stravinsky. As he developed his revolutionary score in 1912, tango became a popular craze in Paris.
- 9. I am reminded here of the example of Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith who in 1820 single-handedly developed a reading and writing primer in Cherokee—the only time in recorded history that a member of a non-literate people independently created an effective writing system. This intellectual feat came about from Sequoya simply observing white colonists writing and reading. He comprehended the advantages this technology conveyed to them. Borrowing many of the alphabet’s letter shapes, Sequoya constructed his own writing system, a feat that took him several years (Diamond 1997:228).