Four Lessons from Bali

 Last week Lawrence enjoyed a three day visit from Çudamani, one of Bali’s premiere music and dance ensembles. This visit had special meaning for Lawrence, because our very own Director of Gamelan, I Dewa Ketut Alit Adnyana, is a founding member of Çudamani. The ensemble plays Balinese gamelan, an orchestra of bronze gongs, xylophones, and drums.  To the Western ear the music can sound both hauntingly beautiful, and technically mind-boggling.  During some pieces members of the ensemble think nothing of interlocking endless flurries of 64th notes—and by “interlocking” I mean two players alternate every other note. The dance is equally intricate and stunningly beautiful, magically flowing out of the music.

So what lessons might Western conservatory students learn from a music culture which seems so vastly different from their own? Well, as the saying goes, I could write a book, but since a blog will have to do, I will limit my focus to four beautiful lessons that Çudamani shared with our Lawrence community.

For Çudamani, the success of any given performance is never predicated on technical perfection.  Rather, the success of a performance is judged on how the performance moved the audience, how the performance moved the performers, and how the performance transcended the notes and became something greater than its parts.  Just to be clear, Çudamani doesn’t feel this way because its musicians can’t achieve technical mastery. The musicians of Çudamani are technical powerhouses. They have forgotten more about rhythmic complexity than I will ever hope to know!  Yet they are focused on the SOUL of the performance rather than the notes. Now I know we all say we embrace this concept in the West, but the pressures for technical perfection often skews our focus toward the notes instead of the magic.  We simply forget what’s important. Lesson one: Never forget that technical mastery is only a means to better express the music’s soul.

Music and dance are two sides of the same coin. In the West we have done a superb job compartmentalizing the two, but we shouldn’t. In Bali dance and music are so intimately connected that they are considered as two parts of a whole. This was vividly illustrated a young female dancer gave a demonstration of how dance movement and drum rhythm blended into a single musical phrase. When the dancer finished, Emiko Saraswati Susilo, who was acting as our guide in the lecture demonstration, said,  “I really wanted you to see her because she makes such beautiful music when she dances.” Wow, that one sentence encapsulates the beautiful oneness of Balinese music and dance.  She went on to explain that dancers never learn their movement through counting beats as we do in the West, but rather they learn the movements “melodically” as an integral part of the piece. Lesson two: we too can make beautiful music when we dance, and make beautiful movement when we music.  I will leave the “how” up to you!

At one point in the visit a young male dancer, just in fourth grade, performed with the group. It was clear he had been involved in his art for most of his young life.  When he finished, Ms. Susilo commented, “How many fourth graders in the US get to perform with best professional performers in the country? In Bali, this is not unusual., it is how we nurture our next generation of great musicians.”  This reminded me of a comment made by Victor Wooten, author of The Music Lesson, about how we educate musicians in the West. He observed that when we learn to speak, we are always practicing with fluent masters of language (adults), but when we learn the language of music, we are always segregated into groups that know as little as we do about how to do it right.  He wonders why can’t our beginners play with musical masters right from the beginning as well.  Well, Victor, in Bali they do. Lesson Three: Might there be better ways for us to approach music education that mirrors language learning and nurtures the inner musician in all of us?

Finally, Çudamani is a beautiful example of a musical community.  In some ways they are an extreme example, since nearly everyone in the group is related to one another!  Everything about Çudamani reflects the depth of musical connectedness between the musicians.  When they are performing one of the largely improvised dance traditions, the musicians need to follow every nuanced movement of the dancer and adjust their playing accordingly.  Sudden crescendos, tempo changes, timbral changes flow from the group without hesitation.  There is no conductor as we know it to cue all these changes. The drummer does play a leadership role but the reality is that their musical community is so close-knit and familiar with one another and the genre that they play as one. They are as dexterous and connected as flashing school of minnows. No one is lost in his own part. All attention is outward. It is a beautiful thing to watch.  And what makes it even more engaging is that they are having an absolute blast playing together. The sheer number of smiles that graced the stage was striking. That openness and joy welcomes the audience into their beautiful community of music.  Witnessing this made me ponder how many times I see classical musicians actually exhibiting outright joy when they are sharing their music. Lesson four: remember the importance of building community through music, and creating music through community. It is, after all, why we do what we do.

Even though Çudamani has left Lawrence, we are truly blessed to have  one of itsfounders,  I. Dewa Ketut Alit Adnyana, as an integral part of our Conservatory. Through his patient mentoring, well  over 100 Lawrence students have learned to play gamelan over the past three years, and six have traveled to Bali for further study with Çudamani.   Along with learning how to play, our LU gamelan students are also experiencing Balinese music culture. These are deeply valuable lesson which they will carry with them no matter if they end up in Symphony Hall or in front of a high school band. What makes this more special is that our gamelan, Gamelan Cahaya Asri, is open to all Lawrence students whether they are in the Con or not. The Community Gamelan is also open to all Appleton area community members though the Academy of Music.  So what are you waiting for, come play!

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