Freer | Sackler


Performing Indonesia


By Andy McGraw, Sumarsam

Performing Indonesia: Introduction

Performing Indonesia, a conference and festival of Indonesian music, dance, and drama held from October 31 to November 3, 2013, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., featured thirty-two public performances and workshops, twenty-seven scholarly presentations, and residencies by three major orchestras from Bali, Java, and Sumatra. The Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia provided support for both the event and this online publication, for which the editors are deeply grateful. Specifically, Bapak Haryo Winarso, Education Attaché, and His Excellency Ambassador Bapak Dino Patti Djalal provided the initiative and guidance for Performing Indonesia. Their staff—too many to name individually here—provided crucial logistical support for the event. We would also like to thank the Smithsonian staff, and especially Michael Wilpers, Manager of the Performing Arts at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, for their support.

This online collection of essays includes expanded versions of thirteen scholarly papers that were presented at the conference. Two additional contributions on outlying regions of Indonesia are presented here as well. The online format allows us to feature numerous detailed and rich media examples (video, audio, and photography) and links to other relevant sources that would have been impossible to include in a standard print monograph. Excerpts of performances seen at the 2013 festival itself enliven many of the essays. The contributors are a diverse mix of young, mid-career, and senior scholars and practitioners from the fields of music, theater, and dance. While some of the authors are from Indonesia and Australia, the overwhelmingly American contribution to the study of the Indonesian performing arts, shaped by the particular biases and interests of the American engagement with Indonesia, is apparent here.

To introduce these contributions, we here discuss the general frameworks and themes they employ. As seen in the table of contents, the essays are organized by general geographical and topical affiliations: Perspectives on Traditional Repertoires, Musical Transmission, and Global Gamelan. In fact, the themes and topics elaborated in many of the contributions cut across these categories. Several writings concern, directly or indirectly, the global transmission of traditional repertoires. The following discussion of methodologies and themes is concerned more with elucidating the threads that connect the contributions rather than boxing them in. This online format encourages a broader consideration of interpretive and methodological frames.

Methodologies and Themes

Contemporary ethnomusicology, the primary academic discipline employed here (see Biases and Limitations below), straddles two methodological approaches pioneered in cultural anthropology. The first and older approach is the ethnographic characterization of a frame focusing on small, localized communities that may be represented as somewhat bounded and internally coherent. (Clifford Geertz has been the principal model of this approach.) The second and more recent approach is to consider more expansive and indeterminate flows through networks or ecologies of interactions that often extend beyond local communities into an international sphere. In ethnomusicology, this approach has been deeply influenced by theorists of globalization (principally working on the spread and transformation of modernity) as well as by researchers using methodologies, such as the Actor Network Theory. In ethnomusicology, the work of Arjun Appadurai (Appadurai 1996) has been the most influential for the theorization of globalization, while the work of Bruno Latour (Latour 2007) has benefited the theorization of networks. The coexistence of various methodologies is a strength here, indexing the proliferation of research frameworks in recent anthropological theorization. Contexts within this volume range from small neighborhood associations to the entire globe and many levels in between (ethnic groups, islands, nations, bilateral diplomacy between nations, and global aesthetic networks, such as world’s fairs).

As a whole, these contributions intersect the interests and approaches of two overarching theoretical interests. Common keywords include ecology, sustainability, transmission, genealogy, change, nationalism, and globalization. We are presented images of both frames (contexts) and flows (networks and ecologies) at multiple structural levels. The ecological approaches that dominate here are holistic while they attempt to avoid totalization. They seek to link contexts and account for change within them and dynamism between them. The boundaries of an ecology remain unclear, however. Where authors seek to present a more finite account, context is evoked.

Not all of the writings employ an anthropological, ethnographic approach. The contribution of Brian Baumbusch is a detailed account of an American composer’s aesthetic process in developing a new form of intercultural gamelan, the latest in a long and rich tradition of American gamelan. Meghan Hynson provides an ethnographic account of contemporary Sundanese angklung as well as practical guidance for pedagogues interested in incorporating this music into their curriculum. Alexander Khalil describes a multidisciplinary research project that investigates the relationship between synchrony in the performance of Balinese gamelan and its therapeutic potential in diagnosing and possibly treating certain cognitive disorders. Similarly, many contributors focus on instruments, rather than people, and their agency to shape human behavior. Baumbusch, for instance, discusses the ways in which the acoustic properties of metal keys guided his development of a new tuning system and ensemble type (and ultimately, compositional form).


Ben Brinner and Elizabeth Clendinning each develops the ecological theme in regard to gamelan as a global phenomenon. Lisa Gold discusses the ecology of gender wayang in Bali, while Wayne Vitale presents gong kebyar as a stylistic ecosystem. In these contributions the terminology and conceptual models of ecological studies of the natural world abound. We have niches and cross-pollinations, competition, resources, nourishment, and sustainability. With regard to gamelan activities in the United States, Brinner asks a question we might pose for a study of the expansion of a new species: What conditions have nourished gamelan activities and which have inhibited them? In her discussion of the traditional archetype of the Dancing Goddess in East Javanese dance forms, Rachmi Diyah Larasati describes how the natural ecology is embodied and memorialized in dance and the ways in which it faces new mandates and challenges through globalization, state domination, and environmental degradation.

The considerable investment in the ecological model seems linked to the prominence of ecological (specifically climate) discourse now in the United States and with the bleed-through of activist ecology into emerging fields, such as eco-musicology. The concept’s support in the form of conference themes and new journal articles encourages an ecological view of scenes that might have previously been considered through the lens of “art worlds” (Becker 2008), semiotics, the biography of representations (Gell 1998; Sperber 1996), networks, or a more generalized deep (Geertz 1973) or holistic (Ton and Bubandt 2010) anthropological view of comparatively bounded cultures. The crucial difference with earlier appeals to natural metaphors, primarily through the image of organicism—the bounded, totalizing, and self-sufficient picture of a cell or organism—is that the metaphor is now open-ended and dynamic. It encourages a rethinking of the analytical unit itself, suggesting that the image of an individual, bounded organism (or representation or community) is an ontological illusion. It is an exercise in analyzing blue butterflies. These contributions suggest an analysis of the contemporary Indonesian performing arts demands a consideration of the complex and dynamic movement of people, representations, and styles.

Indonesia itself invites an ecological perspective, possibly because the nation is often regarded both as an example of ecological purity—via its extant rainforests—and as a site of ecological crisis, through the destruction of those forests, pollution from mineral extraction, and the archipelago’s vulnerability to changing sea levels. When doing fieldwork in Indonesia today, it is difficult to ignore the natural ecology and prevent it from seeping into generalized worldviews. Wayne Vitale states it most directly: “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.”


Directly related to, if not embedded within, the ecological model is the concept of sustainability. What does it mean for the performing arts to be sustainable? Jeff Titon (Titon 2009b) and Anthony Seeger (Seeger 2014) have raised the issue in regards to music in general, explicitly linking sustainability to an ecological perspective and suggesting that, as in a natural ecology, a diverse performing arts tradition is indicative of a healthier culture. As in the model of sustainability in natural ecologies, these scholars occasionally suggest a form of material determinism, that a people’s relationship to the natural ecology in some ways determines the form and function of the performing arts. As David Harnish notes, “Although it is now hard to determine a music ecology for Lombok, at one time webs of beliefs to ancestors, landscape, and between communities generated and sustained ritual arts. The disassociation with the land in the process of urbanization dissolves the web that connects individuals with communities and histories, which also undermines traditional arts and disrupts ecology.”

Elizabeth Clendinning raises the issue through a Balinese interlocutor’s evocation of “flowing water” (air mengalir) as a metaphor linking ecology, sustainability, and transmission. Here, the image of sustainable water management in Bali’s traditional subak irrigation system is used to describe a global gamelan ecology. To be sustained, these ecologies of representation require new forms of patronage and association. Sanggar (privately owned arts clubs) have flourished in the era of Indonesian civic reformation (reformasi) and its policies of regional autonomy (otonomi daerah). These organizations, spanning local-global contextual frames, have played a central role in the sustainability of the performing arts in an era of government defunding and general economic crisis.

However it is framed, the central (if sometimes implicit) issue of sustainability seems to be agency. Who (and what) has the agency to determine which performing arts can and should be sustained and in what ways? In this situation we have a highly complex interaction between technologies, local practitioners, local and national (Indonesian) government policymakers, global policymakers (primarily UNESCO), globalized forms of mass media and culture (for example, Hollywood and Arabic interpretations of Islam), and individual scholars, both local and foreign. Discussing the situation in Lombok, David Harnish identifies a complex relationship between the urge to identify and search for cultural origins and the problems of sustainability. Local practitioners can find themselves in a Batesonian double bind. In the effort to sustain their performing arts, they may look back to those forms that qualify as unambiguously local (and so are eligible for national or UNESCO intangible cultural expression lists and support programs). Those forms, which might require rehabilitation as much as sustenance, may no longer be communicative to younger generations, or they may be viewed by local religious authorities as pre- (and therefore un-) Islamic within a context of Arabized interpretations of Islam.

Several writers indicate the prominent role of what we might call subsidies to achieve sustainability. This often occurs in the form of sponsorship via local governmental or global arts agencies (see David Harnish and Christopher Basile) or in the form of foreign recordings, scholarly attention, and direct sponsorship (see Tyler Yamin). We might ask, If such subsidies and props are required—if the arts are not self-sustaining from a grassroots perspective—is this true sustainability? Is this a natural ecology? If it is not, should we be willing to see performing arts go extinct, as non-competitive species do in a natural environment? The intrusion of government-sponsored subsidies has sometimes functioned to aestheticize the arts for commoditization within actual (or hoped for) tourist markets, the profits from which often line the pockets of tourism policymakers living outside the impacted community. Western observers may view this as a form of Weberian disenchantment, a disentangling of complex cultural representations (strained into artistic expression) from their thick social/religious (holistic) contexts.

The contemporary ethnomusicological stance implies an ethical imperative in which diversity and reproduction are valued in and of themselves. We might ask what forms of agency—some might say chauvinism—is embedded in this ethical stance. Is the act of subsidizing diversity a form of penance for the great eraser of (Western) modernity and late capital? Philip Yampolsky suggests the performing arts, particularly forms deemed traditional, need and deserve sustenance because they are in danger of extinction through repletion by mass media (Yampolsky 2001a). In this context, Western (or Westernized) mass media is figured as a kind of invasive species or nitrate runoff (an ecological problem throughout Indonesia), suffocating local and once-diverse ecosystems. Christopher Basile describes the Rotinese sasandu zither not simply in terms of repertoire or material culture but also as a locus of the sustainability of Rotinese identity itself. Within this context, the extinction of the sasandu would imply the loss of personhood.


Several scholars display a concern for the loss of traditional forms. They ask, How is the repertoire being communicated to and reproduced by younger generations? Is it? Jennifer Fraser explicitly links sustainability and transmission by comparing differences between village and institutional (governmental) modes of talempong transmission among the Minangkabau of Sumatra. Rachmi Diyah Larasati presents rich descriptions of learning traditional East Javanese dance forms under her grandmother’s guidance. She also describes the risks for sustaining this form as its connection to the land is eroded and coopted for state spectacle. Lisa Gold focuses on changing methods and contexts for the transmission of gender wayang repertoire in Bali. Where it was primarily a genre performed by (often older) men and passed down in guru-disciple contexts, gender wayang is now often taught to children in large classes that include many girls. Gini Gorlinski provides rich detail on transmitting the kendau kancet vocal tradition of the Kenyah in Kalimantan among various Dayak ethnic groups, both historically and today, and the ways in which this exchange has intersected with and has been shaped by global proselytizing, urbanization and international politics (between Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo), and global academic discourse.

Changes in transmission methods are often linked to performance contexts and the expectations of audiences. In some cases, as Lisa Gold describes, these changes imply new conceptions of knowledge and its transmission. While the gender wayang repertoire was previously closed, with its secrets guarded and its transmission highly controlled from one person to another, it is now often treated as a public, open-source form of knowledge that is taught to the masses. Today’s repertoire, in the form of transcriptions, recordings of musical parts, and videotaped lessons, is frequently posted online and shared via social media.

Why this change? We might expect influence from globalized, Internet-era attitudes toward the free sharing of knowledge and information. Here, the ethnomusicologists’ ethical stance reappears. We are happy to see young Balinese women studying this beautiful music, and we find it heartening when young women join in talempong performances. We still wonder why the change toward open-knowledge contexts is occurring in niches of the Indonesian performing arts in the first place. Such changes may be linked to an interaction among emerging technologies, changing economies of teaching, and the comparatively new social role of the professional performing artist in Indonesia. Since it is now notoriously difficult to police knowledge—who knows when a lesson or performance is being recorded, to be posted online for the world to share?—the best strategy may be to attempt to teach as many people as possible, often simultaneously and for lower fees. We might speculate as to the long-term social consequences of the shift from person-to-person transmission, which often engenders strong social links and complex interdependencies, to presumably weaker, more fleeting, but more numerous social links mediated by cash (when paid at all) in new contexts.


The terms “traditional” and “modern” sometimes appear here within unexplained quotation marks. This suggests the author is either quoting local discourse or criticizing an insufficient, albeit necessary, conceptual model. The critique of dualistic thinking has a long and complex history in Western scholarship, dating back at least to critiques of Manichaeism. Latour identifies the construction of rigid binaries (for instance, self/other, subject/object, sign/signified, east/west, traditional/modern) as the mortal sin of Western post-Enlightenment thought, an epistemology that demands absolute purification (Latour 2013). In this worldview, all observable phenomena must be segregated to one category or the other; there must be no hybrids. These writers bring greater subtlety to their binaries, sometimes by investigating their dynamic interactions and markedness (see Sumarsam and Gini Gorlinski), by problematizing the application of dualistic thinking to folk versus popular arts (see Christopher Basile), or by placing multiple binaries alongside each other. In her detailed discussion of kendau kancet singing among the Kenyah in Kalimantan, Gorlinski presents a sustained analytical critique of authenticity as related to the linguistic concept of markedness. In responding to an academic suspicion that kendau kancet singing may somehow be fake (through its potential link to the singing of Christian hymns), she describes how perceived authenticity may determine, in part, whether or not a genre is deemed worthy of preservation and representation in globalized academic discourse.

Lisa Gold offers an alternative to the rigid binaries critiqued by Latour in her discussion of Balinese aesthetics. She contrasts several Balinese binaries—global/local, new/old, high/low technology—by saying that while some “view these juxtapositions as contradictions, . . . they are not necessarily at odds with one another. They work together to form the tension that has always been the driving force behind the creative process.” Gold implicitly evokes the Balinese concept of dualism, rwa bhineda (two differences). In classic Balinese thought, a person is, at any given moment, a hybrid of the different qualities and attributes identified in the culture generally. A person is neither purely good nor bad, for instance. The hope is that these tensions combine to produce a harmonious result, resulting in a behavior that is appropriate to a given time, place, and context (desa, kala, patra).


The writers throw a wrench into commonplace conflations of the local with the traditional, the modern with globalization, and globalization with the West. Tyler Yamin outlines the ways in which musicians in California are engaged in actively sustaining repertoire that is understood to be iconically traditional in Indonesia. Brian Baumbusch describes the global aesthetic networks that link cutting-edge musical experimentations in both Indonesia and the Unites States. Elizabth Clendinning discusses the efforts of Indonesian teachers to link their aesthetic networks between their rural home village and their positions as gamelan proselytizers in the United States. Alexander Khalil examines the role of Indonesian teachers in developing an innovative school program in San Diego, California.

What explains the success of the Indonesian performing arts (overwhelmingly gamelan, although there are talempong, angklung, dangdut, and kroncong ensembles) on foreign soil? How can we characterize its culture of use in the United States? What historical and cultural processes aided its emergence, and why and how has it increased in popularity? How has the Indonesian state instrumentalized its performing arts as a form of soft diplomacy to expand its image globally? These questions are discussed most directly in chapters by Brian Baumbusch, Ben Brinner, Meghan Hynson, Elizabeth Clendinning, Corbina Gillitt, and Rachmi Diyah Larasati. As they describe, images of the Indonesian performing arts in the West (see Sumarsam 2013) have long shifted between what Stuart Hall called the “spectacle of the other” (Hall 1997) to ethnographically sensitive responsibility (Cohen 2010) and sometimes back again. Larasati, for example, is interested in “world arts forms that return home” and the complex interplay of local resistance (and resilience), state and touristic mandates, and the foreign (imperial) gaze.

The contemporary enthusiasm for intercultural collaboration and vernacularization suggests it is the assumption of ethnological authenticity (that is, conservative ethnomusicological paradigms) that may be the truly distorting exotification. In the effort to present an accurate image of “the other,” American performers have sometimes painted a static image of Indonesian expressions, in which their continuous evolutions and hybridizations are made invisible. Graham St. John critiques this “one dimensional cannibal[ization] of the Other” as leading to a form of “‘cultural apartheid’ managed and policed by secular social scientists and culture experts” (St. John 2012:258).

Rather than a purely Indonesian form, the Balinese composer I Wayan Sadra described gamelan as a world culture (Sadra 2007). Sumarsam and Gillitt forcefully remind us that this is nothing new. Sumarsam describes the complex aesthetic interactions between French composer Claude Debussy and Javanese performers at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. (It turns out he didn’t hear what we have long thought he heard.) Corbina Gillitt explores the productive encounter between dramatist Antonin Artaud and Balinese performers at the Paris International Colonial Exposition in 1931, arguing that this experience catalyzed his avant-garde notions of theatricality through partial understanding. “Rather than reifying and constructing a fictional version of Balinese performance to show what Western theatre is not, [Artaud] instead discovered in the Balinese performances a way to understand what the prevailing theatre scene in Paris was at the time and could become, thus implicating the two traditions in each other.” Instead of having a simple binary of East and West, independent and purified of each other, we have two conceptual poles, their fields deeply entangled.

Wayne Vitale presents an adventurous thesis linking the emergence of gong kebyar to Igor Stravinsky’s premiere of “The Rite of Spring.” Through a detailed account of the innovations each brought into the world, he reminds us of modernity’s sweep and the resistance of representations to the convenient discursive frames of local, global, traditional, and modern. Brian Baumbusch presents a deeply detailed account of this process in action today. Rather than the vague exotifications of ostensibly non-rational Indonesian tunings prevalent among the first generation of “American gamelan” performers, composers, and instrument makers (Perlman 1994), Baumbusch demonstrates a new approach, one that is rigorously rational (if by that we mean explicitly expressed and consciously worked out) but maintains a level of complexity that exceeds any mode of rationalizing equal temperament.

These interactions, which have consistently increased in density, depth, and intensity as technologies of travel and communication have shrunk the world, inevitably lead to the question, When is it no longer Indonesian? Sumarsam investigates how Indonesia “propagate[s] national identity through the performing arts” and asks, “How does the nation define ‘national culture’?” These questions have been posed for quite a long time, and as Sumarsam demonstrates, the answers are becoming more complex. Here we might consider the popular representation of Indonesia as a primarily cultural (as opposed to technological, political, or military) space within the community of nations, as well as the consequences and effects of this imaging for the nation’s geopolitical position and relationships.

While the intellectual history of this staging emerges during colonialism (see Vickers 2012), it has been fostered and expanded by Indonesian policymakers and artists as well as by foreign cultural, education, and governmental institutions (see Gabriella 2013; Lindsay and Liem 2012). US-Indonesia relations have been mediated primarily through the soft diplomacy of the performing arts supported by official cultural exchanges and para-governmental funding (e.g., Rockefeller and Ford). Meghan Hynson investigates the contemporary use of Indonesian performing arts, specifically Sundanese angklung, as a form of soft power mobilized by Indonesian embassies and consulates. She details the creation of a pedagogical angklung repertoire designed to teach both Indonesians and non-Indonesians about the nation’s culture and history. Here, she provides practical information for American educators who offer a world music curriculum. Similarly, Brinner and Clendinning discuss the significant, if unofficial, role Indonesian artist-teachers have played in furthering Indonesia’s cultural diplomacy in the United States.

Like most binaries, the global/local binary is not neutral. It is marked, and the relative valuation of its poles depends upon context. When discussing the sustainability of traditional performing arts in Indonesia, the global receives a negative charge. Over the last decade globalization’s negative associations have expanded from the reference to Western mass media to include Arabized forms of reformist Islam, which is associated with the successful, often Saudi-funded, proselytization of Wahhabism in the view of whose imam’s many forms of the traditional performing arts are haram (Harnish and Rasmussen 2011). For some observers, this poses a threat to the sustainability of these arts in regions of Java, Lombok, and Sumatra.

As Harnish points out, “In the twenty-first century, religious affiliation is perhaps a more important identity marker than nationalism, and reformism compels a renegotiation of citizenship, belonging, and pluralism.” Indonesian history is marked by various responses to forms of identity formation that exceeded national borders, including Old Order restriction of Western modernity (especially through music) and New Order repression of individuals and groups labeled communist. These responses have often played out within the context of broader global ideological (and economic) competition, as between the United States and the Soviet Union. How is global Islam different? Is it? What role do the performing arts have at the local level in mediating the global tension between Islamic extremism and Western (primarily American) ideologies of freedom?

Biases and Limitations of the Volume

As in the Performing Indonesia conference itself, music is the principal performing art represented here. This bias reflects not only our personal training as ethnomusicologists but also the historical bias in favor of music as compared to dance and theater within the structure of Western academia. This does not discount the considerable and important research on Indonesia that has been produced by dance and theater faculty, but it does admit that as an academic discipline, music has long accommodated itself to the bureaucratic need for quantifiable discursive products (namely, books, articles, and reports), in addition to performances, compositions, and recordings. This intellectualism of the field has resulted in more journals, monographs, graduate programs, faculty positions, and grant programs than in either dance or theater. As a consequence of this asymmetry, the highly integrated Indonesian performing arts—in which neat divisions among the Western disciplines of music, theater, and dance are impossible to maintain—have been analyzed primarily by Western music scholars, principally ethnomusicologists. Only three of the fifteen contributors are not ethnomusicologists: Rachmi Diyah Larasati, a dance scholar; Cobina Gillitt, a theater scholar; and Brian Baumbusch, a composer.

A quick glance at the table of contents reveals a secondary bias. Sumarsam and Larasati, both faculty members at American universities, are the only Indonesian contributors. While several Indonesian researchers—faculty from the visiting conservatory delegations—presented their work at the meeting in Washington, none responded to the call to provide expanded scholarly papers. This is not for lack of encouragement or because they do not produce scholarly work. We surmise the reason is the Indonesian academic economy is comparatively independent of Western, or some might say “global,” scholarly networks. Their work is produced largely for the intellectual and administrative needs that are internal to their conservatory and national bureaucracies and are often only in Bahasa Indonesia. That their theoretical discourse remains somewhat incommensurate with Western institutionalized ethnomusicology is an interesting, possibly positive, development (for it contributes intellectual diversity), although a thorough analysis of the situation is beyond the scope of this volume.

A third bias is also evident: the disproportionate focus upon gamelan traditions, especially those of Bali. Gamelan represents the dominant tradition on Java and Bali, just two of Indonesia’s thousands of islands. While a third of the writers here focus on non-gamelan traditions—Jennifer Fraser on Sumatran talempong, Christopher Basile on Rotinese sasandu, David Harnish on Lombok, Meghan Hynson on Sundanese angklung, and Gini Gorlinski on choral music in Kalimantan—gamelan dominates, thus representing its historic prominence in both Indonesian diplomacy and American ethnomusicology generally. Gamelan’s greater visibility results from the legacy of influential proselytizers, primarily Mantle Hood and Bob Brown; its easy accommodation into undergraduate curricula in American universities, as analyzed here by Brinner and Clendinning; and to the historic political and cultural marginalization of non-Balinese and non-Javanese Indonesian scholars, ethnic groups, and aesthetic forms within and without Indonesia.

We invite readers to explore this online publication and to take time to experience the many media examples linked throughout the chapters. Much of this media is derived from each author’s original fieldwork and is unavailable elsewhere. If Performing Indonesia succeeds in deepening understanding and appreciation of the Indonesian performing arts, we believe this is due as much to the contributors’ profound love of those arts as to their theoretical analyses. We hope this publication will inspire readers to become directly involved in Indonesian performing arts, if they are not already, by connecting to ensembles and communities in their area.

Andy McGraw
University of Richmond

Wesleyan University