Asian Theatre Journal 19.2 (2002) 375-378
[Access article in PDF]
This is an important book as much for its style as its content. While Balinese dance and instrumental music have been the subject of excellent studies in recent years, this represents the first attempt to provide Western scholars with an in-depth examination of Balinese vocal music and techniques. It contextualizes the circumstances in which this music is learned and performed and explores its philosophical, cultural, and religious underpinnings. This is accomplished by juxtaposing analysis with anecdote in a free-flowing style inspired by the writings of composer John Cage. The book includes a compact disc with recordings of musical examples used in the text, transcriptions of lyrics with translations, and a useful glossary.
In her excellent foreword, Judith Becker alerts the reader to the "polyphony" of this vivid and densely packed text in which complex musicological analysis of idiomatic forms appears alongside anecdotes and diary entries of the researcher in the field. Herbst uses the tools of Western academic discourse in an effort to make the techniques of Balinese vocal music and dance-drama comprehensible to Western musicologists. Using a "fluid sense of orientation," Herbst attempts, with some success, to engage with the perceptions and energies of both cultures and reveals much about the complexities of this multivalent oral tradition.
The book begins with an introduction to key concepts of Balinese aesthetics upon which Herbst bases his examination of the island's traditional vocal music. These concepts include perkembangan (creative flowering), nusup ("penetration," which comprises both physical and intellectual understanding), masolah (characterization), pengalaman (experience), and bayu-sabda-idep (energy-voice-perception). Among these is also the significant Balinese conceptual construct of desa-kala-patra (place-time-context) to which he devotes the first short chapter and which provides a useful touchstone throughout the book. The collective and individual meanings of these terms give a number of perspectives from which to view the analysis that follows. They refer not only to geographical space and measurable time but also imply orientation in relationto significantphysicaland spiritual"landmarks"—occasion, season, microcosmic and macrocosmic confluences, and so forth—adding even more layers of meaning.
The first musical examples from the accompanying CD come into play in the second chapter, titled " Aji nusup, 'Lessons in Penetration.'" (The illustrations were recorded in Bali by Balinese singers and musicians between 1972 [End Page 375] and 1981.) Here Herbst relates a number of anecdotes that provide insights into the learning process for Balinese traditional arts, a process that is minutely interwoven into the fabric of everyday life. But deeper lessons must also be learned—for example,that knowledge is to be passedon, not hoarded, and that the student must strive to understand the spiritual aspects behind the art as well as mastering its physical techniques.
More musical examples and detailed musicological analysis come in the following chapters on "Vocal Qualities" and "Tembang" (songs in various metrical patterns principally for arja— modern "Balinese opera"—and the classical gambuh dance-drama). Here Herbst employs his own rendering of notation for Balinese song, using a modified version of the Western musical staff (created with Finale notation software). These chapters present something of a challenge even for serious ethnomusicologists already familiar with Balinese and Javanese tunings and musical terminology. But with the help of the recorded examples the notation does make it possible for music readers to piece together the tunes and hum along.
Chapters on masolah (characterization) and panasar (the narrator characters of traditional dance-drama) discuss the relationship between the various performing arts and the significance of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre) to dance-drama genres like gambuh, arja, and topeng (masked dance-drama). Herbst draws parallels between the work of the dalang (narrator/puppet master) and the...