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Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Gamelan and the beginning of field work

"Once the performance began in the village community center, it struck me that gamelan was just a tiny fragment of the cultural mosaic, as my focus flitted from one image and sound and smell to the next, feeling a wonderful sense of confusion at being surrounded by the unknown. Over the course of the year, as I became immersed deeper and deeper into this world, closely living and working with performers, Bali became less 'exotic' while every ceremony seemed richer in heartfelt beauty than the last. At the same time, the more I learned, the more I realized how little I understood. Admitting this is the first step toward allowing a place to be real." Lisa Gold

 I'm finally beginning to understand the theoretical framework for my project. I've gotten myself partially categorized - it's called "participatory action research," to use the words of folks who know much more about field research than I do. I will also be doing exploration research, or "blank slate" research. This sounds much less prepared than it actually is. Before the field work in Bylakuppe can start I have to finish quite a large list of readings I have prepared for myself, have many meetings with more knowledgeable researchers, etc. I want to know the biggest, most important things about the field of ethnomusicology, and the biggest, most important things about Tibetan music and the diaspora. I'm in the stage of determining what exactly the "biggest, most important things" are, and which of those things are actually big and important to me. To get to this point I have to read, read, read and listen, listen, listen, keeping in mind that I know "not a damn, damn thing at all" (to quote K'Naan).

The realization has started to materialize, however, that I have been doing this kind of research my whole life. From playing what I disdainfully call "white-boy drummer-music" to spending hours and hours woodshedding with masters of funk, r&b, jazz, afro-cuban, and so on, the focus of my musical career has been hearing something funky and trying to get at it from the inside out. Gamelan has been my most recent foray, and it is something very funky indeed. I mean, just listen to the music on this video. It's amazing stuff.

The biggest realization within this realization is that understanding music and creating it properly relies on a deep understanding of the religious and cultural context and motivations for its creation. The nutso mercurial interlocking patterns of gamelan just don't happen if the group doesn't understand, in at least a small way, Balinese social patterns and the importance of community and family. The correct playing of any part is pointless without the correct playing of all the other parts, so each member of the group is responsible for what everybody else does, and for fitting themselves into the whole. There is no room for ego if the piece is going to sound right. Once this concept clicks in the gamelan, incredible things start to happen, and it snowballs.

And so, I wonder what underlying social patterns I will have to understand to be able to get at Tibetan music from the inside out. There is so much written on Tibetan religion - do these values translate, and how? What about unwritten values, things that have to be experienced to be understood? Perhaps I will plan to spend a week or two in the beginning of the field study just trying to get my head and heart into what it means to be Tibetan, before I even worry about the rest of the details. Then again, maybe jumping into the ethnographic research is the best way to "get at it from the inside out." I don't know.

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