Here are a few new finds concerning the performing arts of Java and Bali. All are woefully small, but worth seeing all the same.
The Srikandi Cakil shows a failed abduction scene (the style is Javanese/Yogyakarta, the art is wayang wong, or masked dance, sometimes also referred to as wayang orang — “human drama”, as opposed to “puppet drama”). The dancers are non-human creatures — he is a demon, she a goddess — which is why their dance is “eccentric”. In an illustration of how the arts influence each other, the demons steps imitate the motions of a shadow-puppet (he tries to have himself seen on profile, etc.) Also a lesson on why not to pick on girls.
Gambyong Suko Retno (from the Surakarta palace) shows something of the mesmerizing nature of Javanese dance: slow can be fascinating.
The Sari Raras illustrate something about how to be graceful and alluring despite the ravages of advancing age.
Best of them all, Bedaya Sarpo Rodra — (above) — a student’s graduation dance (from the art institute in Surakarta) — you will be forgiven to think that the dancers are in fact Divine Giant Praying-Mantises Come to Earth to Feed On Men.
In a related search, here is Dalang (puppet master) Sudarma, from Buleleng (Bali) performing a classic wayang kulit (shadow-puppet theater) with an oil lamp (the trembling light of the oil lamp appears to add life to the puppets; for some mysterious reason, in Java they do them with a light-bulb). If you see nothing else, try to stick it out through the first section, the dance of the kayon (that leaf-shaped puppet) which is the wayang kulit equivalent of the opera overture.
Godowsky’s Java Suite in a way misses the point. The pianist/ Chopinist/ composer Godowsky travelled in the 1920’s to Java – and his trip proves the adage: travel does not broaden the mind. A new, exotic environment makes it is easy for an artists to be distracted by the surface phenomena — monkeys, banana trees, white beaches, topless women — the stuff of mass tourism — and try to turn that into art; but this is facile exoticism: there is no new language, no new structure, no new sound — at most a handful of textures, which soon become hackneyed, like the sound of the shamisen in a western movie sundtrack whenever a Japanese character enters the stage: the art itself, the idiom remains unchanged.
Indeed, contact with exotic novelty misleads the traveler: strong impressions help convince him, falsely, that he is actually learning something. It takes more time than most travelers have, and, who knows, perhaps it takes special mental powers, too, to move beyond the surface exoticism and see underneath, deeper: to see the difficult stuff, the the brainy stuff, as a Javanese would say — “the invisible kingdom”: the classical arts of the place.
When I set out looking for Godowsky’s Java Suite I was hoping for something along the lines of McPhee’s Tabu-tabuhan at least — a truly Indonesian composition, which would have told me that Godowsky heard and understood the method; but, really, secretly — dared I hope it? — for more: the Holy Grail: a new synthesis: a new kind of reflection on the nature of classical music as such – now that he has seen it from a new perspective, from a new angle, in a new light. I didn’t find it: the music was essentially the same old Godowsky as always with a few gamelan accents. As per formula: enter the Javanese character — clang! go the gamelan.
Are different classical musics – like different religions are sometimes said to be — different routes to the same end?
Yes. But the end is not a metaphysical entity, only a mental state. Like relaxation is achieved through massage consisting of a set of manipulative techniques executed in a certain order, the classical rapture is achieved through a set of tricks executed in a certain combination — tricks like sonority, melody and its transformations, modulation of keys, variations, structural complexity, development and resolution. Certain combinations of tricks have been found to produce the effect; true classical music is therefore a kind of… methodology. It is not clear that by borrowing elements from different methodologies a new one can be produced — either as effective, or — what is always the great white hope — more so. The possibility of successful fusion of different classical musics is yet to be demonstrated.
An analogy comes to mind: a sensible way for cars to get places is for all to drive on the left; or for all to drive on the right; but not for all to compromise (blend, fuse) by… driving in the middle.