Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sounds in the Shadows

- Steve Everett

In 1969, Indonesian President Suharto imprisoned Javanese author and political dissident, Pramoedya Ananta Toer for over ten years, although never officially charging him with any crime. An estimated 250,000 individuals were either imprisoned or simply disappeared after Suharto’s 1965 coup d’état that overthrew Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno. Toer, along with other literary and intellectual figures with left-wing inclinations, was put in isolation in a penal colony on Buru Island where he was allowed contact with other prisoners for only one hour each week. Remarkably, Toer composed four novels and several smaller works during this time without the use of pen or paper. In the final years of his imprisonment, he was able to write them down as the result of a sympathetic guard who smuggled in an old typewriter and gave the manuscripts to a Catholic church in Buru.

During the 1960s and 70s, Toer became an international symbol for resistance to totalitarian repression. French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre attempted to send him a typewriter at one point. Salman Rushdie mentioned that he remembers attending protest rallies in London in the 1970s demanding Toer’s release. Ultimately, it was the human rights initiatives of the Jimmy Carter administration that helped pressure Suharto to release these political prisoners in 1979. Toer was then placed under house arrest in Jakarta and all of his writings were officially banned in Indonesia – still never charged with any crime. The Suharto regime fell in 1998 and Toer was able to travel abroad in 1999. He died on April 30, 2006.

In 1996, I had been reading Toer’s four novels, the Buru Quartet, prior to a research trip to Java and Bali to study gamelan music, dance, and puppetry as preparation for my starting a Javanese gamelan ensemble at Emory. Carrying Toer’s books with me to Java was not prudent since being caught with them could result in an arrest. As a composer, I found Toer’s Nobel Prize nominated novels and his historical narrative style quite intriguing and thought they were an ideal text for a music drama setting. A Dutch art historian I had met in Java offered to arrange a possible meeting with Toer to discuss his novels. Of course this had to be kept quite secret since Indonesians (including my gamelan teachers) were encouraged to report any anti-government activity. For several mornings at 6:00 am, I walked for 30 minutes to the nearest pay phone attempting to contact a publisher in Jakarta who could assist in arranging the meeting, all the while keeping my activities secret. I was told to never use Toer’s name over the phone since government wire-tapping was quite common.

Two weeks later, I flew to Jakarta and was driven to Toer’s house. There I discovered a resolute and still defiant critic of the Suharto regime. He was quite pleased that I was interested in using his writings for a music composition, but suggested that I consider an unpublished play he wrote while at Buru that was structured as a Javanese shadow play and contained a gamelan ensemble and dancer as central characters. The play is Ki Ageng Mangir. It is a retelling of a famous Central Javanese event of 1590 during the early days of the Islamic Mataram kingdom set at the royal court of Yogyakarta. I had a sense that this sixteenth-century narrative had similarities to contemporary political situations and that principal characters seemed analogous to personalities in the current Suharto government. After translating the work from Indonesian to English with the help of Emory Provost Billy Frye’s daughter Alice, I met with Toer again in 1997 to discuss my observations. When asked if these characters and setting in the play were actually historical references to contemporary Java, Toer smiled, nodded his head and said, “you understand my work…of course all of Javanese history is cyclical, just like gamelan music.” Several scholars, including anthropologist Clifford Geertz, have also suggested that aspects of Javanese social structure can be observed in the forms contained in shadow plays and gamelan music.

I continued research on the Mangir story and the early Mataram kingdom in 1997 at the Royal Tropical Institute and Film Museum in Amsterdam, which contain extensive archives on Indonesian history. While a research fellow at the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy and at the Liguria Foundation in Bogliasco, Italy in 1998 and 1999, I composed a two-hour music drama entitled KAM (Ki Ageng Mangir). The work was modeled on Javanese shadow puppet plays and includes a Javanese puppeteer who narrates and sings the text, Western and Javanese musical instruments, and interactive computer-controlled video and audio.

In designing this composition, ancient sekaten gamelan instruments in Surakarta, Java were recorded and digitally analyzed in 1998 during a research trip sponsored by the Asian Cultural Council. These sacred Islamic instruments were used in the courts during the early Mataram kingdom. The spectral quality of the instruments served as models for the harmonies used in the music drama. Original shadow puppets were designed in Central Java for this production as well.

KAM has been performed at Emory on two occasions, including in 2001 at the Year of Reconciliation Symposium. In 2005, it was also featured at the 50th International Conference of the Society of Ethnomusicology. Selections from KAM have been performed in ten countries, including Ladrang Kampung for flute, gamelan, and interactive electronics, which has recently been recorded on CD by Gamelan Asmårådånå in Singapore and will next be performed at Georgia Institute of Technology on November 12, 2007 by resident chamber ensemble, Sonic Generator.

One goal in writing KAM was to capture Toer’s technique of chronological transference by adapting traditional and modern compositional approaches. Creating culturally hybrid works can be a challenging endeavor for composers and one that I did not undertake lightly. There are numerous aesthetic, social, religious, and technical differences to be negotiated to produce a work that respectfully represents the values of different cultures. To examine the issues and problems of musical hybridity, I developed and taught a graduate seminar at Emory and Princeton entitled, “Hybrid Vigor in Music.”

Originally, my primary fascination in composing was with the design of innovative new sounds and the creative potential offered with new technologies. Composition projects such as KAM have strengthened my awareness of the creative process as essentially a humanistic endeavor, often requiring additional cultural, political, and individual sensibilities. Meetings with Toer encouraged me to seriously consider if artists and intellectuals in general have a social responsibility. Toer once said, "It is impossible to separate politics from literature or any other part of human life, because everyone is touched by political power.” This is true for music as well as for literature, I suspect.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Musical Codes

The space in which one looks or examines (the gaze) is philosophically very different from the space in which one sees. The space in which we see is always a represented space. Composers often think that audiences will or should be in the same space they inhabit. The pure gaze is inseparable from the existence of an autonomous artistic field. Access to works of art cannot be defined solely in terms of physical accessibility, since works of art exist with the presence of those who have the means of understanding them.

Comprehension involves a decoding operation, which in itself is a form of cultural capital. The role of the educational system is important in this respect for establishing the ability to decipher and derive meaning from the codes.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Atlanta New Music Scene

I recall a comment made in 1998 by a prominent San Francisco attorney who had just joined the board of directors for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players after having served as chairman of the board for the SF Opera for many years. I asked him the reason behind his decision to now focus his philanthropic efforts toward new music. He said, “It is because of my concern for this city and the quality of life it provides. Having a healthy creative arts community, I have discovered, is vital for a city’s self-understanding of its social fabric and is often a catalyst for its social improvement. San Francisco will never truly be a great American city if it does not support an active community of creative artists and thinkers.”

I would like to bring up a few issues surrounding the question of why, with so many talented composers, a new music scene in Atlanta has not been able to coalesce. It is relevant to remember how composers have historically functioned in Western societies and how that is different in post-modern America. The use of the term “composer” and its assumptions may be creating some confusion regarding expectations and success. The career title of composer in the West generally evolved out of service to theological institutions and aristocratic patrons associated with monarchies in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. These groups provided the historical foundations for the fairly robust support of contemporary music now found in most major European cities. Similarly the American cities that developed from extensive European immigration during the 18th - 20th centuries have the oldest support of classical music in the country and also possess some of the most active new music scenes (New York, Boston, Chicago, etc).

One of the consequences of an American democratic, representative government and the constitutional separation of church and state is that the principal sources of patronage for music found in Europe do not flourish particularly well here. As a result, American artistic support developed around new sources: individual contributions and private foundations, and colleges and universities. This is a very different model from that in Europe, although they are increasingly adopting the American system as their public funds decrease. It is no accident that there is a high concentration of major research universities and conservatories in US cities where there is an active new music scene, i.e. Columbia, NYC, Yale, and Juilliard in New York; Harvard, NEC, Boston Conservatory, Boston College, Berklee, and Brandeis in Boston; Northwestern, University of Chicago, and Univ. of Illinois in Chicago; and other examples.

There are several major Atlanta universities with strong and developing music programs that employ full-time composers (Emory, Ga Tech, GSU, Kennesaw State, Clayton State, and others). Their ability to attract creative thinkers from other parts of the country (faculty and students) and provide a local resource for the development of Atlanta-based composers and artists is a significant factor for the growth of new music in the area.

The American pioneer spirit and sense of adventure and discovery that drove the creation of many California cities has also produced supportive environments there for innovative creation in the arts. Research universities have also played significant roles there as well, i.e. Stanford and UC-Berkeley in San Francisco; and UCLA, USC, and Cal Arts in Los Angeles. Many of these California new music communities have focused more on innovative technological applications for music given the high concentration of research and development labs and industries in the area.

Because of differences in our country from Europe, being a “composer” is not necessarily limited to the art and liturgical traditions and the term is often applied to anyone who creates and designs sound. This can include, but not limited to, numerous forms of media (film, TV, websites, video games), advertising and commercial applications, and entertainment and popular music. There may be significant differences in the goals and approaches of composers who create hip-hop, orchestral repertoire, jazz, commercial jingles, experimental computer music, and interactive video games. In most cases, they are called and may refer to themselves all as composers. It should be no surprise that the communities developing around their work are equally as diverse.

So, given this historical preface, what does this tell us about the current situation for composition and creative thought in Atlanta? Atlanta has many thriving cultural and musical communities. There are a substantial number of successful industries in the area with large numbers of employees involved in media research and innovation. The colleges and universities offer a diversity of musical opportunities for study and participation.

We should also not overlook the importance of the dynamic musical presence of Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra programs. His work with the ASO promoting new compositions is critical to the continued growth of the entire musical community. As a comparison, one can observe the dramatic shift that has taken place in the quality and quantity of new music being performed and created in San Francisco and L.A. since Michael Tilson Thomas and Eka-Pekka Salonen became conductors in those cities.

Atlanta has many of the necessary ingredients for a thriving new music scene all ready in place. A robust new music scene often develops from a delicate balance of support from major artistic institutions, research universities, area residents involved in creative and exploratory work, and private and industry philanthropists who believe in the value of this activity. If any one of these participants is not present, the work of creative artists in Atlanta will remain somewhat hidden or ghettoized.

The increasing number of collaborations now taking place among those in the musical institutions, universities, and creative industries in the city is encouraging. It is also positive that there is a sense of inclusiveness towards those with creative interests. If enough small communities of new music and compositional activity begin to grow and flourish, at some point they will collectively merge and be perceived as a healthy Atlanta new music scene, one hopefully reflecting our unique history and culture identity and contributing to our social progress and understanding and to Atlanta's national reputation as a vibrant, creative, and socially-conscious city.

Where is Beauty?

In the 18th century, the philosophical conception of aesthetics was almost entirely dominated by the idea of beauty. Other than the sublime, the beautiful was the only aesthetic quality actively considered by most artists and thinkers. However, during the 20th century, beauty, with its simplistic, commercial implications, almost entirely disappeared from artistic reality, as if attractiveness somehow became the diabolus in musica. Aesthetics, which some thought had become too narrowly identified with beauty, was replaced in critical discourse by formalistic descriptions.

As a young composer in the 1970s, I understood that working with sounds and textures recognized as “beautiful” was a controversial course to pursue. Things began to change somewhat in the 1980s; attractiveness once again became an accepted option in musical creation.

From the onset of 20th century modernism, it was clear that something can be art without being beautiful, but a new positive interpretation of beauty was required if it was to be embraced by the composer-intellectual. This reemergence of beauty in the musical language of composers often was a result of compositional approaches drawn from non-Western, non-canonic and vernacular repertories, or from a new emphasis on spectral transformations of sound.

Recently, the Emory University Center for Humanistic Inquiry and the Institute of Liberal Arts sponsored Harvard aesthetics professor Elaine Scarry as a distinguished visiting professor. In discussing her book, On Beauty and Being Just, Scarry argued that beauty has a positive moral value—that it actually intensifies our desire to correct injustice wherever we find it. It may, as Scarry asserts, “inspire people the aspiration to political, social and economic equality.” The placement of aesthetic values in relation to other values may be one of many factors that contributed to this reconsideration of beauty.

In my method of composing, each work begins as contemplation on a set of questions or concerns, often centered on qualities of sound, relationship of the body to new technologies in performance, or culturally hybrid forms. This design process is perhaps no different than that of individuals working in architecture, engineering or computer science. Problems of organization must be addressed at the quantitative level, considering new aspects of temporality (vertical, static, cyclical, expanding), new sonic progressions and new performer-instrument relationships.

But on another level are the unconscious preferences: the imaging of dreams, memories and reveries; representations of stillness; sensuous and ambiguous textures; darkness unfolding into light—in essence, my personal tastes. It is the dance of these two processes that constitutes my creative method. Each takes its turn leading, but the dance would not be possible without both.

Many other contemporary composers freely choose the questions, issues and aesthetic concerns they wish to explore. The “theories” they devise may be seen as forms of action, forms of thought, or forms of art or beauty.

Does the compositional method require a more multilingual understanding by both composer and listener today? Is the modern composer a sort of scientist, conducting research into social and cognitive behavior and the limits of aesthetic experience? And, as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and others have suggested, do artists and intellectuals in general have a social responsibility? Increasingly for composers, the answers seem to be ‘yes.’

Observing the evolution of Western musical thought over the past two centuries, the boundaries between art and the rest of human experience have diminished substantially. Perhaps in these patterns of sound, which we call music, there is much more to be learned about each other and ourselves in the future.


Ever since my earliest attempts at composing, I’ve had a growing suspicion that this activity, which essentially involves constructing patterns of sound, is far more complicated and intriguing than I initially understood.

As a conductor and musical performer in Atlanta, I realize the importance of understanding how musical thought becomes physically expressed, how it’s perceived by listeners, how it acquires cultural value. And, in order to answer these ontological questions about music (thus helping me develop as a composer), I realized the necessity of analyzing both sound and the contexts in which it is produced in modern society.

This, in turn, quickly led to questions of philosophical aesthetics, representations of culture and hybridity, mimesis, instrumentality, the body, temporality, cognition, commodification, and even, ultimately, theology.

The act of music composition in highly technological and culturally diverse societies requires a new literacy of sonic and social phenomena. For me, the process is essentially a humanistic endeavor. Indeed, this inquiry-driven role for Western composers dates back to the mid-1800s.

Before that time, musical compositions in the West were often celebratory: to praise God, to congratulate the city council or court patrons, to recognize important liturgical events. That purpose changed slightly for the 19th century composer, whose aim also involved evoking a wide array of emotional and psychological states. By the 20th century, the purpose of composers became to think—to provide a philosophical basis of thought and human action, with vague analogues in sound.

Richard Wagner is perhaps the earliest example of this emerging genre of modern composer-intellectual. He commented on topics as diverse as the origins of classical Greek drama in folk art, early Christian asceticism, alliteration in German verse, and dreaming in the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Wagner became an intellectual at large, confrontational and often erudite, whose public persona was much larger than that of a musician focused on local performance conditions.

As the century wore on, composer-intellectuals took a much stronger interest in politics and social criticism. These individuals usually were not directly involved in political action but rather attempted to effect change through illustrating technical possibilities in their work. The 20th century, modernist composer devised theories and structures that themselves become forms of action, as well as forms of art. As music became self-conscious—intricate, cerebral—the composer became engaged with a range of intellectual activity; musical compositions became models for problem-solving, as if music itself were a type of thinking.

Many such composers emphasized the social and cultural aspects of musical practice. Listening to music for its own sake—disinterested contemplation in a quiet concert hall, for example—became only one of the uses for music. This practice eventually led to the present, in which an acute understanding of how our own physical, neurological and cultural makeup shape musical practice. Today, music plays an important role in how we come to terms with the world, in negotiating the realities of our environment and relationships, and in forming cultural and personal identities.