Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Digesting a global musical buffet: update on SEM 2008

After four days (this being the fifth) of musical feasting (please indulge me in continuing my original motif), or even gorging, given the multiplicity of formal menus (panels, films, roundtables, business meetings, concerts--see the Society's Web page for the program) and hallway/roadside snacks--a veritable flow of planned or chance encounters, in panels or at their doorways, or in the lobby of the University’s Usdan Center or one of the hotels, or along the numerous walkways of Wesleyan's imaginative campus (a large greensward with both traditional and the austere concrete-block buildings of the Center for the Arts) with more than I can count of the some 1900 registrants here in Middletown.

It became clear after my last post that, given the richness of the conference's offerings, it would be unrealistic to attempt a running account, even daily, of my experiences here, if I wanted to take the maximum advantage of the opportunities for pursuing new musical subjects, and for making connections with as many old and new colleagues as possible. Following my last entry, I began four more commentaries in an attempt to remain current, begun in panels, or between panels in the Usdan lobby, which remain incomplete due simply to constraints of time or to chance meetings with someone passing the table where I was writing.

What seems now most practical is for me to make this last entry from the conference, with a few concluding observations, and then to return during the coming weeks and months to what I will have brought back from these five dense days and four vibrant nights (two with concerts ending after midnight).

As noted before, I am returning to the field after almost two decades, and I find that its scope has continued to expand in ways that I could not have imagined--to some extent because of developments in technology. For me--particularly in connection with my work as VOA Ethnomusicologist, and on this blog--the challenge will be to try to reconcile the often abstruse analytical approaches of the field (with its constantly evolving jargon and paradigms) to the study of the world's musics, with the clear presentation to the Internet audience of the astonishing range of these musics, enabling them to share my own exhilarating experiences of discovery.

At the moment I am sitting in a panel entitled "Contesting Genre in Indonesia and the World Stage" in the Crowell Concert Hall, the conference's second largest venue. There are several hundred seats, and perhaps 30 members of the audience. The panel began at 8:30 on the last day of the conference (always a risky time, when many people have already departed, or are departing), which also turns out to be a day of pouring rain. Having had the good fortune to visit Indonesia in 1965, I have always loved the music of the Javanes gamelan--in fact I played in the Wesleyan gamelan for two months in 1966--finding it perhaps the closest thing I know to the concept of "the music of the spheres." But what drew me to the panel was the opening paper, "Dangdut Is the Best: Popular Music, Genre Ideology and the Middle Class," by Jeremy Wallach of Bowling Green State University in Kentucky. I had first learned of this genre--by far the most popular form of music in Indonesia--from Norm Goodman, the Chief of the Indonesian Service at the Voice of America, in connection with a planned television feature on the Pittsburgh Dangdut Cowboys, a group consisting entirely of Americans of European Ancestry. Having pursued non-western music myself as a performer (in my case classical South Asian sitar), I was fascinated with discovering the motives of a group of non-Indonesian musicians to form such a group. What I hope in approaching this genre (and in collaborating with my VOA colleagues in covering it) is to combine the illuminating perspectives of ethnomusicology (while minimizing its jargon and paradigms) with the responsibilities of a journalist who brings to the audience a clear and easily understood portrait of the subject. But all that when I return to Washington.

So I will sign off now (having been multitasking, listening with one ear to the paper and watching with one eye the visual presentations), and listen to 'Scaling an Ocean of Sound': Worlding Music in Yogyakarta", by Rene Lysloff from the University of California at Riverside. His paper is taking me back to my own luminous two-week stay in that marvelous city forty years ago--a subject to which I will return anon.

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