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Products for grant RQ-50772-13

Javanese Sung Poetry in Translation
Marc Benamou, Earlham College

Grant details:

“Do Words Matter? Music and Textual ‘Content’ in Javanese Gamelan Music” (Public Lecture or Presentation)
Title: “Do Words Matter? Music and Textual ‘Content’ in Javanese Gamelan Music”
Abstract: In the course of an NEH-funded project to transcribe and translate the lyrics of central Javanese gamelan music, it became clear that something highly unusual was going on in the way some of the texts were being used. Indeed, the singing in traditional Javanese gamelan music represents an extreme, among the world’s vocal musics, of fragmentation and discontinuity. Moreover, many of the texts are difficult for the average listener to understand because of their heavy doses of archaic words and their subtle word play, made all the more incomprehensible by melisma, the surrounding thick instrumental texture, breaths taken mid word, and the aforementioned fragmentation. As a result of this, much of the time, audiences--and even singers--do not pay much attention to the meaning of the words that are being sung. In much of the more recent repertoire, however, the words do take on a more expressive role, and become a focus of attention. Using Rossana Dalmonte's typology of text-music relations in vocal music (2004), I propose to demonstrate the range of roles the lyrics play in Javanese gamelan music, depending on the literary and musical genre, and to consider the question of why certain texts, of extremely high literary value, are used over and over, despite being only vaguely understood, at best, by most singers and listeners. Dalmonte, Rossana. 2004. “Musique, texte, poésie.” In Musiques: Une encyclopédie pour le XXIeme siècle, volume 2, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and Rossana Dalmonte. Paris: Actes Sud and Cité de la Musique.
Author: Marc Benamou
Date: 05/11/2018
Location: Universita la Sapienza Rome, Italy

"Apakah Ada 'Tentangnya'? Renungan-Renungan bab Cakepan Karawitan Jawa" (Is there an "about"? Musings on the lyrics of Javanese gamelan music) (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: "Apakah Ada 'Tentangnya'? Renungan-Renungan bab Cakepan Karawitan Jawa" (Is there an "about"? Musings on the lyrics of Javanese gamelan music)
Author: Marc Benamou
Abstract: At nearly every concert of Javanese gamelan music outside of Indonesia, there is a good chance that someone in the audience will want to know the answer to the following question: "What were they singing about just now?" And there is just as good a chance that no one present will be able to answer, because 1) the musicians themselves are unlikely to know fully what the words mean, and 2) the lyrics are extremely heterogeneous and include many lines that do not carry any propositional meaning (the first part of a riddle or of a rhymed couplet, for instance), such that a full answer to that question would take many hours to explain. Because of the extreme heterogeneity of the texts in much traditional Javanese gamelan music, it is often impossible to summarize the meaning of the texts in a single piece, let alone in an entire concert. This leads to the following questions: is there an “about” in the lyrics of Javanese gamelan music, and, if not, what function might the lyrics play in gamelan performance? After analyzing the different relations between words and music in various musical and literary genres in Javanese vocal music (which, to be sure, includes genres in which the music can be said to express the words, and the words are about something), I consider whether a distinctively Javanese way of incorporating poetry into music--which predominates in traditional gendhings (gamelan pieces)--isn’t partly responsible for a decline in the popularity of traditional gamelan music in Java. That is, with mass-mediated popular music dominating the airwaves in Indonesia, listeners come to expect fairly straightforward, relatable lyrics that not only are about something, but are expressed in the music, as well. Yet, could it be that the more enigmatic, fragmentary, “aboutless” way of using texts in gamelan music could be seen as partaking of a postmodern aesthetic, and hence could help give it a newfound cachet?
Date: 08/11/2018
Conference Name: Gamelan Culture: Roots, Expression, and World View (part of the International Gamelan Festival) Panel: “Praxis and Gamelan Aesthetics” Held at Institut Seni Indonesia in Surakarta, Indonesia