Monday, June 18, 2007

Tabling consideration of the budget, the cabinet adjourned to their gamelan rehearsal...

In the June 4th issue of The New Statesman is a list of "50 ideas for Brown's Britain", suggestions for the incoming Prime Minister. I can't help but note this one, from Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre:
In the interests of inspired collective decision-making, I would like Gordon Brown to bring his new cabinet to the Southbank Centre to play our gamelan; it's a wonderful team-building experience.


Chris said...

Suppose that at the beginning of every meeting of Congress, or the Knesset, etc, everyone had to hold hands in a circle and sing a song together. The world might be a bit different.

Daniel Wolf said...

Yes, Chris, but I think there's a magnitude of difference between Gambir Sawit (a masterpiece of the Karawitan repertoire) and Kumbaya, and there has been, under the Republican regime, ample evidence of the ill use of mass (and compulsory -- if you don't sing along you're unamerican) singing of patriotic songs. The gamlean is better, because it is not loaded in those political terms, and there is room for virtuosi to play alongside beginners, which, despite the fudal origins of gamelan, does suggest a better way of organizing things.

Chris said...

My original remark certainly was simplistic, and sounds quite naïve. I should elaborate.

I took Jude Kelly’s remark as a comment on the power of collective music-making – and by extension, collective creativity in general – to engender openness and positive cohesiveness within a group. This is one of the basic truths that make art and artists necessary and relevant. It’s a wonderful idea (the gamelan thing), and it should happen. The hard part, as I see it, is to get the cabinet members out the door in the first place. For a lot of the personalities involved, that would likely be the biggest step. The chances of them doing it on their own are slim. Someone would need to lead them – gently – by the nose. Seen in this light, getting British politicians to play gamelan is no less wildly idealistic than getting U.S. congress members so sing a good song together. It sounds a bit loony now, and such a reality might be generations down the road, if it ever happens. I am nevertheless loony enough to think it’s something worth working toward.

This is where artists – artists as teachers and cultural stewards – come in. Whether to overcome inertia, or prevent mania, the skilled practitioner must lead the way, even if everyone in the group ostensibly understands what the goal is. This is just one possible function of the artist in society, but it is one to which, it seems, less thought has been given at this end of history. Perhaps things are circling about to the extent that artists are beginning to recognize – and shoulder – this aspect of their responsibility as cultural stewards.

As artists (or just open-minded folk), we often harbor a perception of politicians as being alienated from the creative/intuitive aspects of their own psyches, and we would like to see them reconnect with that dimension in a mature, productive way, rather than an adolescent Bohemian-Club-run-naked-through-the-woods kind of way, or a solicit-sexual-favors-from-congressional-pages kind of way (even though there is a tiring abundance of examples that reinforce this perception, it is in essence a prejudice, and must be understood as such). The reality is that collaborative artistic endeavor does have benefits for the participants, which could, in the case of politicians, contribute to a saner, more democratic way of governance.

I agree that there are some advantages to the gamelan model. Having members of Gordon Brown’s cabinet play in a gamelan removes both the cabinet members and the gamelan, temporarily, from their normal cultural context. The result is an experience that is semiotically a bit more neutral, and can (must) be approached with a – perhaps unprecedented - degree of openness. Furthermore, songs involve language, which increases the semiotic baggage. Songs are, in that sense, a minefield, to be sure, and the gamelan experience would likely not involve lyrics. This could also be an advantage.

It seems hasty, however, to be dismissive of song as an approach to this same end. The comparison of Gambir Sawit to Kumbaya in this instance is, I think, rather unfair. All folk traditions include songs with music and poetry that are simple, elegant and powerful. Conversely, I suspect there must be pieces in many a gamelan repertoire considered by both musicians and audiences in that milieu to be lighter fare. The comparison not only belittles the notion of singing songs as a form of collective music-making, it begs all sorts of questions about repertoire and how the choices are made. In any such situation, someone is making judgments about what piece is to be played or what song will be sung, and someone with experience and skill needs to be present to guide the novices toward producing something coherent. There will always be a need for some skilled person to monitor the aesthetic direction of the experience. A gamelan rehearsal certainly won’t be a free-for-all, nor should a group sing. The gamelan experience is not neutral in that sense. Unless the group is so in sync and so comfortable with the repertoire that no leader is necessary, or turns of leadership could readily be taken, a skilled guide is essential. In the case of singing, inanity and empty patriotic fervor are to be avoided, and it would fall to someone to navigate the repertoire and make those judgments. An advantage of group singing, it seems to me, lay in the accessibility to the participants, through the content of the repertoire, of different aspects of the shared culture. Singing also involves an economy of means. It requires no technology whatsoever, and can be practiced anywhere.

This is all another facet of music's political dimension. If I were to hear everyone in the House of Representatives singing Kumbaya, or God Bless America, I would of course be depressed (grossed-out, terrified, etc.). If, on the other hand, they were all singing What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor, or Shenandoah, I'd consider that a small step in the right direction.

This is much more than mere speculation for me. These are issues with which I wrestle as part of my livelihood as a teacher, and in non-performance oriented music-making both as a leader (facilitator really is a more apt term, but the new-agey connotations do make me queasy) and as a participant. It’s complex, often delicate work, and speaks to the core issue of why we make music – in all of its cultural particularizations - in the first place.