Matthew Chilton ’16 discusses the history of the Center for the Arts’ World Music Hall, using research and ethnographic interviews with University Professor of Music Sumarsam and Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music Mark Slobin conducted for his final project in ANTH101, “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.”
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Center for the Arts, I’m excited to explore and investigate the insides, outsides, and backgrounds of our enigmatic stone blocks of cultural activity. As a musician and student of anthropology, I believe that there is far more to these buildings than immediately meets the eye or ear. My combination of disciplines leads me to interrogate the spaces physically, in terms of their sonic characteristics and potential to inspire music, as well as culturally, reading their uses and significance within a larger cultural narrative.
The most fascinating space at Wesleyan to investigate from both of these angles is the World Music Hall: not just because of the large range of musics, dances, and other arts that students engage with there, but also because of the space’s revolutionary position at the forefront of the Western institutionalization of “world” musics. The World Music Hall is an exceptionally rich symbol of the complex adaptations and translations that global music traditions experience as they meet American institutions and education systems, not to be “corrupted” or consumed by modernism, but to be transformed into new, hybrid traditions.
When the World Music Hall was constructed with the rest of the CFA and opened in the fall of 1973, it was the first building on a Western university campus erected with the express purpose of housing a gamelan ensemble and global music traditions. The way the ensemble is laid out in the space, however, is distinctly non-traditional. Javanese gamelan ensembles are traditionally contained and played in a single-level complex, indoors but with no walls, whereas the Wesleyan gamelan is housed in the innovative architecture of the World Music Hall – which displays the gamelan on three tiers above a dance floor, and which has an innovative system of basement and side entry. Certain elements of the architecture, however, like the floor-to-ceiling side windows and open floor area, reference the traditional wall-less performance space as well as Indonesian home architecture. As a result, the “oriental-traditional” instruments seem paradoxically at home in the “occidental-modernist” architectural space – for the space itself references hybrid identities.
The tripartite performance area represents another cultural adaptation, as it displays the gamelan for performance and makes every instrument and player easily visible from the audience. This increase in visibility heightens the overall spectacle and intrigue of the ensemble, keeping the audience’s attention. The space’s emphasis on the gamelan’s visuality hearkens back to the fascinating yet problematic history of this particular set of instruments. Wesleyan’s first music department heads, Richard Winslow and David McAllester, purchased the gamelan directly from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The gamelan’s three-tiered display scheme was first used at this World’s Fair’s Indonesian Pavilion, as a way of better displaying the crimson and gold opulence of this particular set of instruments. This situates Wesleyan’s gamelan within a narrative of culture-as-spectacle, orientalist fascinations, and one-sided cultural “exchange.”
However, Wesleyan’s approach to the gamelan helps distance the instruments from their problematic history by using the gamelan’s three-tiered organization as a learning tool, a visualization of the ensemble’s musical processes. The divisions of the ensemble imposed by the tiers lend transparency to the musical activity of the group, acting as a method of translation that demystifies the complex interweaving of sounds. The instruments on the highest tier, the large gong and large bonang bells, enforce the largest structural divisions of the melody. The middle tier’s large kenong bells and small kempul gongs demarcate smaller structural divisions while the xylophone-like peking, saron barung, and demung carry the basic melody. The instruments in the lowest, frontmost tier play the most complex melodic patterns, in the smallest divisions of the cycle that often equate to the Western eighth note. Though this description is by no means comprehensive, it highlights the way in which the non-traditional division of the performance area can serve as a tool for teaching and learning.
Core issues and problems of world music ensembles are embedded in the World Music Hall and Wesleyan’s gamelan. The format of the hall lends itself to problems of representation – mystifying the gamelan through display of the full visual spectacle – but also engages in helpful cultural translation by demystifying musical processes through division of the ensemble. The presentation may be “inauthentic,” but it makes clear the complex patchwork of cultural meanings inherent in the ensemble. The path of the gamelan and its transformations in configuration from Java to the 1964 World’s Fair, then finally to Wesleyan and the World Music Hall represent multiple processes of translation: from its traditional role as a locus of communal music activity, to a spectacle of Oriental exoticism, and finally to a hybrid identity of display, musical community, and intercultural learning.
And the history of the World Music Hall continues, perpetually being transformed as an ever-widening variety of classes, concerts, and performances take place between its window-walls. From Gamelan and Taiko courses to Javanese dance and puppetry, all the way to musically diverse senior theses, experimental sound installations like Christine Sun Kim’s Self Notary Public, and the performance art puppetry of Who’s Hungry, the World Music Hall and CFA at large perpetually demonstrate their flexibility to accommodate many worlds of music and art.