Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle for the Association for Mormon Letters

May 2, 2010

Images of swaying palm trees, beautiful, bronzed women dancing slowly in the cool breeze, a rich tradition of exotic foods and traditions – the island of Bali evokes all of these images, and so much more.  For some, Bob Hope, Bing Crpsby and Dorothy Lamour come to mind.  There's so much mystery, so much adventure to be had in such exotic locales.

Author Jeremy Grimshaw, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, fell in love with the music of Bali.  Its delicate discordances, its magical lilts and deeply spiritual undercurrents, sent Grimshaw on a journey of discovery to this wonderful, enchanting land. He describes his quest:

"My particular attraction to Bali stemmed initially from just how starkly, and across so many different levels, it seems to challenge the notions of 'normal' I had accrued in my Western musical training." (p. 8)  Indeed, we seem to have imprinted in our minds what "normal" should sound like.  When something outside our range of normality comes into view, the seemingly-discordant sounds can jar our sensibilities.

Grimshaw was already learned in Gamelan, the peculiar Balinese form of orchestral music.  In fact, he had seen the formation of a Balinese musical company within the confines of BYU.  What he lacked was immersion in the culture that produced this fascinating musical genre.

It's difficult for me to listen to classical Chinese music and sense any beauty or harmony in it.  But to the Oriental ear, it's quite lovely, filled with meaning and symbolism.  Could the extraordinary sounds of Balinese music carry such beauty, such meaning?  And can one trained in Western ways come to understand, even appreciate, this cultural phenomenon?  The author thinks this is just what he needs to do.  The magic of the music cried out to him and wouldn't let go

In this brief account, the author takes us through the highways and hedges of Bali in search of an understanding of their music and the culture that underlies it.  As I read, I tried to place myself in his shoes and found myself getting lost in the details of his musical education.  Much of the story takes the form of an appreciation for this mysterious culture.  Beneath the music, there resides a deeply held devotion, a reaching out to deity, a deeply meditative mindset that allows no interruption, no contradiction.

This is possible, of course, when your most deeply held religious beliefs are, as with the Balinese, a part of the human experience.  Here is how Grimshaw describes the symbiotic relationship between religion and beauty:

"As the ceremony was about to begin, Emiko told us that if our personal religious inclinations made participation in the ceremony uncomfortable for us, we could watch from the nearby steps.  I considered this for a moment, but it occurred to me that Balinese music and spirituality are so intertwined that trying to draw a line between the two, and taking only what fell on the near side of that line, would be a vain exercise indeed, for Balinese culture does not just employ beauty in the service of worship; beauty is itself a form of worship." (p. 56)

One paragraph struck me as meriting a second reading, even though it was quite beside the point of this book:

"All music, at its heart, results from difference, from forces at odds with each other.  The string does not want to be moved by the bow, and in fact if it didn't brace itself against the rosined horsehair it couldn't be coaxed into vibration.  The air does not want to be forced into the pipe and sings only in its rush to escape.  Drums make no sound at all unless they are punished.  When we hear music, we are hearing the ripples emanating through the air from some epicenter of conflict, from a controlled, deliberate act of friction, resistance, or violence." (p. 109)

Taking a deep breath, I read this paragraph again and wondered if the author realized how closely he came to describing, not music, but religion, in the minds of some, including myself.  Although I profess no specific set of beliefs, I do find myself squarely in the western religious tradition.  But I do have a real affinity for the eastern idea that progress and growth come from struggle and resistance.  My inner rebel finds itself at odds with any religious tradition that insists that all must be harmonized, all must be in general agreement.  I like the fight.

Perhaps nothing summarizes the feel of this book better than the text of a sign that hung outside the rehearsal room of the Eastman School of Music, where the author first encountered the music form called "gamelan":

In Bali we don't have "art."

We just do everything

as beautifully as we can.  (p. 29)

What a wonderful world this would be if we all could do everything "as beautifully as we can."  May this be our prayer.

The Island of Bali Is

Littered With Prayers