Having a Bali: BYU prof writes book learning Balinese music

Cody Clark - Daily Herald | Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2010

Of all the places to look or listen for traditional music from the Indonesian island of Bali, Utah Valley is probably not the first--or for that matter, the second, third, 48th, etc.--that would occur to most people. It’s just not second nature in Orem or Provo to wonder about making time over the weekend to attend a performance by Gamelan Bintang Wahyu. Only, last weekend, local residents could have done exactly that.

A "gamelan" is a Balinese percussion ensemble (occasionally including a bamboo flute, or sometimes a stringed instrument) and Bintang Wahyu is the official gamelan of Brigham Young University. The group was organized by assistant professor Jeremy Grimshaw in 2008 and performs at least once every semester.

There's a story about how it all came to be, and Grimshaw, 36, tells much of it in his new first-person account of traveling to Indonesia.

"The Island of Bali is Littered With Prayers," published by New York-based Mormon Artists Group, tells about how the author, who grew up in Washington, near St. George, spent a month in Bali observing the culture and deepening his knowledge of gamelan music. Actually, Grimshaw said, learning about the culture and learning about the music are sort of the same thing.

"They use it for everything," he said. "There's not any sort of rite of passage, there's not any celebration or observation in the life of a Balinese person, that isn't marked by some sort of gamelan music."

Gamelan music is cooperative and intricate. Mathieu Foley, a senior and music education major at BYU, said that participating in Bintang Wahyu creates a potent sense of unity among the performers. "If you're strong on your part, but the person next to you isn't, then the music won't sound like it's supposed to," Foley said.

During a performance, he said, "Everyone is working hard to make sure their part is solid so that the other people can listen to them, and vice versa. You're really relying on everyone else."

Grimshaw's wife, Kristen Grimshaw, said that there's another defining characteristic of gamelan music, one that explains why she prefers that her husband not practice at home: "It's very loud."

Getting back into percussion

Kristen Grimshaw, 35, who has a master's degree in piano performance, has a deeper appreciation of Balinese music than just its volume. When her husband was pursuing his graduate studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., she began participating in a local gamelan. "I did it for a semester," she said. "It was unusual. It was different from what I'd been doing."

After growing up banging on drums, including for a long-ago garage band and, later on, as a percussion performance major at the University of Utah, Jeremy Grimshaw had gotten so swept up in his graduate studies in musicology and world music that he rarely played. Intrigued by his wife's experience, he decided to join the Eastman School gamelan himself.

"It seemed like a low-pressure way to get back into percussion," he said. "It turns out I was completely wrong about the low-pressure part -- it's extremely complicated music." He was right, however, about the getting back into percussion part. The appeal of the music stayed with him and, after getting a job at Denison University, a liberal arts college in Ohio, Grimshaw had a chance to get his first gamelan instruments.

A collector in New York had some gamelan instruments to sell, providing a rare opportunity to acquire them without incurring expensive shipping costs. "I thought, maybe I should pursue this, and open up this new avenue of scholarship," Grimshaw said. "I studied like crazy to learn the music and learn how to teach the music."

One unique challenge of learning the music, however, is that none of it is written down. Balinese music is handed down, teacher-to-student, from one generation to the next.

Kristen Grimshaw said that when her husband works on new material with Bintang Wahyu "he essentially has every part memorized." Without creating new compositions from scratch, a gamelan can only play as much music as its most experienced member can pass on to the others in the group.

"You can't just order more music," Kristen Grimshaw said. "You either have to listen to a recording and sort of puzzle it out, or learn more from someone who knows it already."

A love of beauty

It's partly for that reason that Jeremy Grimshaw traveled to Bali, one of the larger of the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia, in 2008. "For part of the time I was in a workshop with a bunch of musicians who were studying Balinese music," he said. "The last part of the trip I spent in the home of one of my Balinese teachers."

It wasn't just studying the music directly, however, that helped Grimshaw to deepen his understanding of it. In many ways, he said, gamelan music is a reflection of Balinese daily life. "The music itself grows out of a really close-knit structure of family and community in Bali," he said. The cooperation that makes a gamelan successful, in other words, is a reflection of cooperation in all areas of Balinese society.

The music is also shaped by what the Balinese believe about creating art -- or rather, not creating it. Grimshaw said that the Balinese like to say that, instead of making art, they just try to do everything as beautifully as possible. The title of Grimshaw's book, "The Island of Bali is Littered With Prayers," refers to one such practice.

Unlike the great majority of Indonesians who are Muslims, most Balinese are Hindus. One of their daily rituals is to create prayer offerings, usually a combination of incense and food. The largest offerings are intricate pyramids of food, Grimshaw said, but they might also be as simple as "a dab of rice on a piece of banana leaf."

The prayers literally are everywhere -- Grimshaw said that, while in Bali, he once estimated he could only take about 13 strides without stepping over one. Whether large or small, however, each of them is an expression of beauty.

Grimshaw's publisher, Glen Nelson, said that Grimshaw's book itself reflects the Balinese love of beauty. "He's a very poetic writer," Nelson said. "People grasp onto ideas that he has because they're so beautifully expressed."

Eventually, the Grimshaws hope to take their four sons to Bali (Jeremy Grimshaw is planning to make a solo return visit this summer). There are already two generations of gamelan music in the family, after all: Kristen Grimshaw said that the couple's oldest son, 11-year-old Tate, has begun performing with Bintang Wahyu, and was even recognized in a statewide arts competition for creating an original gamelan composition.

Who knows? In another couple of decades, maybe Utah Valley will have a reputation for its Balinese music.

The Island of Bali Is

Littered With Prayers