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RASAAffect and Intuition in Javanese Musical Aesthetics$

Marc Benamou

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195189438

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195189438.001.0001

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(p.xi) Preface

(p.xi) Preface

Oxford University Press

This is a study about language about music. It describes the way in which Javanese musicians use words to characterize the meaning of their music. That is, it seeks to understand, through linguistic clues, what Javanese musicians hear—and above all, what they feel—when they listen to their music.

Although I use the word “Javanese” in the title and throughout the book, it should be obvious that this shorthand does not stand for the thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, values, idiolects, and practices of every one of Java's 130 million inhabitants, nor even of the approximately 80 million speakers of Javanese. My research was centered in the city of Solo (also called Surakarta), in the province of Central Java, and nearly all of the musicians I talked to hailed from within a 30-kilometer radius of the city. Even within that area, I limited my study to what may be loosely termed traditional music, and within that domain I focused on gamelan music and the vocal music that belongs to the same cultural sphere. Further limitations have to do with time. I first went to Java in 1986 and last returned in 2006, and so my firsthand observations are specific to that time span. But, upon reflection, the musical period that the commentary I recorded pertains to most directly is the height of the cassette era, which can be placed roughly between 1970 and 1990. A more accurate title, then, would have been My Understanding of What the Small Sampling of Traditional Musicians I Observed and Spoke with between 1986 and 2006 in and around Solo, Central Java, Told Me about What Their Music Meant to Them. The reader will perhaps forgive the poetic license of the title I chose in its place.

During my first trip to Java I came up against a breakdown in communication that was to puzzle and intrigue me for years to come and eventually to lie at the heart of my field research. The problem, I am convinced, did not lie with the somewhat restricted scope of my Indonesian at the time, but rather with the nature of the question. I had noticed that my singing teacher, Darsono,1 in (p.xii) demonstrating certain examples, used a deeper, more “covered” voice quality than in other examples. I tried to ask whether different vocal genres required different timbres. He said that, yes, some genres were “light” (ringan [I]), while others were “heavy” (berat [I]). So far so good. It wasn't until a few days later, upon hearing these same terms applied to gendèr (double-mallet metallophone) players—or, more precisely, to their respective characteristic playing styles—that I began to wonder if he had understood me and I him. For as they applied to gendèr playing, ringan and berat seemed to mean something like “lighthearted” and “serious.” When I returned to my singing teacher and asked him for a fuller explanation, he described differences in melodic variation and ornamentation. Try as I might, I could not get him to talk about vocal timbre per se.

Several important realizations came from this otherwise frustrating encounter. The first was that Javanese voice types do not consist only in timbral differences. The second was that certain categories of pieces called for certain voice types. Third, at least some of the terms used to describe voices could also be used to describe instrumentalists' playing styles. And finally, there seemed to be a twofold division, or at least a continuum between two poles, to which performers, pieces, and voices could be related.

When I returned to Java in 1989 to do my doctoral research, I arrived with an open-ended program, and no real topic to speak of—no hypothesis to be tested, no large theoretical questions to be answered. I knew I was interested in aesthetics, and I had always felt the problem of aesthetic evaluation to be the most fascinating, intractable, and urgent question of all. The object of my study was thus the way local musicians evaluated other performers (particularly singers)—what their criteria were, and what the terms were that they used to make their evaluations known.

My hope was to learn enough Javanese (as opposed to Indonesian, the national language) to be able to understand what musicians said amongst themselves. The idea was that casual comments overheard in actual musical interaction would be far more revealing of what was important to the musicians than the answers to (p.xiii) any questions I might formulate. Eventually I was, in fact, able to understand much of what was being said at rehearsals and performances. The problem with this method—language difficulties aside—was that there was no predicting when someone would say something interesting, and I simply could not, for practical reasons, have a tape recorder running constantly. So, in the long run, listening in context became primarily a way of confirming things learned by other means.

I had also planned to focus on gamelan and singing competitions (lombas) as a way of honing in on specific criteria. Partly because of the great tension and secrecy arising from the cutthroat atmosphere of these government-sponsored competitions, this, too, proved to be somewhat impractical. Not only was it difficult to record under the circumstances, but judges were sometimes reluctant to speak freely about their decisions, lest one of the winners' rivals protest (a common occurrence, to be sure). In addition, because contest judging calls for impartiality and standardization, not all of the criteria used were weighted the same as they would have been outside that environment (for example, flexibility in performance counts for very little in a competition). Nevertheless, I did glean some valuable information from these lively events.

Another method I used was to elicit reactions to cassette recordings (commercial and otherwise) of male and female singers. This led to some interesting results. But it was time-consuming. And, at least for the commercial recordings, it yielded mostly general comments that were based on previous experience of hearing the singers.

By far the most productive approach in the beginning stages of my research (roughly the first two years) was to take singing lessons and to pursue conversations on topics that my teacher brought up during my lessons. I was fortunate in that my principal teacher, Suhartå, a lecturer at the Indonesian School for the Arts (STSI) in Solo, was as talkative, critical, and articulate as he was knowledgeable. During this initial period I also attended gamelan rehearsals in different sectors of the town and participated in concerts in a variety of venues. Not only did this help to hone my musical ability, it allowed me to get to know singers and musicians personally and to get a sense of the overall context of traditional Javanese music making. This dimension of my research should not be underestimated. Without a fairly extensive practical knowledge of repertoire and vocal techniques, I would not have been able to communicate with musicians theoretically, using their own terms. Moreover, my demonstrating a certain level of competence as a singer made me somehow more serious, more approachable, more “real.” I found a huge difference, for instance, in the way musicians treated me before and after they had heard me sing.2

(p.xiv) After two years of listening to Javanese musicians talk in various contexts about their music, my topic finally came to me, and I realized that it had been staring me in the face ever since that early encounter in 1986. It became clear that at the heart of their talk about aesthetic evaluation, about performance, about listening, was rasa: “affect,” “mood,” “feeling,” “intuition.” Furthermore, this fundamental concept had been touched upon only in passing in the literature. It seems that, from Groneman (1890) on, writing by foreign researchers about Javanese music was focused primarily on how it was produced rather than on how it was listened to.

Having identified my topic, in the final stages of my research I was more aggressive about guiding conversations. It appeared that I had indeed hit upon issues of great concern to musicians: they showed obvious pleasure and excitement when I asked them about rasa. Moreover, their answers matched my questions very closely—a sign that what I was asking was deemed coherent and relevant. (There were two notable exceptions to this: one, the oldest living gamelan expert in Solo, who, I learned later, despised vocal music; the other, an older singer at the main palace, who, as far as I could determine, did not think abstractly about music—or about most things, for that matter.)

In conducting my interviews I avoided using questionnaires, feeling that they would have forced the musicians' thoughts too much into my own mold.3 Perhaps at the end of my research I could have devised questionnaires that would have fit with their ways of thinking, but I didn't. Instead, I chose to have ongoing conversations with a few acknowledged experts. Some breadth was achieved by talking to a great many singers and musicians that I never formally interviewed—my field notes contain statements by 118 people. This provided me with a basis for judging the relative quirkiness of those with whom I did speak more extensively.

But my account of Javanese aesthetics does not attempt to represent the broadest possible consensus: experts' opinions, while often influential and usually respected, are notoriously quirky. Nevertheless, I decided to focus on them for the simple reason that experts have something others lack: expertise. This focus on a limited number of people allowed me to achieve, I hope, a richness and depth otherwise unobtainable. As Karl Heider put it (1991:63), ethnography—as opposed to psychology or sociology—favors “data that are

  • complex rather than simple

  • inclusive rather than exclusive

  • concrete rather than abstracted.

(p.xv) By choosing aesthetics as my topic, I am in essence arguing for a reaesthetization of the field. Not that I believe every ethnomusicologist must be an aesthetician. Rather, I endorse the more modest belief that aesthetics deserves to have a central place in our discipline. For many years—as a backlash against Hanslickian absolutism, against the supposed autonomy of the musical work; but also, perhaps, out of a genuine engagement with traditions in which the aesthetic is clearly subsumed by the social—we ethnographers of music have written as if musical meaning inheres almost entirely in the social or symbolic aspects of music: in its uses; in its functions; in its ability to define group identity, ritual space, ritual time, and other factors. This approach may ring more true for some traditions than for others. In our search for difference, we have fallen into the pattern Geertz (2000:64) describes for anthropologists: “we hawk the anomalous, peddle the strange.” Our otherwise healthy effort to show the nonuniversality of Western music has led us to de-aestheticize even those non-Western traditions with a strong aesthetic sense.

One of the things I do in this book is to show how the meaning of musical sounds is dependent on the musical context.4 That is, I try to bridge the notorious divide between music and context, between the aesthetic and the historical, between the musical and the social, between musicological and anthropological ethnomusicology—however you want to put it.

As Dahlhaus has stated in a provocative essay entitled “The Significance of Art: Historical or Aesthetic?” (1989 [1978]), the more one focuses on the circumstances in which music is produced, the more one moves away from music as an aesthetic object. That is, he sees history and aesthetics as mutually exclusive. This tension between sound and context has always been at the heart of the discipline of ethnomusicology. We might declare that music is an activity and not an object; that the “music itself” is necessarily what people do for people, not just the sounds they make; that sound and context are indissociable. And yet, as any good ethnographer knows, what people say they do and what they actually do are often two different things. Sometimes we describe the whatness of the musical object (its sound); and sometimes we describe its whoness, whereness, whenness, howness, or whyness (its context). Rarely do we do both. By attending to musical affect and how musicians talk about it, we are led to both musical object and musical activity at the same time. This is because affect is at the heart of the aesthetic experience, and yet it cannot be understood outside of a larger context. This context may be taken for granted when one is a cultural insider, but it becomes much less transparent in a cross-cultural setting. My first chapter, accordingly, sets the stage geographically and sociologically for what follows.

(p.xvi) In the foregoing discussion I have spoken as if, according to Javanese musicians, music's content is its affect. The situation is in fact a bit more complicated than that. What makes music meaningful for them is rasa. This word may indeed be translated as “affect,” and for much of the book this will do reasonably well. Yet rasa is much more than that. In chapter 2 I explore the meaning of this all-important word, basing my analysis largely on oral citations from musicians I have spoken to. Though what concerns me most is how the word is used in a musical context, we cannot answer the question “What is this thing called rasa?” without adventuring into Javanese psychological and philosophical theories, which have a strong foundation in Buddhism and Sufism. Readers who are not drawn to detailed lexicographic explorations should at least read the final paragraph of the chapter in order to follow the rest of the book.

In chapter 3 I whittle the meaning of rasa down to just “musical affect,” leaving aside its other dimensions, and investigate the range of rasas that may be expressed musically. To understand this panoply more fully, we must in turn ask how the various musical affects are related to each other—in other words, how the rasa lexicon is structured. An important point that emerges as rasas are mapped into shifting constellations of relatedness, is just how paramount connotative meaning is. Chapters 2 and 3, then, are mainly semantic in nature.

It is in chapter 4 that I try to make good on my promise to weave together musical affect and musical context, or aesthetics and sociology. For in assessing who or what has rasa, we are led back to the Javanese categories of geography, gender, and social status first described in chapter 1. That is, in this chapter I look for patterns in just which performances—and, more particularly, which performers—are said to have more or less rasa than others. The question of what makes music “rasaful” is continued in chapter 5, but with more of a focus on the moment of performance.

Chapter 6 consists mostly of lengthy excerpts from conversations with two noted musical experts. Following their lead, it takes a philosophical turn. The two main questions they tackle are “What is the relationship between what people say they feel when listening to music and what they actually feel?” and “How much of musical rasa is in the piece, how much in the performance, and how much in the perception of the performance?”

From philosophy thence to music theory: chapter 7 continues the question raised in chapters 4 and 5 about factors contributing to the creation of rasa. But here, instead of music and rasa as a quality of the performer, the focus is on the variety of rasas catalogued in chapter 3 and on specific musical traits. That is, I seek to identify, other factors being equal, what effect various musical procedures have on any particular rasa as it is perceived by an experienced listener.

Finally, in my last chapter I raise some larger issues, though I offer little in the way of definitive answers and allow myself to be more speculative than in the rest of the book. Some of my conclusions I will save for the end. But, by way of (p.xvii) further illustrating what it is I am setting out to do—why, that is, I think it is important, and why I think it is possible—I would like, here, to show what can happen when what I've learned from this research is put into practice.

Over the past few years, in teaching courses to undergraduates (mainly introductions to musics of the world, but also, inter alia, seminars in ethnomusicological theory), I have often conducted an informal experiment, in which I play recorded examples of Javanese music for which I have insiders' descriptions of affective meaning. If I have time, I also play a few examples of music more obviously familiar to those present. I ask students to write down adjectives that describe the respective moods of the various selections. Despite a certain looseness in the way I have conducted these experiments, several things have become clear. First, affect is of utmost importance in getting students to understand music; furthermore, it is interesting to them and something they feel comfortable talking about. Second, there is a difference in their reactions to familiar and unfamiliar music: there is almost always more consensus about the familiar pieces than about the unfamiliar ones. Third, they are sometimes spectacularly wrong about the intended affects of the Javanese pieces. Fourth, they are sometimes spectacularly right about these same pieces. (Interestingly, there does not seem to be a clear pattern as to which they get “right” and which “wrong.”)

From points two through four, I draw several general conclusions. First of all, musical meaning is learned, just as linguistic meaning is. Hanslick's principal argument against associative meaning in music is that the same piece can elicit differing interpretations. But this is to misunderstand the nature of associations. I would posit, following Wittgenstein (1958), that linguistic meaning is also largely associative. No one would argue that language has no referential meaning simply because one needs to know a language to understand an utterance in it. Similarly, just because one has to be clued into the meaning of musical patterns—insofar as these have shared associations—in order to “get” it, does not mean that the patterns have no meaning beyond Hanslick's tönend-bewegte Formen (sounding forms in motion). For both language and music, then, meaning accrues through use—which is precisely why I try to avoid separating musical object and musical context.

My second general conclusion is that the more familiar the piece—that is, the more context one has for it (the more “prior text,” in A. L. Becker's terminology) the more one will be led to certain associative affects over others. Again, this points up the interconnectedness of musical context and perception of musical affect. And if one's goal is to learn certain idiomatic affective responses, there is no way around paying a good deal of attention to musical context (who is composing or performing where, why, when, for whom, and in conjunction with what other activities) in an effort to make up for missing prior texts.

My third conclusion is that some aspects of affective meaning can cross cultural boundaries. This is not logically inconsistent with musical affect being (p.xviii) learned; but it might also be explained by putative universal psychological dispositions (on the order of “quicker rhythms are perceived as being more exciting,” “low pitches are perceived as more serious”).5 I am not prepared to try to settle this here. In either case, the important thing is that musical affect sometimes is, if not universal, at least cross-culturally accessible. Indeed, without this, there would be little point in my writing this book: if music cultures were mutually unintelligible in an absolute sense, there would be little hope of outsiders ever learning to hear like insiders—which is one of my main goals—or little motivation to even try to understand any musics but one's own.

A preliminary comment about who my teachers were is in order here. With one exception, all of the people whom I taped in conversation were respected music or dance teachers, all male, and all over the age of forty-five. One might legitimately ask why, if so many of the performers I was studying were female, I didn't talk more with female experts. This is, in fact, something I would like to have done, and the reasons I did not are instructive. First of all, I found activities and the demarcation of space to be considerably more segregated by gender in Javanese society than in the middle-class French and American milieux I was brought up in. This meant not only that I turned to Javanese males for advice on whom to ask about musical aesthetics, but also that it was more natural for me to spend time with male than with female musicians. Second, Javanese traditional music—and more especially, discourse about music—is very much dominated by males. To the general public, female singers are the best-known and most highly visible musicians. But because, with few exceptions, they don't “use mallets” (i.e., play instruments), they are thought to have at best an incomplete knowledge of the tradition: to a certain extent, “female musical expert” is an oxymoron in the Javanese context. When women study singing formally, it is usually with a male teacher. And, because women are not thought of as sources of musical knowledge, they are rarely called upon to teach or to theorize. They may therefore be less adept than men at verbalizing the musical techniques that they are so skilled at. Whatever the reasons, my gender bias is something I am aware of, and something I lament. Those seeking more information on the attitudes of women singers in the same community I studied may find it in Susan Walton's work (1996),6 the fieldwork for which was conducted just after mine. Interestingly enough, it would seem that the female perspectives on rasa that she presents (chapters 5 and 6), are quite similar, in fact, to ways of talking about rasa I had encountered among male musicians.

(p.xix) I have chosen to refer to most of my interviewees as “my teachers,” whether I actually studied performance with them or not. Some of them I may have only spoken with two or three times; but they were experts and I ignorant, and they taught me much. I am uncomfortable with the outmoded notion that only the anthropologist can know the true import of what his or her “informants” say. This does not mean that I have avoided adding my perspective—such shaping and reshaping of the material is inevitable—but I want to emphasize that my role in the field was that of a learner.

In gathering information I sought, to the extent that this is possible, to remain true to the musicians' perspectives. In listening to my tapes, back in the United States, I realized just how much I had actively influenced the direction of the dialogue, especially towards the end of my stay, when I had absorbed much of the musicians' vocabulary, and time seemed short. But a great many of their comments were unsolicited by me. And, when occasionally two musicians were present during one of the taping sessions, and the conversation would switch from Indonesian to Javanese (a sign that I was not being addressed), there was not a sudden shift in emphasis. So I do think that in the end, by listening very carefully to what was being said, I was able to get some idea of what was important to my teachers.

The goal of being true to the insiders' perspectives is even more elusive, however, in the presenting of the material gathered, and it may not be entirely desirable. I do not mean by this that in constructing my narrative I should have been free to choose any interpretation that came to mind; rather, that another force besides the musicians' perspective was at work in shaping the material. As Goethe put it in his Wilhelm Meister's Years of Travel: “You do not need to have seen or experienced everything yourself; but if you wish to trust the other man and his descriptions, consider that you now have to deal with three factors, the object and two subjects.” It would be disingenuous to pretend that these two subjects, the reader and I, did not exist. For practical and statistical reasons, I recognize that my primary (but, I hope, not exclusive) readership will be members of the musical and academic communities of the Western world, for want of a better word, most of whom will never have been to Java, and some of whom, sadly, will never have heard a live gamelan ensemble, let alone a highly accomplished one in its original setting. As any author must, I had to consider the needs of my readership, so that one of my roles in all of this was to sift through, organize, and make meaningful the texts that originated as exchanges between Javanese musicians and myself, and that have been inscribed on paper, on audio tape, and in my memory. The task was largely one of translation, in the broad sense of supplying missing “prior texts” (A. L. Becker 1995).

To be sure, the notion of cultural translation has been criticized as perpetuating colonialist attitudes (Crapanzano 1986, Asad 1986). But this is more a problem with the way it has been carried out within a colonialist (or neocolonialist) (p.xx) framework than with the notion itself—no better alternative has been proposed. Simply put, I was once in Java, I am now in a very different place, and I would like to tell the people where I now find myself what I learned while I was there. Clearly, it would not do simply to repeat verbatim what my teachers told me or to address myself primarily to Javanese musicians.7

One of the ways I have tried to bridge the gap between these two conceptual worlds is to include a large number of Javanese and Indonesian words. This is, after all, about how Javanese musicians talk about music. I expect my readership to include people with only a passing familiarity with gamelan music, and no knowledge of the Javanese and Indonesian languages, but who want to know more about what this music means. For these people, certain passages may seem needlessly detailed and eminently skippable. But the book is also meant as a manual, a sort of multidimensional glossary, for the increasing numbers of non-Javanese who are learning to perform this music, either in Java or from a Javanese musician living abroad. For them, it is intended to be both a guide to figuring out what their teachers are saying and to performing the music with deeper understanding.

Because I deal simultaneously with aesthetics, language about music, culturally constructed emotion concepts, and Javanese culture in general, I am hoping that the study will be of interest not only to ethnomusicologists, but also to music aestheticians, cognitive anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, Southeast Asianists, and to musicologists who focus on musical affect.

Yet another small but all-important readership must be mentioned. Returning to Goethe's comment, the ethnographer's object is also a subject, of course—a living, thinking being (in my case, a musician)—so that there are not two, but rather three subjects. The distinctions between these three subjects, while not irrelevant, are far from absolute. I am to some extent also part of the objective subject: I was among the participants creating the “texts” to be translated; and I am also at least a partial insider (or so I am told by my Javanese musician-friends; I am certainly no longer the same person I was before I went to Java). In a sense, then, I am continuing these dialogues here, addressing myself to the growing number of Javanese musicologists who read English (an Indonesian translation is in the works, for those who do not). I welcome them to compare my representation of their words, their music, and their world to their perceptions of these, and to point out the discrepancies that are sure to arise.


(1.) The Darsono in question is not the one referred to throughout the rest of the book. The one I refer to here is usually called “Darsono Dagelan” (“Darsono the Clown”—he is known to be very funny, and to have a naturally comedic voice), “Darsono STSI” (since he teaches at STSI, now ISI, the College/Institute of the Arts in Solo), or “Darsono Vokal” (since he teaches singing). (See the section on names in “Technical Notes.”) The other Darsono is usually called “Darsono Kentingan” (which is where he lives; confusingly, this is also where the ISI campus is located). He is also called “Darsono Jepang” (because his wife is Japanese) or “Darsono Edan” (“Crazy” Darsono—this is meant affectionately). I shall distinguish the two by using their full names: Darsono “Kentingan” sometimes uses the prefix Su- (Sudarsono) and Darsono “STSI” does not (his full name is Darsono). At the risk of invoking Ionesco's Bobby Watson, I feel I must mention that there are two other Darsonos whose names come up in discussions of Javanese music. One is a dancer and dance historian who lives in Yogyakarta. Fortunately he uses the Dutch spelling of his full name, Soedarsono. The other is often referred to as “Darsono cilik” (the little Darsono), so called because he is considerably younger than the other Darsonos. He is considered one of the most talented among recent graduates of STSI/ISI and has recently taught at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

(2.) I am reminded of Marina Roseman's account, which she presented in a talk at the University of Michigan, of how she was able finally to make headway in her research with the Temiar people of highland Malaysia, after many months of living in a village. She had been trying to get information on the process by which songs were given to singers by spirits in dreams, but with little success. Then she had one of those dreams herself, and everything changed.

(3.) An additional problem with questionnaires is that the genre itself is relatively foreign to the world of Javanese musicians, some of whom are nonliterate. Nevertheless, Santosa seems to have had some success in surveying musicians in Solo (1990).

(4.) As a model of how this principle may be put into practice, I can think of no better example than Lortat-Jacob's exemplary study (1998) of sacred singing among a Sardinian brotherhood.

(5.) Significantly, both of these examples were suggested to me by Rahayu Supanggah.

(6.) Other related research on women performers has been conducted by Nancy Cooper (1994) and Sarah Weiss (1998 and 2006). Suraji's study of female singers (2005) is notable in that it is the first monograph by a male musician to treat women as sources of information and not simply as producers of musical patterns to be analyzed by the researcher.

(7.) I once attended a demonstration of gamelan music for a U.S. audience, presented by a Javanese musician who spoke almost no English and had very little idea of what musical or cultural concepts his listeners already had. The audience came away with the distinct impression that here was a tradition they would never understand—even the bits of English they were able to catch made no sense to them. In a way this is good. Too often, people assume that music is the universal language; a little culture shock never hurt anybody. Yet I cannot but hope, in a work such as this, for a different result.