Gamelan at Quai Branly

Photo: Deen van Meer


Quai Branly’s Ghost Track

During our visit to the Quai Branly in March, the Claude Levi-Strauss theatre was holding a series of performances exploring “issues of cross-fertilisation or intersecting perspectives” in non-western performing arts (Musée du Quai Branly [Press File], 2014). Quai Branly has been criticised in the past for the way it presents non-western art as if it were timeless, dismissing its cultural and historical context and France’s colonial role in the procurement of objects (Price, 2007). This themed series of performances, demonstrates a much clearer acknowledgement of culture as something which evolves over time. This can be contrasted with the approach to culture in the main collection, where it is represented as something static and bound by geographical place. The performance I saw – “Ghost Track” – was a collaboration between Indonesian gamelan dancers and musicians, and a Dutch contemporary dance company. It is interesting to view this performance within the context of Holland’s colonisation of Indonesia, looking at the influence of Europeans on the development of this music as well as the influence gamelan has had on the development of western classical music from as far back as the 18th century. The cross-fertilisation of ideas was clearly visible in the Ghost Track performance, where musicians used a digital backing track and dancers combined Indonesian dance with western contemporary movements. I will also be exploring the museum as a setting for performance and the effects this has on the viewer’s perspective as well as the way the performers might conceptualise their music in this context.

Gamelan has a rich history of cross-fertilisation due to the fact that Indonesia is an archipelagic country made up of over 17,000 islands with distinct cultures which over the years have shared and transformed this musical form. However, since Indonesia has been colonised many times by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims and, from the 16th century onwards, European colonisers from various nations, gamelan’s influence has spread way beyond the boundaries of these islands. The Dutch East India Company were the most recent colonisers and this has left Holland with a lasting legacy in relation to Indonesia. In the Ghost Track performance there was a sharing of culture between Holland and its former colonies and the sharing of cultural practices has been common since Indonesia gained its independence, creating a somewhat hybridised identity for the two countries. This can be contrasted with the the practice of Musee du Quai Branly, where, at least in the permanent collections, there is a sense of distinguishing French culture explicitly from the cultural influence of former-colonies because objects are displayed in such a way that they seem unfamiliar and even at times, sinister to someone who is accustomed to viewing western art.

Paris Expo 1889

However, the influence of gamelan on French culture has also been significant. Debussy, one of France’s most famous composers, first viewed a gamelan performance at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, in the Dutch pavilion exhibition showcasing a “real” Javanese village. People from colonial countries were taken on tour and displayed at these expositions in sets made to look like their country of origin. They would be expected to perform traditional cultural practices such as basket weaving and music making. Debussy’s subsequent compositions are said to have been inspired by the tonal forms of Javanese music which became hugely influential in the development of western classical music. Rudolf Reti, a contemporary of Debussy, described him as the creator of “a new concept of tonality in European music” (1958). At this time non-western music was treated as a timeless traditional practice to be discovered by western artists and incorporated in to western culture. Non-western musicians meanwhile were never ascribed agency or acknowledged as the creators of musical forms.

When we entered the Levi Strauss theatre to watch ‘Ghost Track’, I had very little idea of what sort of performance to expect. The programme’s brief description indicated that this modern group of musicians and dancers had “Steve Reich influences” which was interesting since Steve Reich has claimed his music was very much influenced by gamelan rather than the other way around (Reich, 1992). The non-western origin of this music was what qualified it for being performed in a museum of “indigenous art” but of course its origins are far more complex than that. The setting was slightly off-putting considering the similarities with the way that non-western had been presented at the Paris Exposition of 1889. My feeling of unease was heightened after visiting the permanent collection at Quai Branly in the morning of our visit – which is painted in dark earthy colours to represent the foreign lands from which objects had been taken. I was prepared, therefore, to be shown something dark and unfamiliar but in a traditional theatrical setting. The aesthetic of Quai Branly certainly continues inside the theatre with a dark, dimly lit stage and bits of yellowed cloth hanging over the high windows. However, for me, watching a performance like Ghost Track was a completely different experience to observing objects in this sort of setting. People are able to redefine social and cultural space through performance whereas objects are only attributed meanings. The dancers and musicians were able to perform modern gamelan in whichever way they chose to define it and so the use of computers and the mix of dancers from different backgrounds became part of our understanding of this art form. Bourdieu talked about the way in which performing culture can be a means of shaping culture (1972). Ideas about cultural hybridity have changed dramatically since the colonial era of expositions, as indicated by the title of this performance series celebrating “cross-fertilisation”.

None of the performance used Dutch or French language and this subverted the common narrative about colonial cultures dominating their colonies and replacing their culture with one more accessible to the western world. Although the language barrier prevented us from gaining a verbal understanding of the performance, the use of costume gave us a visual indication of the way traditional and modern aesthetics were crossing over. While there is certainly variation from one region to the next, traditional Indonesian gamelan tends to include dancers in brightly coloured, lavish costumes. The performer’s costumes in Ghost Track were cut in a similar style but they were all in black or muted colours which is much more common in contemporary dance performances. It was also interesting to see the way traditional gender roles were teased at, with slightly androgynous costumes, but not entirely disregarded. There was one male performer who sang a high treble and moved in a more loose way than some of the male performers while a female Dutch performer adopted some of the more masculine, rigid stances. There were also partnerships between male performers, female performers as well as heterogenous pairings at various times in the show. It was never made explicit (with costume or props as in more traditional gamelan performances) whether these were combative or flirtatious unions.

In this performance, performers had agency in the production and reproduction of culture. Gamelan may have been an influential forefather of modern classical music but the way in which it is performed differs a great deal from the performance of a traditional western orchestra. While the musicians were clearly guided by a leader, the way they responded to heightened sound in the music was by shouting out and they would smile and laugh through these passages of visibly heightened emotion so that the dynamics appeared to be far more self-defined than in a western orchestra where musicians are strictly guided by indications on a score – a fixed object which may be reinterpreted but will always exist as the canonical starting point. In an interview with one of the musicians from Ghost Track, Uus Kusnadi, he describes the way dance and music relate in the performance, fluctuating from music being the guiding force for dancers to music being a background accompaniment to dance, to the music being unrelated to the motion of the dance, and how this balance will change from one performance to the next (Ware, 2012). This to me is an even more explicit indication of the way performing culture differs from viewing cultural objects. Although this performance was being shown in a museum, an amorphous definition of culture was being created rather than performers following a set of established cultural rules.

The Levi Strauss theatre is an important part of the Museé Quai Branly because it showcases culture in a way that demonstrates how it can be changed over time. While artefacts are reinterpreted depending on their context and the historical narrative people tell about them as Arjun Appadurai explored, performance allows individuals to partake in cultural interpretation and production. While the main collection at Quai Branly displayed musical instruments like preserved specimens in a dusty column at the centre of the museum the Ghost Track performers did something different. Instead of repeating the narrative of colonial cultures dominating the old traditions of their colonies with “modern” western culture they re-imagined this narrative and performed something new which relied on the merging of practices from different cultures. The performance also demonstrated that contact between different cultures alters them immediately and therefore separating artefacts by geographical region in the main collection is perhaps an irrelevant form of categorisation for a museum celebrating art and culture. The performance made me hopeful about the future of Quai Branly as an institution which perhaps needs these modern performances to be showcased here in order to challenge the original curators’ ideas about the status of non-western cultures in the modern world.


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