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BU in the World: Ancient Rhythms

A five-part series on student and faculty work around the globe

The heart of the BU community is right here in Boston, but the University’s influence reaches around the globe. In addition to the 1,500 students who study abroad each year, students and professors work in foreign lands doing research, exploring, preserving cultures, and helping others. BU is out and about, and the world is its classroom.

In this series, BU Today looks at five stories from the past year about some of the academic and humanitarian pursuits of BU students and faculty around the globe. Click here to read Monday’s story, “Saving Bolivia’s Street Children.” Click here to read Tuesday’s story, “Mission to Burma.” Click here to read Wednesday’s story, “Students Serve the City, Then the World.” Check back tomorrow for “Training Engineers, at Home and Abroad.”

Ancient Rhythms
CFA Prof Brita Heimarck preserves Balinese musical traditions

By Brett Milano

Brita Heimarck sits in front of a 100-year-old Balinese xylophone and begins playing. The piece opens slow and stately, with a shimmer of church-bell-like notes, and builds to the vibrant cross-rhythms usually associated with Indonesian music.

The associate professor of musicology is in the basement of the College of Fine Arts, where she stores the flutes, xylophones, and percussion instruments used in her graduate seminars on world music. But if we were hearing this piece in the proper context, it would be Bali after dark, most of a village would be present, and the music would accompany a shadow play: the traditional puppet performance used mainly in a sacred context.

“I believe that when you play music from another culture on traditional instruments, you’re bringing part of that culture with you,” Heimarck says. “So even if the students aren’t in a temple, smelling incense and watching a shadow play, it does carry a cultural experience that is enriching for them.”

Heimarck came to Boston University in January 2006 as its first full-time tenured ethnomusicologist. Through her efforts, BU is now one of the few places where students can study the Balinese ceremonial music known as gender wayang. Typically played by quartets, gender wayang calls for the musicians to mute, or dampen, the xylophone keys with the undersides of both hands as the mallets are being struck, a difficult maneuver that Heimarck executes with ease. The music is used for ceremonies both familiar and exotic: it accompanies weddings and funerals, but also teeth-filings. “That’s often done before a marriage; filing of the canine teeth is supposed to tame your animal nature,” she explains. Because the accompanying shadow plays are seldom performed in English, it’s a form of music that few tourists investigate.

Much of Heimarck’s research has explored the related Balinese traditions of music and shadow play. Performed by puppeteers during ceremonies, the plays take place behind screens lit by torches, so the audience literally watches only the shadows. References to these ceremonies have been traced back as far as 896 B.C. “The shadows suggest a connection with another world,” she explains. “The puppeteer is contacting spirits of ancestors, carrying lessons. The shadows make it more mystical, giving a sense of otherworldly advice. There’s a quality called taksu, a connection to the spirits. If a puppeteer has taksu, the audience will see the character when he performs.”

Heimarck is especially interested in how modernization has affected these performances. Some puppeteers now do shadow plays in English and some inject more humor. Shadow plays used to last many hours — often the audience would go directly to work as the sun rose — but are now being condensed, with sections written in the archaic Kawi language (traditionally spoken by the royal characters) deleted.

The musical pieces accompanying those sections are disappearing, too. So Heimarck is now teaching her BU students to play pieces that are being phased out of the culture that created them. “My teacher in Bali had a master plan,” she says. “He saw that these pieces were being played less often, so he preserved them by teaching them to his foreign students.”
A flautist and pianist since childhood, Heimarck discovered her affinity for Balinese culture by accident. An instructor in college told her that an electronic piece she was writing had elements of Indonesian music, leading her to explore the music for herself. After graduating from Brown in 1985, she went to Bali and began her research. She received an M.A. in ethnomusicology from UCLA in 1991 and a Ph.D. from Cornell in 1999. She published Balinese Discourses on Music and Modernization: Village Voices and Urban Views (Routledge) in 2003.

She is now working on transcriptions of some of the pieces that are currently dying out in Bali. It will be the first time that gender wayang has been published in Western notation. While at present she performs with 12 students in her world music seminar, she intends to form a full-time world music ensemble at BU next year. And if she can bring in puppeteers as guest artists, she may realize her dream of staging a shadow play. “I’d like to work with the theater department on that,” Heimarck says. “There’s no reason we couldn’t do it with a Western story — I can imagine Balinese music used with Shakespeare.”

Click on the audio player below to hear Heimarck play a traditional wayang kulit song with her Indonesian teacher.

“Ancient Rhythms” originally appeared on BU Today on April 2, 2007. It was also published in the spring 2007 issue of Bostonia.