Gamelans and paldongs, Sue Court

World Music is Where We Found it: Essays by and for Allan Thomas
Wendy Pond and Paul Wolffram (eds)
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864736949

 

World Music is Where We Found it is not a collection of essays in the tradition of a festschrift; rather, it records the legacy of Allan Thomas by documenting the journeys of discovery of two generations of his students. The introduction to the book outlines the early days of ethnomusicology in Victoria University of Wellington’s Department of Music where the now strong tradition of world music (or ethnomusicology by its more formal name) had its inception in the 1960s. When Thomas came to Wellington in 1976 with his own set of gamelan instruments from the Cirebon to share with students, followed soon after by the arrival of the diplomatic gift of a Javanese gamelan orchestra, the tradition of world music in the university began to secure a footing. Through Thomas’s teaching, a growing number of students became captivated by world music, especially from Asia and the Pacific. But despite the lead that Victoria University took in ethnomusicology, this was never supported by the introduction of a major in the subject. For the three decades that Thomas inspired, taught and performed with students, those who caught the world music bug and wanted to carry out research at graduate level had to cobble together majors in their degrees by various means. These are the stories of a number of young scholars who did just that, many completing masters and doctorates and producing significant work in the field.

The essays are presented in a narrative form, starting with tributes to Thomas as a teacher and scholar, proceeding to more and more detailed representation of the research or performance work of past students. The volume concludes with four of Thomas’s own essays, one of which he co-authored with his lifelong partner Jennifer Shennan (a scholar in the field of dance), with whom he shared a love for Asian and Pacific cultures.

The essays in this collection make for good reading, all for different reasons. That not all contributors have ended up being stars in the field makes the essays all the more charming in their tribute to Thomas’s lasting intellectual influence.  In the years 1999-2003, Chris O’Connor was an avant-garde improvising musician working out of The Space in Newtown. He was surprised to find Thomas regularly attending his gigs, together with colleague Ross Harris and a handful of students. What he didn’t grasp initially was that they were conducting field research on the “Free Improv” style that O’Connor practised. On the strength of Thomas’s introduction to concepts of ethnomusicology, O’Connor resumed formally neglected studies, completed an undergraduate degree, then started a masters in ethnomusicology. Some way through his studies he realised that he was by nature a “player of music rather than a writer of ideas around music”. However, as a performer, he has continued to apply useful methodologies and concepts to his musical practice. He isolates two important principles learned from this period: first, that he finds he is “able to distinguish between a valid critique (a response) and a prejudiced bias (a reaction)”; second, that there is “enough room in music for every disposition and skillset, and it is this that we should be celebrating. Music is allowed to be dreary, sublime, inspired, angry, lazy … for they are the states of the people who make it”.

Several writers, including Alison Isadora and Donna Thurston, value Thomas for teaching them that music is more than notes on a page, that it is highly contextual and social. Such moments of understanding are expressed beautifully throughout the book. Learning in the field to value the context of music was the experience of many of his students, whether in an Irish pub in Wellington or in the remote mountains of the Philippines. Aaron Prior gives a wonderful description of one such moment:

It was on the veranda of a bamboo house, sitting with a group of Kalinga men, that I first heard the gentle sound of the bamboo flute in its original environment. The soft, woody notes of the paldong drifted and diffused into the sounds of the tropical mountains: the constant hush of the Chico River a few rice paddies away, the intense chirping of the night-calling cicadas, and the men quietly and occasionally commenting on the skill of the player. The weathered faces of the men appeared gaunt in the flickering light of the kerosene lamp ….

 

Megan Collins’s experience was as a “performing observer” in Sumatra Island, a process she defines as “mediating the ground between music and meaning”. She takes the reader through her personal journey of trying to comprehend the boundaries and concepts belonging to the creation of a musical performance in the Sumatran culture in which she had immersed herself as an instrumentalist. The task was not easy, as the Sumatran musicians expected her to pick up all the details, techniques and nuances at the normal performance speed of the music as might someone born into the culture. Eventually she got there through perseverance and innovation, although ultimately she would place the experience between cultures: neither insider nor outsider.

Paul Wolffram, a former doctoral student of Thomas, worked with the Lak people in New Ireland, New Guinea, for several years on different occasions. He was able to document significant changes within Lak society and the role that dance and music played in that changing society. By 2005, the making and consumption of home brew in Papua New Guinea had become a ubiquitous problem, and it fuelled anti-social and violent behaviour. Wolffram records the fascinating process by which the community set about rectifying this destruction by utilising the power of music and dance within traditional belief systems.

Thomas died before World Music is Where We Found it was published, lending an elegiac appropriateness to the title of his own final essay in the volume, “Now is the Hour When We Must Say Goodbye/Haere Ra”. His death is a great loss to the world of ethnomusicology as well as to the vibrant musical community in Wellington. In an ideal world Thomas would have had another couple of decades of impassioned learning and inspiring others to love the rich variety of music and cultures that so intensely moved him. This extraordinarily readable collection thus becomes a lasting testament to his work (whether or not it was originally conceived in that way), and readers need not be musical specialists to thoroughly enjoy it. It is full of fascinating human stories, the most moving of which is Thomas’s own explorations into the real world of music-making in Pacific cultures. Throughout the book, modest at 228 pages, I was constantly reminded of the quiet, contagious enthusiasm and genuine humanity of Thomas the man, the scholar and the musician.

World Music is Where We Found it is aptly titled: it reflects Thomas’s own distinctive voice, his respect for ethnomusicology as a people-centred field of study and his conviction that the quiet revolution of the discipline should be contained within a balanced dialogue between people and communities. It is true that music is where Thomas and his students found it, but if space and marketing sensibilities allowed, a longer title might read: World Music is Where We Found it But We Appreciate it so Much Better through the Life and Work of Allan Thomas.

 

Sue Court is a musicologist and Dean of the School of Humanities and Communication at Central Queensland University, Australia.

 

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Posted in Essays, Music, Non-fiction and Review
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