By Ben Brinner


For more than a half-century, seasoned musicians have left Indonesia to teach in the United States, sometimes for a short-term appointment, sometimes until retirement. A reverse flow of students has traveled to Indonesia to study gamelan in Java and Bali, often through contacts made with their teachers in the US. I outline aspects of this intertwined pair of phenomena and suggest a framework for analyzing the ecosystems that support transmission between Indonesians and Americans on either side of the world. This framework draws on a growing body of reflections on teaching and learning gamelan outside Indonesia, large-scale theorizations of culture, my prior work, which analyzes the career of K.R.T.Wasitodiningrat, and thirty-five years of study, research, and working with artists in residence in the US and Indonesia.


Since the arrival of the late Hardja Susilo at UCLA in 1958 to study music and teach Javanese gamelanand dance, numerous performers from Indonesia have developed long-term relationships in North America as teachers, performers, and students. Some have made the United States their permanent home; others have stayed for only a year or two. In an assymmetrical exchange, far more Americans have traveled to Indonesia to study, conduct research, and perform in growing numbers since the late 1960s. They usually stay for a few months to a year, and they occasionally move there permanently. Susilo’s move was directly due to Mantle Hood, the American ethnomusicologist who was most responsible for initiating these exchanges. Hood spent two years in Indonesia as a Fulbright scholar, employing Susilo as his research assistant. He went on to advocate both for training in bi-musicality and for importing expert performing artists as teachers.1 Without belittling the pathbreaking contributions of these individuals, I suggest an ecological approach is well-suited to a holistic analysis of the dynamics of transmitting knowledge through the web of connections that developed over the ensuing decades. These dynamics are manifest in changing processes and conditions over the course of more than half a century of intensifying circulation of performers, teachers, and students between Indonesia and the United States.

The phenomenon is not unique to the United States—similar interest and activity are found in Canada, for instance—but here the discussion is limited to people and programs in the US. Broader applicability to other circuits, such as the thriving ecologies of Indonesian arts in Japan and England, is likely, with some variation due to differing local conditions, such as arts and research funding, academic regimes, and visa procedures.2 I shall use “program” here as a unit of analysis to denote Indonesian dance and gamelan classes and associated activities, such as workshops and concerts. Examples are drawn mainly from gamelan in its many variants, because Indonesian gamelan activity in the United States is far more widespread and involves more people than either dance or theater (successful dance programs such as those at Cal Arts and Gamelan Sekar Jaya notwithstanding). The phrase “gamelan-based performance” encompasses a broader range of activities that includes dance and shadow theater (wayang kulit). Note that many Indonesian artists are highly skilled in more than one area of performance. Some may be known chiefly as dancers, for instance, but are also competent musicians capable of teaching gamelan performance.

In this article I focus on patterns of transmission knowledge and circulation of people across the field of Indonesian performing arts in the US. Because a historical narrative is not the goal, I have taken the liberty of omitting such key “players” as the Center for World Music and the composer Lou Harrison, as well as important issues of mimesis, appropriation, and representation.3 In addtition to publications by others, I draw on my own involvement in Indonesian performing arts, which dates back to 1977, primarily at the University of California, Berkeley, and my hosting of numerous Indonesian performers as guest artists and occasional guest performances with ensembles elsewhere in the US. The article is also informed by my long association with Gamelan Sekar Jaya and the many Balinese artists who have taught and performed with that organization. The thickly connected network of Indonesian artists and others devoted to Indonesian performing arts has yielded copious anecdotal evidence about the dynamics of gamelan programs, both through personal connections and the longstanding gamelan listserv. As in the study of dynamic interdependencies, ecology provides appropriate tools for analyzing this rich data set.

An Ecological Approach to Performing Arts

Ethnomusicologists have turned to ecology for analytical tools at several points over the past half-century. An epidemiological study (Sperber 1985) of the spread and adaptations of concepts from the field of ecology in relation to thinking about music would have to point to certain landmarks: William Kay Archer’s short but potent argument for an ecology of music in Ethnomusicology (Archer 1964); a chapter on musical ecology in Daniel Neuman’s sociological study of musicians in North India (Neuman 1980); and the watershed moment when Jeff Titon and Mark Slobin alluded to an ecology of music at the close of the introductory chapter to Worlds of Music, a textbook so widely used that it provides a singularly effective means of spreading a conceptual epidemic (Titon and Slobin 1992). And yet, while this richly evocative metaphor may have been naturalized for those thousands of undergraduate students who encountered Titon and Slobin’s textbook, it did not attract extended theoretical development in the following decades until recent work on sustainability (Titon 2010Schippers 2010)4 and extended metaphorical use by Tan (2012) and Gold (2013).

Benjamin Piekut characterizes the appeal of ecology as a holistic approach that not only enables but also requires the analyst to be aware of both the big picture and detail, ready to move constantly between them and to be ever alert to relationality.

An ecology is a web of relations, an amalgamation of organic and inorganic, or biological and technological, elements that are interconnecting and mutually affecting . . . an emergent, hybrid grouping that connects many different kinds of things. It has real boundaries that mark it off as distinct from its surrounding environment, but those boundaries are variable and open. . . . An ecology contains a whole gradient of relationships, from indifferent coexistence to highly interested antagonism. Most of all, an ecology presents a variegated temporality, with cyclic processes and repeating patterns of iteration that create dynamic kinds of stasis, as well as the possibility of change (Piekut 2014:212).

Warning implicitly against pure systems analysis, Piekut adds:

Most importantly, an ecology is a haphazard, unpredictable conglomeration of things and processes. From this perspective, distinctions between social, technological, or musical domains are difficult to make; an ecology wanders across these three and many more (Piekut 2014:212–13).

Bear this caveat in mind as I sketch some of the dynamics of the ecology of gamelan-based performance between Indonesia and the United States.

An ecological approach poses questions concerning the dynamics of particular environments and populations. It considers processes of selection, adaptation, competition, and reciprocity, as well as reproduction, in relation to constraints, such as limited resources and the carrying capacity of a particular environment or ecosystem. This central ecological concept, ecosystem, provides a particularly useful frame of analysis of cultural production and reproduction. It is already used loosely (i.e., without theorization) and widely to refer to anything from a transient arts scene to larger, seemingly more stable worlds of activity.5 The Indonesian lingkungan seni (arts circle or environment) is a serendipitous analog that is already current in Indonesian discourse on the arts.6Most important, both ecosystem and linkungan are more dynamic concepts than context, which is generally understood as background or setting. It also implies a static situation and some central “object” to be read as a text in relation to that context.7

Approaching gamelan and related Indonesian performance from an ecological perspective, we might look back over the decades that have elapsed since Mantle Hood invited Hardja Susilo to study and teach at UCLA and ask: How do new types of gamelan-related activity arise? Which conditions have nourished gamelan activities and which have inhibited them? What kinds of supportive, reciprocal, competitive, or collaborative processes and relationships characterize the circulation of gamelan-based performance between Indonesia and the United States? How have they been sustained, altered, or disrupted? What types of knowledge, sensibility, behavior, and habitus are created, reproduced, and transmitted?

Indonesia and America, People and Institutions

A basic distinction must be made in this ecology between Indonesians who come to the United States as full-fledged professional performers and all others who participate in gamelan-based performance.8 The former are few in number, but they are key to much (though certainly not all) gamelan-related teaching and presentation in the US. Indonesian artists play several roles: teachers, performers, cultural ambassadors, research sources or consultants, and sometimes students and researchers in their own right. They are important not only for the modeling and explicit teaching of performance but also for the knowledge and outlook they impart to researchers and the experience of a foreign culture they convey to audiences. Some have collaborated extensively with other artists in various multi- or inter-cultural frameworks. Many have been cited as sources in books and articles, and a few are active as scholars, Sumarsam most prominently, and have been the subject of a master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation.

For these Indonesians, a tripartite distinction based on the duration of their involvement, which is generally determined by funding sources, visas, and sponsorship, maps onto different types of engagement and degrees of impact. Those who come for less than one year may have considerable impact, but they cannot participate fully in the larger cycles of this ecology since they lack the opportunity to guide students through a multiyear course of training.9 The model of short-term guest teachers probably works better for Gamelan Sekar Jaya and other longstanding community ensembles with many experienced members than it does for college gamelan programs with their continual turnover of student participants. Short-term visiting artists are likely to spend much of their stay adjusting to a new environment. Performer-teachers who stay for several years and experience numerous cycles can have a more profound impact in shaping the knowledge of their students. Many young people in this category come as graduate students and return to Indonesia as scholars who continue to publish and thereby contribute to another channel of knowledge transfer. Others return as composers who enlarge the scope of their work through collaborations that were begun or nurtured while abroad. Some might be invited back periodically for residencies.10 I would argue, however, that the handful of Indonesian artists who hold long-term positions and spend a large portion of their adult lives in the United States, have exerted a significantly greater impact by defining and nurturing programs that last for decades.11

Most participants in gamelan-based performance in the US are non-Indonesian college students or recent alumni. Indonesians who come to the United States without a professional level of training in music, dance, or theater are growing in number, but they remain a distinct minority. This scene differs from many others in which a diasporic community dominates. All are participants in a micromusic, a subculture (Slobin 1993) that remains marginal to mainstream society and cultural institutions, even though gamelan has attained a more prominent place in American colleges and universities than most other types of “world” music. Several non-university performing gamelan groups have achieved considerable longevity and recognition.12

The Dynamics of College-based Gamelan Programs

Consisting of localized networks that are only loosely connected to each other, this subculture occupies a niche within the larger American ecology of performing arts. It competes with other arts organizations for grant money and with other ensembles for limited school budgets, often within departments or schools of music. A dance or theater component may be a poor fit in such institutions because curriculum and faculty expectations prioritize music, and students view themselves as musicians, not dancers and actors. The educational and aesthetic expectations, as well as the economics of such local ecosystems, tend to be defined by orchestra, chorus, and band, what Vetter terms canonical ensembles (Vetter 2004:117).

Establishing and maintaining a gamelan-based program in such an environment may be accomplished without a faculty specialist, but some sort of faculty advocacy is usually required to argue for instruments, rehearsal space, dates on the concert calendar, and budget for a teacher and/or guest artists.13 That faculty member usually facilitates residencies or positions for Indonesian artists; often he or she also serves as the instructor (or the instructor of record in conjunction with a guest artist). Responsibilities generally extend to publicity, since attracting participants and audiences is crucial for the program’s longevity. The centrality of a faculty member as the advocate for such a program means catastrophic failure is potentially only one retirement, death, or other “separation” away.14

A program most often begins with a single introductory-level class.15 An instructor must be hired if the resident faculty sponsor does not also fill that role. If only a single course is budgeted, the likelihood is high that an American or an Indonesian already in the US will be hired, given the logistical complexities of bringing someone from Indonesia to teach a single course. These difficulties include stringent requirements for obtaining the visas (J1, H-1B, P, and so on) that enable foreign artists to perform and teach in the United States. Each visa carries its own restrictions on the visitor’s activities and possibilities for compensation.

In many programs teachers experience extensive student turnover each semester or year. This forces them to begin again from the beginning, while they try to accommodate those students who are continuing from prior classes. Both Javanese and Balinese ensemble practices include instruments that require varying degrees of technical achievement and understanding of the music. This enables beginning and returning students to be included in one ensemble, but it significantly limits the teacher’s choice of repertoire. Accommodating different levels depends on the extent to which students want to reenroll in a gamelan class semester after semester and are able to do so, subject to graduation requirements and limits on the number of classes, units, or credits needed.16

Programs that have sufficient resources and student interest might open a second class at a more advanced level, but even so, turnover continues and the basics must be taught repeatedly. Roger Vetter articulates these challenges in his reflections on teaching gamelan at an isolated liberal arts college in central Iowa (Vetter 2004). This phenomenon can affect even the largest university-based programs. Even Midiyanto, who teaches around seventy students in three gamelan classes at UC Berkeley and turns away at least seventy more each semester for lack of space, occasionally has to start a new cycle in his upper-level class. The group that graduated in 2013, for instance, included so many good, dedicated students who returned every semester that there was little room to accommodate new students rising through the ranks. The level of performance in that class rose each semester and created a larger gap in competence between it and the beginning classes. This cadre left a vacuum when it graduated, forcing Midiyanto to train a new round of students. Such ebbs and flows are to be expected in the absence of a policy that is based explicitly on admitting only according to the instruments and levels of competence required. The UC Berkeley orchestra operates this way. It relies on a steady oversupply of accomplished orchestral musicians among the thirty-five thousand students on campus, but I am not aware of a gamelan program that does so or, indeed, can afford to do so.17

A successful program is marked not only by the desire of many students to reenroll semester after semester but also by the decision of some to deepen their knowledge in Indonesia itself. Various options for continuing their involvement in gamelan-based performance await them on their return. They may enhance the group in which they formerly played in college, or they can join another ensemble in a different town.18 They might start a new ensemble if they are particularly ambitious. This option, independent of an established educational institution, demands significant initiative and connections to secure funding and find a suitable space for rehearsal, one that is large and isolated enough to avoid complaints from the neighbors.19 Gamelan groups located in metropolitan areas tend to benefit from this process, while those associated with liberal arts colleges outside major urban areas are at a disadvantage. This points to the need for analyzing the larger ecosystems—artistic and educational—within which gamelan programs come into being, reproduce, and multiply.

Ecological Processes

The preceding section offers glimpes of the dynamics of this ecology. It involves processes of selection, competition, adaptation, and reciprocity, which play out in environments that vary in their suitability, in the resources they afford, and in their inherent challenges. Since this research project is in an early stage, the following discussion is limited to identifying fundamental processes and sketching ways in which each one manifests itself.


Processes of selection occur at several stages or points when people and practices circulate. For Indonesian artists, selection begins with decisions regarding who is to go abroad to teach or perform. The criteria can be as varied as seniority at one’s home institution, personal connections with the sponsor, fluency in English, and the ability to meet other requirements of the host institution or the granting agency that is involved in financial support. Students in American universities with gamelan programs often encounter no bar to participation. In some cases, teachers or ensemble directors hold auditions. When enrollment pressures soared at UC Berkeley, Midiyanto instituted auditions to determine whether prospective students could keep a beat and repeat a simple melody. These basic musical qualifications provided a basis for selection and, at the same time, raised the starting level of the class, which enabled more rapid progress. In an environment with an overabundance of prospective musicians, non-students who wish to participate are selected for their extensive prior experience and competence. This effectively bars novices who are not enrolled at the institution. Community-based groups might select members through probationary periods and public workshops. The dues they charge represent another form of de facto selection.20

Some element of self-selection is found on either end. A position in the United States offers a financially attractive option for Indonesian performers, but some might not want to be away from home, family, and familiar surroundings for so long. They might also be concerned about leaving the artistic world in which they have achieved a high level of accomplishment, or they could be worried about the possibility of losing or weakening their professional positions in Indonesia upon their return. Among the Americans and others participating in gamelan-related arts in the US, some are so strongly attracted to the sound of the music, the movement of the dance, and so on that they devote themselves to it for years. Others try it for a little while and move on to other activities.

Choosing which cultural practices to present and teach is a second area in which selection takes place. Javanese and Balinese music and dance are most commonly taught and presented, while Sundanese and Cirebonese gamelan or West Sumatran talempong lag far behind in prominence, awareness, and support, as Jennifer Fraser has noted. To a large extent this reflects the relative prominence of these practices in the dominant Indonesian arts institutes of Central Java and Bali. The connection to the “peaks of culture” identified by Indonesian leaders as far back as 1945 and discussed at length by Philip Yampolsky is a matter for further study (Yampolsky 1995).21

Performance practices and repertoire constitute a third area for selection. Some advocate for new choreographies and compositions, while others are interested only in the “traditional,” i.e., those items of repertoire and playing styles that are perceived to be well established in a local Indonesian practice. Other considerations include performer capabilities and the presumed interests (or disinterests) of American audiences. Positions in this area have shifted considerably over the decades that Indonesian music, dance, and theater have been part of the American cultural ecology. Attitudes have changed, with greater skepticism and scrutiny of such concepts as authenticity and tradition, for instance. Creative output and attitudes in Indonesia, including types of innovation, venues, and incentives, have evolved greatly over the four decades I have been involved in this world. During this same period, interest in composition for gamelan outside Indonesia has grown considerably. Environments in which these developments converge, such as the Yogyakarta Gamelan Festival or those held in other parts of the world, have multiplied as well.


Where there is selection, there is competition. This is true whether it is organisms competing for scarce nutrients within an ecosystem or musicians competing for opportunities in a tight job market. Indonesian artists may compete against each other for the chance to go abroad, but often they operate without direct competition in the US. For the duration of their contract, and perhaps the length of their career, they cannot be challenged by other Indonesian musicians if they garner the proper institutional support and immigration permits. Competition might occur over the financial resources needed to support their classes—few have institutional leverage there—but job security is almost certain, barring the defunding of a program. If and when these artists return to Indonesia, on the other hand, they may face competition on different grounds. They might derive some advantages from their time in America, but new expectations emerge, along with the possibility that they will have no “home.” Several teachers who have been in the US for years have found themselves without a position or other substantial means of livelihood upon their return.

For their part, American groups and programs may compete for resources, participants, audiences, and performances with rival arts programs and groups, but this rarely occurs with others who are presenting gamelan-based performances. Joint concerts are more common. The fact that interest in Indonesian performing arts is great enough in some centers outside Indonesia to raise the possibility of competition can be seen as an indicator of robust ecosystems.


Adjusting to changing environmental conditions, another key ecological process, can manifest in several ways when Indonesian guest artists and teachers interact with the people they instruct in the United States. These teachers adapt to varying degrees to different populations, needs, and expectations, and the people they teach adapt in response. This is apparent in teaching methods and learning styles, including the amount of verbalization and rationalization or systematization that teachers are willing to employ, particularly in relation to the expectations of their students. Expectations formed through training in Western art music, with its reliance on notated music, are so radically different from those associated with any kind of Indonesian performance practice rooted in aural/oral tradition—even those that use notation fairly extensively—that some adapation must take place. Whether it is the teacher or the students who bend varies with the situation. The pressure to produce a concert each semester, with students who have just begun to play, combined with a desire to present a program with some variety and depth, increases the likelihood that notation will be used, for instance.22

Indonesian artists adapt in additional ways—again to varying degrees—to the needs of students who have no experience of the music, dance, and theater or of the sociocultural environments in Indonesia. Some things simply are not taught because of the gap in ability or understanding. In writing about the difficulty of imparting an understanding of rasa (feeling) and garap (the realization of the potential of a musical piece) in American groups taught by Javanese instructors, Marc Benamou noted,

It dawned on me that the main reason Javanese musicians teaching abroad neglect to talk about rasa is that most Americans rarely nggarap—we hardly ever make stylistic decisions as we perform (there are, of course, notable exceptions to this). That is, we write down or tape an instrumental or vocal part as performed by our respective teachers, and we memorize it as exactly as we can. This has the distinct advantage of preventing us from doing some very unstylistic things, but it means that the process we use in making music is very different from what an experienced Javanese musician uses (Benamou 1998:234–35).

This is not the case for every Javanese teacher in America. I have witnessed teachers adapting to the challenges of this environment in differing ways. While some simply make a recording to be emulated, as Benamou notes, others attempt to impart process and stylistic choices. K.R.T. Wasitodipuro frequently invoked rasa in lessons, but he did not explain it extensively, for instance, and he tended to give rather limited explanations of garapan in his teaching at UC Berkeley.23

Adaptation involves more than musical practice. It extends to negotiating different moral and ethical expectations and obligations. These include various norms of student-teacher interaction and the embodied expression of social deference, as well as sexual mores and other sociocultural differences, such as expectations about smoking and eating during rehearsals and performances.24Mixed-gender groups occasionally challenge the ideas of some Indonesian male artists about the musical capabilities of women;25 some have had to become accustomed to women sitting cross-legged. Many American students adapt by altering their bodily comportment and modes of verbal interaction. At a minimum, they learn to take off their shoes and not to step over instruments. Sometimes they also learn to modulate voices and lower their upper bodies so they move with greater deference through an ensemble of people seated on the floor.


Exchanges of various sorts exemplify reciprocity between Indonesian artists and their students and colleagues. Indonesian artists gain firsthand experience of America, improve their English, and perhaps study for advanced degrees, which can lead to better positions in the US or Indonesia. For their part, Americans gain knowledge of Indonesian performing arts. While this rarely constitutes a fundamental step in building a career, exceptions to that observation were abundant at the Performing Indonesia conference where this paper was first delivered. Training in Indonesian performing arts at American universities or community groups was key to the careers of virtually all of the non-Indonesian participants, including my own. Symbiotic relationships involving Indonesians and Americans often develop in teaching and directing ensembles, resulting in the creation of new work, research, and employment.

Finally, programs have the potential to reproduce themselves. Training so many people in gamelan-based practices inevitably leads to a desire for new groups, either to accommodate the overflow in already active areas or to begin new ensembles elsewhere. Variation in this process of reproduction can be expressed in many aspects (or traits), ranging from choice of repertoire (e.g., in relation to the aforementioned traditional-contemporary spectrum) to performance style, to group ethos and the degree to which dance and wayang are emphasized alongside gamelan music.


These sketches of processes of selection, adaptation, competition, reciprocity, and reproduction are intended to demonstrate the potential for more detailed study. Research on variation in how those processes unfold in particular locales is likely to reveal common patterns, perhaps not unlike the ones described here on the basis of nearly four decades of involvement in this scene but without the benefit of extensive field research. With more comprehensive and detailed comparative study, we stand to gain a better understanding of the players in this widely distributed phenomenon, the institutions in which they have been involved, and the changes that have occured over time in the way Indonesian artists have interacted with people in the United States in gamelan-based performance.

Carrying capacity, a key analytical concept in ecology, could be applied in such a study to several aspects of gamelan-based performance in the US and its connections to Indonesia. We can speak of the carrying capacities of different environments, such as towns, cities, and large urban areas, for gamelan-based arts in terms of the potential interest of participants and audience, concert opportunities, financial support, and other resources, but we probably cannot measure it with any precision. Defining limits is easier in the case of an ensemble or a performing group: there are practical limits to how many people can participate as musicians or as dancer/actors at any given time before some must sit out to give others an opportunity to participate. Should sitting out become too frequent or last too long, it could lead to opening new classes or forming a new ensemble. Other limits to consider include teachers’ and students’ time and energy or audience attention spans.

Questions of workload and the investment of energy must be asked. How frequently should a group meet for continuity and musical improvement (or at least maintenance)? How frequently should a group perform? Both Susilo and Vetter bemoan the requirement to stage a public performance at the end of every semester (Harnish, Solís, and Witzleben 2004Vetter 2004) while some groups perform more frequently. What is the upper limit on a teacher’s ability to direct different ensembles? Indonesians commonly circulate among programs, teaching several and performing as guest artists with additional programs. This appears to be the standard model, one motivated by scarcity or insufficiency, that is, a lack of qualified teachers in some instances and of professional-level leaders and performers in many more instances, or insufficient income from the artist’s home program to sustain a family. For instance, I Madé Lasmawan has taught and/or directed at least seven different ensembles in four states along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains for years. This is hardly the norm, but neither is it completely unique as the demand for Indonesian specialists remains high and the supply is limited.

Those terms, supply and demand, point to economic analysis. It would be a mistake to omit financial considerations, including the major role that fellowships, scholarships, and grants from governments and foundations have played.26 Institutional support has underwritten a substantial part of the circulation between Indonesia and the United States. Such support takes the form of Fulbright fellowships and Ford Foundation grants for Indonesians, and Fulbright fellowships and Darmasiswa scholarships for Americans. An analysis limited to the economics of this ecology would hardly do justice to it and, as Titon warns, could lead all too quickly to viewing “people and the musical traditions they carry as ‘cultural assets’” (Titon 2009a:10). While awareness of the expediency of culture is crucial to this project (see Yúdice 2003), given the Indonesian government’s heavy investment in promoting traditional culture, the overarching analytical approach also needs to accommodate motivations, actions, and relationships that have no direct financial component. Ecology offers the relevant tools.

Next: Air Mengalir: I Madé Lasmawan, Pedagogy, and Musical Kinship »


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