Andy McGraw

Andy McGraw

September 20, 2012
A trip to Bali helps music professor hear the world in a new way

Cacophony. That’s the word that music professor Andy McGraw uses to describe everyday life in Bali, Indonesia. Dogs barking. Motorbikes roaring through the streets. People shouting.

In addition to that chaos, Balinese natives also have added their own noises to the mix, producing a constant hum of sound. Each house has pet pigeons that fly around at night with whistles tied to their feet. Homes have bamboo poles with holes that allow wind to blow through them. Both children and adults regularly fly kites adorned with small Aeolian harps.

After making an annual trip to Indonesia for the past 15 years, McGraw has come to hear these sounds of life in Bali as a “constant resonance that falls somewhere between organized music and the sounds of everyday life.” However, the sounds took on a new meaning this past summer when he was invited to spend two weeks in Bali translating experimental American composer John Cage’s music for gamelan, a traditional Indonesian ensemble.

Cage, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year, is known for experimentation and pushing the traditional boundaries of music. He also was fascinated with the relationship between sound and silence, and how everyday sounds can become a soundtrack for life. One of Cage’s best-known compositions, “4’ 33”,” (pronounced “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds”) has a score that instructs the performer not to play their instrument for the entire duration of the piece, ceding control over the music and encouraging each audience member to listen intently to the sounds around them.

McGraw spent considerable time looking at Cage’s scores and reviewing his writings and recordings in preparation for his work with the Balinese musicians. However, it wasn’t until they were all together, immersed in Cage’s highly chromatic music, and fueled by Bali’s natural hum of noise, that Cage’s concept of soundscape began to take shape. “His ideas of what silence is, what sound is, how you can appreciate all sound in your soundscape as potentially beautiful and meaningful was something that was striking me with more force,” he says.

Now back in Richmond, McGraw is drawing on his Balinese adventures to transform his courses. He restructured his First-Year Seminar on world music to answer the question: “What does sound say?” Using music from a variety of cultures — including Bali — McGraw is helping students become more aware of their soundscape, and its meanings and implications.

Next semester, he plans to dig even deeper in an upper-level music course on soundscapes. Students will read Cage’s seminal written work, Silence, and consider how certain locations sound different from others. They will study the impact of class, aesthetics, and architecture on sound, and relate their conversations back to Cage and his charge to musicians and composers to be more aware of sound.

While Richmond’s campus and the surrounding city may not have humming pigeons or kites with Aeolian harps, McGraw looks forward to working with his students to tune in to what makes Richmond’s soundscape unique.