A Musical Harvest

A Musical Harvest

November 19, 2013
Ethnomusicology class gathered bamboo to make instruments

On a steamy September morning, ethnomusicology professor Andy McGraw and the students in his Music and Theater in Indonesia class found themselves in the middle of an overgrown bamboo forest on the grounds of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond. The students carefully measured lengths of bamboo, some taller than they were, and cut it using small Japanese handsaws.

While cutting down plants in a botanical garden would typically be frowned upon, bamboo is a hearty plant that grows rapidly in a variety of climates. It needs to be trimmed regularly or it can overtake a huge area of land. Lewis Ginter’s horticultural staff were grateful for the students’ assistance.

McGraw’s class had big plans for their bamboo bounty; they were going to make musical instruments. “We’re studying the ecological origins of bamboo in Indonesian culture, and how it influences their music,” McGraw says. “The Balinese and Javanese take bamboo for granted, but they use it constantly. They use it for structures, food, musical instruments, flutes.”

One example is the use of bamboo instruments as a facet of wet rice farming. “Farmers would monitor the flow of water down a mountainside by setting up these noise-making instruments,” McGraw says. “A hollow tube of bamboo would fill up with water, offset the center of gravity, and pour the water out, so the flute would hit a rock, which produces a pitch.” Eventually the Balinese expanded this idea to purely musical instruments, which produce mellow sounds similar to a xylophone, and McGraw replicated that process with his students.

The bamboo is already hollow and airtight, so once it was cut to different lengths, each producing a different pitch, the next steps were to cure it, and treat it so that it wouldn’t disintegrate. “Typically, it would take three years to dry naturally,” McGraw says, “but we didn’t have that kind of time, so instead we went to the scene shop and used their blow torches to dry it.”

McGraw picked up the flute-making techniques while on a research trip to Bali. “I was working primarily with young composers,” he says,” and part of what they were doing was making new instruments. I was in a lot of makers’ shops, in forges, and in bamboo groves, following these young guys around as they imagined ways to extend traditional instruments to create new sounds.”

The flutes were just one project that the students tackled as part of the course. They were introduced to the music of Indonesia, particularly the gamelan ensemble; visited a local foundry to pour and cast bronze; interacted via Skype and on campus with master Balinese shadow puppeteers; and even engaged in cooking sessions where they prepared Balinese and Javanese recipes. The class also attended an Indonesian performing arts festival at the Smithsonian Institution.

Exploring such a wide range of artistic disciplines and media is consistent with the way that artists approach their craft in Indonesia. “They don’t have the hard and fast divisions between disciplines like dance, theater, and music, that we do here in the West; to them it’s all just ‘art,’” McGraw says. “Any understanding of Indonesian music goes hand in hand with an understanding of the motions of dance and the structures of theater, and I’ve tried to approach teaching the course from that perspective.”

Instead of a final exam, each student will complete a creative project of his or her own design, which they’ll share as part of the Global Sounds performance in Camp Concert Hall on Nov. 24. “Some students may want to write a paper, while others may choose to expand the bamboo flute idea to create their own instrument,” McGraw says. “They might also learn a piece of repertoire on the gamelan, or arrange a passage from a shadow play.”