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Gamelan as World Citizen: American Experimental Music and the Internationalization of Indonesian Arts


Since the 1970s, the idea of something called "American gamelan" has circulated widely, simultaneously gaining currency in some circles and evading precise definition. Most commonly associated with the composer Lou Harrison, the term "American gamelan" may refer to percussion instruments built by Americans, musical ensembles that use gamelan instruments, compositions for gamelan by American composers, or even a cultural movement centered on gamelan. This dissertation investigates the experimental wing of what I refer to as the "North American gamelan subculture" in order to understand the ideas, values, and priorities that motivate it. I focus my attention on the composers' collective Gamelan Son of Lion (1976-present) based in New York City. This dissertation is based on extensive archival research, interviews with composers and instrument builders, and participant observation through the performance of gamelan music.

After providing relevant background and critical perspectives in the Introduction, this dissertation proceeds by examining four interrelated facets of Gamelan Son of Lion. Chapter One zooms in on the lived experiences of composer-ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary, artistic director and co-founder of Gamelan Son of Lion. Initially standing in opposition to the creation of new works for gamelan ensembles, Benary eventually came to lead one of the most prolific ensembles in the United States to focus on just that. This chapter examines the circulating contemporaneous discourses of ethnomusicology and experimental music as they pertain to Benary's graduate student experience and early professional career. Chapters Two and Three analyze the practices of American gamelan instrument building and tuning by comparing the instruments of Benary and Daniel Schmidt. I show how the different values and priorities of these builders interacted with their respective of knowledge of Indonesian practices to produce instruments and tunings that reflect their different perspectives and articulate different aspects of the North American gamelan subculture. Chapter Four analyzes compositions for Gamelan Son of Lion, contextualizing these approaches within New York's experimental music scene. I conclude the dissertation by considering how local practices of musical experimentalism create the possibilities of fostering an international network of like-minded individuals brought together by gamelan.

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