Cornell University Press has recently published Sounding Out the State of Indonesian Music, co-edited by Senior Lecturer Christopher J. Miller and Andrew McGraw. The book brings together contributions by some of the leading scholars and practitioners in the field, who met at Cornell in 2018 for a conference by the same name as part of a revival of the renowned Cornell Modern Indonesia Project. With nineteen chapters on everything from arts patronage in Bali to the fusing of Balinese gamelan and mathcore; the politicization of religious melody in Indonesian culture wars to the voicing of a transcultural Islamic feminist exegesis; the singing of “pornographic” verses in West Sumatra to young Balinese women projecting their voices in dance-drama; the challenges facing gamelan musicians in Java to the building of gamelan communities in and between Bali and North America; and the polished productions of a Batak studio musician in Jakarta to the underground noise scenes in cities throughout the archipelago, the book truly “showcases the breadth and complexity of the music of Indonesia.”
Miller’s own chapter examines a “a new approach to composition pioneered in the late 1970s by young musicians at the performing arts academy in Surakarta” that took at its starting point “the exploration of sound.” This approach might seem to relate to a broader “sonic turn” in contemporary art music, a development that “anticipated and fed the rise of sounds studies.” Miller “triangulates” between his topic and both of these, ultimately identifying “a deeper cultural basis for sound exploration” rooted in “an acoustemology specific to Indonesia.” Miller’s knowledge of this facet of Indonesian contemporary art music draws both upon the formal research behind his Ph.D. dissertation, completed at Wesleyan University, and several decades of direct involvement as a performer and collaborator. This involvement stands beside his study of the performance practice of traditional Javanese gamelan music, study that informs his direction of the Cornell Gamelan Ensemble. Both of these are highly specialized areas of expertise, but as this book and his course Gamelan in Indonesian History and Cultures demonstrate, Miller is also solidly committed to furthering knowledge of all music in Indonesia.
For further reflections on the relationship of practitioners to the broader field of Indonesian music—one of themes Miller and McGraw explore in the introduction to their book—see also Miller’s essay in the fall bulletin of Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program, based on his keynote for the program’s 2022 Graduate Student Conference.