Q&A with Elizabeth A. Clendinning, Author of American Gamelan and the Ethnomusicological Imagination

Elizabeth A. Clendinning Q&A

Elizabeth A. Clendinning, author of American Gamelan and the Ethnomusicological Imagination, answers questions about the intricacies of global ensembles, gaps between classroom discussions and real-life applications, and the cohesion of tradition and modernity.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

For decades, American colleges and universities have offered “world music” ensembles as an experiential way to diversify curricular offerings that otherwise are generally focused on Western classical music. The ensembles offer powerful ways to connect students to cultural and artistic communities across the world. Yet, many ensembles remain marginalized within their institutions and their instructors, especially expert foreign master musicians, are systematically under-resourced. I wanted readers to recognize all the individual work and sacrifice that goes into creating global ensemble communities as well as think about new ways to build intercultural and international artistic partnerships.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

I am continually inspired and humbled by the generosity of my teachers—in particular, the Balinese and Balinese-American teachers and performing artists who devote much of their lives to introducing non-Balinese people to their art and culture. Though each person approaches teaching differently, the simultaneous rigor and humor that I see in their work is a constant inspiration.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

I feel like there is often a disconnect between how students are taught about how people from other cultural backgrounds experience the world and about how they are encouraged to process their own new cultural experiences. In contrast, these are inseparable processes. It is also important to remember that cross-cultural encounter is a two-way street.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

Many people still view tradition and modernity as being opposites, especially when they encounter cultures that are foreign or exotic to them (how many Westerners perceive Balinese culture). This can also lead to judgements about what is culturally and artistically authentic or inauthentic. But as I found in working with musicians, teachers, and composers for this book, it’s much more interesting and fruitful to view tradition as a set of long-held principles that constantly inform present action.  

Elizabeth A. Clendinning Q&A
Elizabeth A. Clendinning is an associate professor of music at Wake Forest University.

American ethnomusicologists have long debated how to give their students access to a more diverse set of ensemble experiences without being exploitative or tokenistic. In the case of Bali, the island-wide economic reliance on foreign tourism has meant that Balinese professionals, musicians included, have been considering the issue of cultural representation for decades. It is time to recognize their agency and to find new ways, together, to create more sustainable educational and artistic partnerships. This is true not only of gamelan as an art form, but about cross cultural and international collaboration more generally.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that readers will expand their ideas of what arts education can be and be inspired to put in the time and effort to cultivate relationships with others with convergent interests from around the world.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I enjoy historical and science fiction, incisive and accurate Southern literature (I’m still a Floridian at heart), murder mysteries, and the rare, well-balanced romantic comedy. My ears are pretty open, since I spend my professional life thinking about music from across history and around the world—but I’m partial to anything that can make me dance.

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